FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Anthlon Bell doesn’t have an explanation for his recent performances in Bud Walton Arena.
He’s not exactly looking for one, either. The sophomore doesn’t want to overanalyze the top two performances of his career, which have come in wins against Ole Miss and Indiana State. Who can blame him?
“It has surprised me, too,” Bell said.
But Bell is enjoying it. The guard scored a career-high 28 points to lead the Razorbacks to a 91-71 win against Indiana State in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament on Tuesday night. He recorded Arkansas’ first 10 points to set the tone, went 11-for-13 from the field and 6-for-8 behind the 3-point line.
The performance came two weeks after Arkansas’ final regular season home game, when Bell torched Ole Miss for 23 points. He went 8-for-11 from the field, 7-for-10 from long range and led Arkansas’ rout on senior night.
The success has been part of a late-season surge for Bell, who struggled for nearly three months. The team’s most dangerous shooter has re-emerged and his performance in the NIT could be key to Arkansas’ hopes of reaching the Final Four.
“I think he’s ready now,” Anderson said at the end of the regular season. “I think he’s been through some things now. I don’t think he handled the success earlier. I don’t think he handled it well. And so, now, maybe now he can understand a little bit more now. We talk about stay humble and hungry.”
Anderson pointed to Bell’s strong start this season as his biggest downfall.
The Razorbacks didn’t know who they would count on for scoring this season and Bell answered the call early on. He scored 18 points in the season opener, knocking down five 3-pointers. He reached double figures in three of Arkansas’ first four games, including a 16-point effort in a loss to California in the Maui Invitational.
But then Bell’s success dried up. He struggled through the rest of Arkansas’ trip to Maui, going 4-for-18 from the field against Minnesota and Gonzaga. He reached double figures just once in the Razorbacks’ next 22 games.
Bell hit his lowest point during a seven-game stretch in which he played 31 minutes and scored four points. He never got off the bench in Arkansas’ wins against LSU and Vanderbilt during the stretch and was barely part of Anderson’s rotation.
“You’ve got to remember, he’s a young player,” Anderson said. “He was a true freshman last year that played minimum minutes. So now all of a sudden he’s thrown into the starting lineup, and we’ve got a lot of new faces. It’s part of guys understanding their roles and what they bring to the team and where they fit in.”
Bell’s strength, of course, was his ability to knock down 3-pointers. But Anderson wanted the shooter to concentrate on different areas to snap out of his slump.
Bell listened and was rewarded with playing time at Mississippi State. He took advantage of it, too, scoring what was then a career-high 19 points to help Arkansas collect an important 73-69 road win. Bell has been a rotation regular since.
He’s averaging 12.8 points in Arkansas past seven games.
“Coach told me just to come in and play basketball, don’t come in and rush,” Bell said. “Just make it easy. Try to get some easy buckets instead of throwing up 3-point shots. Get some easy shots and get to the free-throw line and get myself going.”
Bell — who earned his 13th start in the NIT opener — had success Tuesday night and also helped Arkansas overcome a rough start.
He accounted for 15 of the team’s first 25 points before the rest of the Razorbacks could get going. Arkansas forward Coty Clarke credited Bell for making it happen.
“We were looking for him early because he was on,” Clarke said. “As the game went on, we made things happened but we were still looking for him. He basically opened it up for us with him doing that. So we credit him with making plays for us.”
Bell is still working to prove he can do it on a consistent basis.
He followed his 23-point effort against Ole Miss by going scoreless in Arkansas’ 25-point loss at Alabama. He only accounted for five points in the SEC Tournament loss to South Carolina before bouncing back with 28 points against Indiana State.
Bell wants to put together another strong performance, but said he has learned not to force anything. He’s confident the success will continue in the second round.
“If it’s my night again, it’s my night again,” Bell said.