The No. 24 Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team (20-5, 9-3 SEC) has not lost since January, and a high pressure defense along with an immensely potent offense has allowed Mike Anderson’s squad to place themselves in the driver’s seat heading toward its highest NCAA tournament seeding since 1999.
The Hogs have steam rolled opponents in February, blowing out South Carolina and Mississippi State at home by margins of 20 points in both games. And though Arkansas hasn’t proved itself to be as sharp of a team on the road (5-4, 4-2 SEC), its most recent showings include back to back road wins against Auburn (101-87) and Ole Miss (71-70).
In the Southeastern Conference, the home atmosphere, especially at Bud Walton, plays a major factor in teams like the Razorbacks’ success. Anderson, adopting the “40 minutes of Hell” approach gleaned from his years as an assistant under the tutelage of legendary Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, uses his team’s athleticism to run a full court press and wear opponents down.
This in-your-face play coupled with the rocking crowd Bud Walton has the capability to provide when the team is winning tends to rattle visiting teams and increase opportunities for mistakes, which the Hogs have capitalized on well this year.
But without a supporting crowd, the defensive pressure can slack off on the road. Nevertheless, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has projected Arkansas as a No. 6 seed coming out of the South.
But the point of March Madness is to expose and exploit teams’ weaknesses with neutral courts, so it will be incumbent upon the Hogs to not have to lean on crowd noise and accentuate their strengths: ball movement, athleticism and scoring.
The Hogs are currently ranked 11th in the nation in scoring and ninth in assists.
Sophomore forward Bobby Portis and junior guard Michael Qualls have led the charge this year, creating highlight reels of their own with high flying dunks and knockout shooting.
Qualls, along with 14 points chipped in from freshman guard Anton Beard, kept the Razorbacks in Saturday’s game at Ole Miss, topping the stat charts with 15 points and nine boards. Qualls has shot 44 percent on the year and is averaging 15.3 points and 5.3 boards a game.
Portis is shooting 56 percent from the field, averaging 17.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game and has racked up 10 double doubles. At 6’11 he’s a forced to be reckoned with under the boards, but the real reason NBA scouts are drooling over him is because of his agility that is rare to see in a big man. He’s a finalist for the Wooden Award and SEC Player of the Year, and most think he’ll be a lottery pick in the NBA draft.
If these two can stay hot and receive support in the form of solid bench play, the Hogs will have a real shot of winning its next games against Missouri, at Mississippi State and back at home against Texas A&M.
This would send a 23-5 Arkansas team into Lexington to face No. 1 Kentucky (25-0, 12-0) in what will be the biggest game of not only the year, but of Mike Anderson’s career at Arkansas.
An upset would catapult the Razorbacks to the top of the tournament seeding and increase the possibility of Anderson being able to replicate what his teacher Richardson did in 1994.
But this is all conjecture, and the first thing the Hogs must take care of is Missouri at Bud Walton on Wednesday.