FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas was a dominant home team last season, racing out to a 17-0 start in Bud Walton Arena before finally stumbling down the stretch.
Mike Anderson’s first Arkansas team was the polar opposite when it stepped away from its home court, though. There were 10 opportunities to win road games and the Razorbacks only managed one victory — at Auburn — the entire year.
“Obviously last year we weren’t a team that did well on the road,” Anderson said Monday afternoon as he looked back on 2011-12. “Early on we were in position to win some games. We just didn’t. But with that being said, this is a new year.”
Arkansas (9-4) will get a chance to prove it is a much improved team in a hostile environment right away, opening Southeastern Conference play on the road at Texas A&M (10-3) in Reed Arena at 8 p.m. tonight.
The Razorbacks carry a five-game win streak into the beginning of the 18-game conference schedule. All five of those victories came in home games. So Arkansas understands the important of striking on the road right away as it sets the tone for the nine-week run through conference play.
“It would be very big,” Arkansas forward Hunter Mickelson said. “I’m sure it would give us a lot of confidence going into our other games, and we’re definitely going to need that because the SEC is going to be pretty tough.
“We’re going to have to see what we’re made of.”
Arkansas has dropped its only true road game so far this season, suffering an 80-67 loss at No. 3 Michigan on Dec. 8. But the game took on a much different feel from road trips in 2011-12. While Arkansas fell into an early hole, it battled back and was within striking distance late against one of the best teams in the country.
Anderson believes it’s a sign his team — which has more talent and depth than last year — is much better equipped for road success now.
“I thought our guys for 35 minutes competed as hard as they could,” Anderson said. “So hopefully that’s going to be a lesson learned. Maybe that’s carryover from there.
“But I hope the carryover is that we’re playing good basketball.”
Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade believes it will be evident starting tonight.
“In the past we haven’t done very good on the road, but I think this year with the team we have that we can go down there and get a win,” Wade said. “It’s not going to be easy, but I think we have the players, and I think the focus is a little better than it has been the past couple of years.”
Arkansas will need a Michigan-like effort — with a better ending — at Texas A&M.
The Aggies have struggled some under second-year coach Billy Kennedy, suffering a loss at home to Southern on Dec. 22. But Texas A&M is 8-1 in its arena this season and will be hosting their first conference game as an SEC program tonight.
Kennedy said Monday there is a “buzz” and “enthusiasm” in College Station, Texas, as SEC basketball season begins. He’s hoping it gives the Aggies a big edge tonight.
“We need an environment at home to rev us up and hopefully get us to play at the highest level possible,” Kennedy said. “I think this Arkansas team is different that some of those teams of the past. They play 12 guys and are more experienced with BJ Young and Marshawn Powell and they have role identification. Coach Anderson’s system is in place. We will need every ounce of effort from our fans and players.”
Texas A&M beat Arkansas 82-71 in overtime during the last meeting between the teams, which came in Dallas on Dec. 18, 2010. It was the first game between the former Southwest Conference rivals in 20 years. But the Razorbacks won their last game at Texas A&M, beating the Aggies 111-72 during the 1990-91 season.
It also was the last time Anderson — who was an assistant on former coach Nolan Richardson’s staff — enjoyed success against Texas A&M. The former Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri coach is 0-6 against the Aggies in his career.
But Anderson said that doesn’t matter as Arkansas prepares to open conference play tonight. His only concern is making sure the Razorbacks find a way to open SEC play with a valuable road win as the 18-game conference schedule begins.
“Texas A&M will come out and I’m sure they will come out and try to deliver a punch,” Anderson said. “It’s their first game in the SEC so the emotions are going to be sky-high. Our guys are going to have to withstand that punch and hopefully punch back and get to playing basketball and making sure it’s a 40-minute game.”
Arkansas (9-4) at Texas A&M (10-3)
When: 8 p.m.
Where: Bud Walton Arena
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Satellite: Sirius Ch. 92, XM Ch. 199
Series: Arkansas leads 95-51
Last Meeting: Texas A&M 71, Arkansas 62 (OT) on 12/18/10
Coaches: Arkansas — Mike Anderson (27-18 in second season); Texas A&M — Billy Kennedy (24-21 in second season)
Projected Lineups: Arkansas — F Hunter Mickelson (6-10, So., 7.8 ppg), F Marshawn Powell (6-7, Jr. 15.2 ppg), G Rickey Scott (6-3, Jr., 5.3 ppg), G Mardracus Wade (6-3, Jr., 7.8 ppg), G BJ Young (6-3, So., 17.7 ppg); Texas A&M — F Kourtney Roberson (6-9, So., 5.7 ppg), F Ray Turner (6-9, Sr., 12.0 ppg), G Elston Turner (6-5, Sr., 15.5 ppg), G Fabyon Harris (5-11, Jr., 9.7 ppg), G J’Mychal Reese (6-1, Fr., 8.1 ppg)