Nate Allen is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Allen is a voter for the Heisman Trophy, has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame, and has authored three books about the Razorbacks.
Neighbors hoping for an invite to The Dance
Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors gives instructions during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference women's tournament Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Greenville, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
FAYETTEVILLE -- A previously undreamt pipe dream suddenly flirting with reality then dashed can morph into a nightmare.
Just ask so many past sulking football teams fancying they were major bowl bound or college playoff bound then beaten badly in a lesser bowl how all that worked out.
Or ask the pouting college basketball team presuming it's going to the NCAA Tournament Big Dance then sent first-round reeling from the NIT.
If his suddenly perched on the NCAA Women's Tournament bubble Razorbacks don't get a Big Dance bid Monday, Arkansas Coach Mike Neighbors predicts bubble burst sorrow Monday night then total Tuesday Women's National Invitational Tournament resolve.
"We feel like there are three (NCAA Tournament) spots for five teams and we're one of them," Neighbors said. "So yeah, if we don't see our name on Monday it will hurt. But we won't be all 'woe is me' and go into the NIT half-focused and lose a game to a team that's fully focused. I wouldn't dare put a team in that situation. Our team still wants to keep playing. They are playing their best basketball, and they want to to keep doing it as long as they can."
Inheriting a 13-18, 2-14 in the SEC 2016-2017 Arkansas team that Jimmy Dykes coached, Greenwood native Neighbors went 13-17, 3-13 in 2017-2018.
Neighbors' Razorbacks improved by just an SEC game statistically yet enhanced intangibly.
For 2018-2019 Arkansas improved significantly throughout 17-13, 6-10 overall and SEC regular seasons.
But losing eight of the last nine left Neighbors publicly grateful for the WNIT.
Then lightning struck at last week's SEC Tournament in Greenville, S.C. The Razorbacks first beat 86-75 the Georgia team that beat them in Fayetteville and Athens, Ga.
Against the reigning SEC Tournament champion nationally No. 12 South Carolina Gamecocks, victors over Arkansas in Fayetteville, the last week in Greenville, S.C., virtually playing a home game 103 miles from their Columbia campus, Arkansas shocked, 95-89.
Against former Arkansas Coach Gary Blair's nationally No. 15 Texas A&M Aggies, 66-53 over Arkansas in College Station, Texas, Arkansas opened down 17-2 in Greenville. The Razorbacks rallied and won, 58-51.
The Cinderella Razorbacks were finally flattened 101-70 pumpkins in the championship game against nationally No. 5 SEC regular-season champion Mississippi State.
That still doesn't demolish conjecture a now 20-14 Cinderella might yet don her slipper at the Dance.
Wherever his Razorbacks postseason land, Neighbors knows the blend of his recruits and those he inherited from Dykes whom he's always called his own already made remarkable second-year strides.
Neighbors experienced many Year Twos coaching Arkansas high schools and as well-traveled collegiate assistant and former Final Four University of Washington head coach.
"Year Two is your hardest year because you have that stacking of cultures and rosters," Neighbors said. "But this one meshed together faster than any group I've ever been around."
Sports on 03/16/2019
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