FAYETTEVILLE — Bobby Portis was in paradise, but it felt nothing like it as he sat alone on the beach in Hawaii last week.
The freshman was down after his performance in Arkansas’ 85-77 loss to California during the first game of the Mai Invitational. He scored five points, grabbed one rebound and was pushed around during the first big game of his career.
So Portis called Arkansas coach Mike Anderson. He needed to talk about it.
“I was like, ‘Coach, what am I doing wrong on the floor because I had five points and one rebound?’” Portis said. “He just told me, ‘Bobby, just go out there and have fun and just be a basketball player. Be an impact player for our team.’”
Portis took Anderson’s advice to heart. He learned from the disappointment and bounced back, leading Arkansas to a win against Minnesota the next day.
The success has continued. Portis is averaging 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in the three games since the California loss and will be important once again as Arkansas (5-2) prepares for Saturday’s game against Clemson (7-1).
Anderson knows his prized freshman will be prepared for the next test. Especially after seeing the way he responded to the first disappointment of his college career.
“He took that personally,” Anderson said. “So, in his mind, that’s not going to happen again. He wants to be a great player.”
Arkansas knew Portis was going to be an important part of its plans this season after the Little Rock native earned McDonald’s All-American honors. Anderson was cautious about the attention Portis received, saying numerous times the 6-foot-10 forward wasn’t going to be the “savior” of the program this season.
But Portis has played well in a starting role. He’s one of two players – joining point guard Fred Gulley – to start every game. He ranks third on the team in scoring (11.3 points), second in minutes (24.3 game) and is tied for second in rebounding (4.6).
No one expects perfection every night. Portis is a freshman, after all. But Gulley said Portis’ response to the California loss was a telling sign.
“He kind of grew up,” Gulley said. “It was his first time, really, on the big stage. They came out, they were aggressive, they hit us and that’s something most freshmen aren’t used to. What has impressed me the most about Bobby is, he’s responded.
“Most freshmen, it takes them throughout this season, conference play, especially a freshman with his credentials. But what’s been impressive to me is he’s come back, worked every day and he’s responded immediately and helped our basketball team.”
Portis was 1-for-5 (20 percent) from the field in the California loss.
He’s 20 of 31 (64.5 percent) in the three games since.
Arkansas guard Kikko Haydar said Portis made key adjustments offensively.
“He started hitting that little short corner jumper instead of going inside every time,” Haydar said. “Make them stretch the floor and try to guard him. Just playing his game. He’s young and he’s going to struggle sometimes, but the way he rebounds from struggling is great to see. And I think it shows a lot about him as a player.”
Portis also realized he was pressing, “trying to make stuff happen.”
So he started to relax and the results have been much improved.
He had a season-high seven rebounds against Minnesota, then equaled the feat the next day against Gonzaga. Portis also scored a season-high 18 points against the Zags, helping the Razorbacks battle against their first ranked opponent of the year.
Portis shared team-high honors with Michael Qualls in scoring 16 points in the easy win against Southeastern Louisiana. He also added a team-high 5 rebounds.
“I’ve just tried to go out there and be an impact player for our basketball team,” Portis said Tuesday night after the Southeastern Louisiana win.
Anderson has no doubt Portis will continue after watching the way he handled his first collegiate disappointment against California.
“He wants to be a great player,” Anderson said. “His preparation, I think, is one of the things that’s remarkable for me for a guy that size. He tries to get better each and every day. He’s one of the first guys in the gym … He’s one of the last ones to leave. So he’s got to continue that improvement. But I just like his work ethic.”