FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said senior Kikko Haydar approached him minutes after the 87-75 win against Georgia last Saturday.
Senior night was next on Arkansas’ agenda and the Razorbacks had a five-man class preparing to play their final home game. But Haydar wanted his coach to know as soon as possible the group was fine if Anderson decided to break from tradition.
“Kikko comes up to me and said, ‘Coach, I visited with all the seniors and we aren’t worried about starting on Senior Night. You do what you’ve got to do,’” said Anderson, who typically starts his seniors during their final home game.
“I looked at him. That is unbelievable.”
The moment resonated with Anderson, who said it was another strong indication of his team’s unselfishness throughout the 2013-14 season. He believes it’s a big reason the Razorbacks have won eight of their past nine games, too, inching closer to locking up the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007-08.
In the end, Anderson started four of his seniors – Coty Clarke (13 points, 2 rebounds, 3 steals), Mardracus Wade (18 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists), Fred Gulley (2 points, 2 assists) and Rickey Scott (2 points, 2 assists) – during Arkansas’ 110-80 win against Ole Miss. The Razorbacks continued to start freshman Bobby Portis instead of Haydar to avoid having a small lineup on the floor in the opening minutes.
But Haydar played his regular role off the bench (3 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists). He eventually joined the other four seniors on the floor for a few minutes in the second half. Then Anderson removed each to a standing ovation from the crowd.
“I just wanted to win so bad,” Wade said. “I felt like these guys wanted to let the seniors go out with a bang and that’s what they did. They just kept at it and they kept a positive attitude the whole week and that’s what we did.”
Afterward, each senior got the chance to address the crowd after one of the program’s biggest wins in an SEC game. Anderson said the blowout — Arkansas led by as much as 46 points — couldn’t have been scripted any better for his seniors.
But Anderson said their efforts have made it possible this season.
“That’s the unselfishness of this basketball team,” Anderson said. “They’re taking ownership. When they come at you like that that’s ownership.”
Arkansas extended its SEC win streak to six games, which is the program’s longest since the 1998 season. It also equals the Razorbacks’ second-longest win streak in SEC play since joining the conference during the 1991-92 season.
The 1998 and 1995 teams put together six-game SEC win streaks. The program record is 11 straight SEC wins, which the 1993-94 team accomplished.
Arkansas also will finish above .500 in SEC play for the second straight season after notching its 10th win Wednesday. It’s the first time the Razorbacks have produced back-to-back seasons above .500 in SEC play since 1998 and 1999.
“Our guys started making things happen on the floor,” Anderson said. “They started finishing. We weren’t finishing so now all of a sudden we are finishing.”
Arkansas has put together an impressive enough resume to be part of projected NCAA Tournament fields by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm.
Lunardi has Arkansas as and 11-seed and one of his “last four” in the 68-team field, playing in one of the first-round games against Nebraska in Dayton. Lunardi’s bracket has the winner advancing to play No. 6 seed Texas in San Antonio.
Palm also has the Razorbacks as an 11-seed, but with more security. He lists Xavier, Providence, Missouri and Nebraska among his “last four” in the field. Palm has Arkansas matched up in a first-round game with six-seed Ohio State in Raleigh, N.C.
Arkansas forward Coty Clarke said the Razorbacks won’t rely on their work to date, though, with 10 days before the NCAA Tournament field is revealed.
“There’s always more work to do,” Clarke said. “You can’t just get satisfied.”
Portis didn’t produce much offensively in Arkansas’ 110-80 win against Ole Miss, finishing with four points and going 1-for-4 from the field. But the freshman still put together some impressive statistics in the home finale.
Portis also had 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks. The five assists were a career-high.
“It was one of those nights that he kind of relinquished to the seniors and the other guys,” Anderson said. “But he did yeoman’s work doing other things — rebounding the basketball, blocking shots. He had five assists. He’s a real special player.”