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Hogs try to snap skid vs. Kentucky
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson reacts to a call in the second half of Saturday afternoon's game against Florida at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas seemed on track a week ago for a breakout season in Mike Anderson's third year as coach.
Following back-to-back losses, including an overtime defeat to Florida that snapped a 23-game home winning streak, the season now appears in jeopardy of collapsing just two games in Southeastern Conference play.
If Arkansas (11-4, 0-2 SEC) hopes to end its streak of five-straight seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance, it must find a way to turn around its fortunes quickly — particularly with a visit from No. 13 Kentucky looming on Tuesday night.
The Wildcats (12-3, 2-0) are the second ranked opponent in a row for the Razorbacks. And before the loss to the Gators, Arkansas opened SEC play with a loss at Texas A&M following a seven-game winning streak that had expectations on the rise.
Now, Arkansas is just hopeful of avoiding another loss at home — where it was undefeated in conference play last season.
"We are kind of treading on unchartered waters for our basketball team this year in terms of losing two games in a row," Anderson said. "We aim to rectify that."
For all the success the Razorbacks have had at home during Anderson's three seasons, compiling a 15-4 record in SEC play, they've struggled mightily on the road. Arkansas has won just once on the road in conference play in each of the last two seasons, and it's 2-16 overall under Anderson away from home in league play.
With road games at Georgia and Tennessee coming up, the possibility of an 0-5 start to SEC play is suddenly very real.
"We are focused on Kentucky," Anderson said. "We can't get out of that. We have got a bad taste in our mouth, so that to me is the most important thing — protecting the home court."
Kentucky hasn't won in Bud Walton Arena since 2009, losing two in a row in Fayetteville since then — including a 73-60 setback last season.
This season, the ever-reloading cast of Wildcats — featuring a collection of seven McDonald's All-Americans under coach John Calipari — has adjusted quickly. Kentucky has won four straight since a loss at North Carolina on Dec. 14, including a win over defending national champion Louisville.
"If you're timid in any way, they'll overrun you," Calipari said of Arkansas. "You'll have opportunities, and they'll make some crazy shots. You just (have to) keep playing."
Freshman Julius Randle leads Kentucky with an average of 16.7 points per game, and the 6-foot-9 forward also tops the SEC with 10.9 rebounds per game.
Led by Randle, the Wildcats lead the SEC in rebounding margin — grabbing an average of 12.7 more rebounds per game than their opponents — and their size figures to pose a significant problem for an Arkansas team that's 11th in the same category.
A bigger problem for the Razorbacks has been the recent lack of offense from leading scorers Michael Qualls and Bobby Portis.
The two have combined to hit just 12 of 48 shots (25 percent) of their shots over the last two games, and Anderson is counting on improvement from the duo against Kentucky, especially if Arkansas hopes to rebound from is shaky start in the SEC.
"I feel good about our basketball team," Anderson said. "I think as long as we learn from (the Florida loss) we are going to be in the hunt for something. I don't know what it is, but we are going to be in the hunt for something."