FAYETTEVILLE — One player on Arkansas’ 2013-14 roster knows what it’s like to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Guard Fred Gulley got to experience it when he was a freshman at Oklahoma State, playing 30 minutes in a first-round loss to Goergia Tech in Milwaukee in 2010.
“It’s the greatest feeling you can have,” Gulley said last month. “It’s like a festival. … Just getting a taste of it has made me so hungry for that feeling again. And now that it’s my senior year, I’d love to help get our team back in that position.”
Gulley and the Razorbacks will begin taking aim at that goal at 7 p.m. tonight, when they open the season against SIU-Edwardsville in Bud Walton Arena. It’s the first of 31 games that will have a big bearing on whether the Razorbacks will reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since coach Mike Anderson’s return in 2011-12.
Arkansas hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in five straight seasons in all, dating back to former coach John Pelphrey’s first year with the program in 2007-08. The five-year dry spell is the program’s longest since the pre-Eddie Sutton years, when Arkansas didn’t make the tournament from 1959-76.
The drought also is part of a longer streak of woes for the proud program, which has played in the NCAA Tournament just three times in the past 12 seasons.
Arkansas’ veterans have had a hard time believing the disappointments, but are determined to see them end this season.
“When you sign, you think you’re going to go every year. I was just excited … I was thinking, ‘Every year we’ll be in the tournament,’” said Scott, who is one of five seniors on Arkansas’ roster. “It’s tough. You see all these teams in it every year, and you’re going, ‘Man, I want to be there, too. I know we can play there.”
Arkansas will have to prove it with a retooled roster this season.
Its two leading scorers from 2012-13 — forward Marshawn Powell and guard BJ Young — moved on to begin professional basketball careers. But Anderson believes his new group is more well-rounded and equipped to make a tournament run.
It begins with the addition of McDonald’s All-American Bobby Portis. Anderson refuses to call the 6-foot-10 freshman the program’s savior, but its first McDonald’s All-American since Olu Famutimi has flashed his potential in exhibition games. He gives Arkansas – as Anderson put it — something it hasn’t had under his watch.
“I tell you what, this guy is enjoying playing college basketball,” Anderson said after Portis averaged 5.5 points and 9 rebounds in two exhibition games. “He’s just come from high school and he just plays … If you watch him play, he plays with passion. He runs the floor every play. Whether it be on offense, defense, he’s running the floor. He plays the game the right way. He’s poised for a big guy that size.”
Portis will join Houston transfer Alandise Harris, Coty Clarke, Moses Kingsley, Michael Qualls and Jacorey Williams in a frontcourt with more size and athleticism. In fact, Anderson said last week the forwards should be the team’s strength.
But there are questions in the backcourt even though there’s experience with Gulley, Anthlon Bell, Mardracus Wade, Kikko Haydar, Rickey Scott and Ky Madden returning. The Razorbacks must get solid point guard play with what Anderson described as a group effort. Arkansas also must improve from the perimeter after shooting just 30 percent from behind the 3-point line last season.
Still, Anderson is confident the “blueprint” he has followed in his previous coaching stops at Alabama-Birmigham and Missouri — the NCAA Tournament by year three — is attainable at Arkansas this season.
“I’m excited about this year,” Anderson said earlier this week. “I just think the guys we’ve assembled, they fit what we’re doing - moreso than the previous two years. With that happening, it makes it a little easier to get into what we want to do and get into it more in depth. So when you look at our schedule and the games that we have on there, it gives us an opportunity to build this team.”
Tonight’s game will serve as the first step for a team led by its senior class.
It’s their last chance to get into the NCAA Tournament.
Scott said “it’s now or never” for the seniors to prove what they can do in Anderson’s system. Haydar said the Razorbacks are hungry to get started.
Wade said the NCAA Tournament is a “dream” Arkansas doesn’t intend to miss.
“My goal each and every year has been to get there,” Wade said. “We haven’t gotten there yet. … It’s not so much pressure, but a feeling of being anxious to get there. I believe this team can get there with the group of guys we have, all the hard work we put into it.”