Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Razorbacks out to buck trend with strong finish
Arkansas sophomore guard BJ Young, right, drives along the baseline as Missouri senior Keion Bell defends Saturday in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. Young scored 18 points, including seven points in the final 29 seconds, as the Razorbacks beat Missouri 73-71.
FAYETTEVILLE Finishing strong has been a weakness for Arkansas’ men’s basketball teams in recent years.
The Razorbacks were a combined 11-32 in February and March during 2009-2012 to fall out of contention for postseason play.
Last season, Arkansas went 2-8 in its final 10 games after a 16-6 start in Coach Mike Anderson’s first year. The Razorbacks were down to eight healthy scholarship players for much of the season.
“I think the numbers really caught up with us. ... We kind of hit a wall,” Anderson said. “But this team now, I still think we’ve got some good basketball left in us. We can play better.”
Arkansas (16-9, 7-5 SEC) vs. Georgia (12-13, 6-6)
WHEN: 6:05 p.m.
WHERE: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
The Razorbacks (16-9, 7-5 SEC) have played well in February so far, going 4-1 with home victories over Florida, Tennessee and Missouri. They also won on the road for the first time at Auburn.
If Arkansas beats Georgia (12-13, 6-6) tonight at Walton Arena, the Razorbacks will have their first three-game SEC winning streak under Anderson. Tipoff is 6 p.m., and the game is being televised on ESPN2.
“I think we’re trending in the right direction with this team,” Anderson said. “Guys are playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
The Razorbacks drew four charging fouls against Missouri last Saturday.
“They’re starting to trust one another, and that’s the biggest thing you can have in basketball on the defensive end,” Anderson said. “If a guy gets beat, you know somebody is going to be there.”
Arkansas junior guard Mardracus Wade, who took two charges in the Missouri game, said there is “a different vibe” around the team for this season’s stretch run.
“We feel like other teams are going downhill and we’re going uphill,” Wade said. “We’re playing more guys and people are stepping up.”
While the Razorbacks are led by red shirt junior forward Marshawn Powell and sophomore guard BJ Young, they have 10 players averaging between 29 and 14 minutes per SEC game.
“We can get up and down and pressure teams more without having to be so conservative,” Wade said. “We don’t have to hold back so much. We can let everybody play hard and do what we do best.”
Powell said the Razorbacks aren’t thinking about struggles in previous seasons.
“This is a different team,” Powell said. “We have everybody now, and hopefully we’ll have everybody through the rest of the season. We’re just going to keep trying to get better, and hopefully we’ll get to where we want to be by the end.”
The Razorbacks want to be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. They still have a lot of work to do, but have risen to No. 77 in the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index from No. 94.
The RPI is a scale used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to rank teams based on performance in light of strength of schedule. A low RPI number denotes stronger teams; and high numbers weaker ones.
Arkansas is 3-4 against teams in the RPI’s top 51 with victories over No. 4 Florida, No. 17 Oklahoma and No. 38 Missouri and losses to No. 8 Michigan, No. 9 Syracuse, No. 26 Wisconsin and No. 51 Ole Miss.
The Razorbacks have three regular-season games left against top-50 RPI teams. They play at Florida and Missouri and face No. 44 Kentucky at Walton Arena.
“We want to let teams know we’re for real and we’re here to stay,” Young said. “We want to win here [tonight] and then take this show on the road and pull some upsets.”
While Georgia is No. 120 in the latest NCAA RPI rankings, the Bulldogs have three SEC road victories, winning at Texas A&M, South Carolina and Tennessee. They lost 84-74 in overtime at Ole Miss last Saturday.
“I think our defense has been pretty consistent all year, and that has been a great stabilizer for us,” Georgia Coach Mark Fox said. “One of the keys to winning away from home is trying to slow that home team down.”
The Razorbacks want a fast-paced game, especially at home where they are 15-1, losing only to Syracuse.
“Hopefully, we can get our guys in the right state of mind and come out and defend and to push tempo against a Georgia team that likes the medium tempo playing power basketball,” Anderson said. “They out-rebounded Ole Miss by 15. That’s something that really caught my eye, because Ole Miss is a very good rebounding basketball team.”
Anderson led his Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri teams to the NCAA Tournament six times in nine years - and each of his last three seasons at the schools - and was an Arkansas assistant when the Razorbacks made 13 NCAA Tournament appearances in a 17-year span.
“This is a fun time of the year,” Anderson said. “There are challenges, but at the same time there are opportunities.
“I’m not saying we’re peaking, because I don’t think we’ve hit on all cylinders yet, but I think we’re getting a better understanding of who we are. That identity is starting to show.”
Sports, Pages 17 on 02/21/2013