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Clarke leading Arkansas charge
Versatile forward has Hogs on cusp of NCAA
Arkansas forward Coty Clarke tries to drive past South Carolina defender Michael Carrera in the second half of Wednesday's game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Coty Clarke wasn't one of the most heralded recruits when he arrived at Arkansas out of junior college before last season.
The senior, however, has since turned into one of the most important — and versatile — players for the surging Razorbacks, who have won seven of eight games and appear on the verge of returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.
Arkansas (20-9, 9-7 Southeastern Conference) extended its winning streak to five games with Saturday's win over Georgia, doing so behind a career-high 23 points from Clarke.
The scoring output was a personal best for the 6-foot-7 forward, but his overall impact was nothing new in the eyes of coach Mike Anderson, who called Clarke "a guy that is a glue guy that has slowly become the leader of this basketball team."
Heading into Wednesday night's game against Mississippi (17-12, 8-8), Clarke has a team-high 70 assists this season for Arkansas. He's also second with an average of six rebounds per game and has shown an adept outside touch as well — connecting on 20 of 46 (43.5 percent) 3-pointers.
All in all, he's become everything Anderson could have dreamed of while recruiting the former Lawson State (Ala.) Community College standout, who averaged 12.8 point and 12.1 rebounds per game while there over two seasons.
"I think guys are following his beat," Anderson said. "And if he can continue to play at the high level he is playing at right now, a lot of good things will continue to happen for this basketball team. ... To me, the unselfishness that he brings to the table has kind of tripled throughout our basketball team."
Arkansas hasn't won six straight regular-season SEC games since the 1997-98 season under former coach Nolan Richardson, a mark it can equal on Wednesday night. The Razorbacks have already secured their first 20-win season since 2007-08, the last time the school reached the postseason.
For all of the good vibes right now surrounding Arkansas, however, the Rebels present a particular challenge in that they have won four straight games in Bud Walton Arena — and six straight overall against the Razorbacks.
Arkansas hasn't beaten Ole Miss since a win in Oxford in 2010, though Rebels coach Andy Kennedy puts little stock in the past.
"I'd like to tell you that those prior four games would have some influence on our game Wednesday night, but unfortunately for us they will not," Kennedy said.
"(Arkansas is) playing with a great deal of confidence, a real sense of urgency that you would expect as they're closing in on trying to get into the NCAA tournament."
Ole Miss didn't play at Arkansas last season, but it overcame a 15-point second-half deficit to win in Bud Walton Arena two years ago.
Clarke wasn't around for that loss, but he's played a large role in the Razorbacks' recent run of success. The Birmingham, Ala., native, who averaged 7.6 points per game last season, has scored in double figures in six of his past seven games and is now averaging 9.5 for the season.
He's one of four Arkansas players averaging in double figures in SEC play, and he's upped his play overall during the five-game winning streak — averaging 12.8 points and eight rebounds per game.
It's turning into a fitting end to Clarke's career, though he'd like nothing more than to finish it with a trip to the NCAA tournament.
"That's all I think about, when that last horn is going to blow," Clarke said. "When I come here, I give my teammates all I've got because I don't know when the last time I'll be able to bounce a ball, or what my career holds for me after this."
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