FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas basketball remained the prime example of road futility when its struggles outside Bud Walton Arena continued a few weeks ago.
The added to a problem that stretched for most of the past decade, playing a hand in the program’s sharp decline. It was in the spotlight the past two seasons, too, when coach Mike Anderson’s teams managed just two road wins. Both at Auburn.
But something unexpected has occurred the past month. Arkansas won at Vanderbilt on Feb. 8, nearly won at Missouri a few nights later, and more recently ended long droughts at Mississippi State and Kentucky.
“We know what we’ve got to do on the road,” guard Anthlon Bell said about Arkansas’ newfound confidence outside its home court.
It has left the Razorbacks one win away from being remembered as the program’s best road team in 20 years.
Arkansas (21-9, 10-7 in Southeastern Conference), which is racing toward an NCAA Tournament berth, will try to win its fourth conference road game during the regular season finale at Alabama (12-18, 6-11 in SEC) at 3 p.m.
The Razorbacks, who are 3-5 in SEC road games, need one more win to become the first Arkansas team to win four conference games since 1995. It also would be another significant step for a group that has won six straight, eight of nine, and is trying to become Arkansas’ first NCAA Tournament team since 2007-08.
There’s no doubt the late-season road success has made it possible.
“We’re starting to make those plays, whether it be offensively or defensively,” Anderson said of his team’s turnaround. “So I think that’s the key, and there’s been some carryover. Our guys are having a better understanding of what to do and making the right decisions going down the stretch.”
The growth has been evident since Arkansas’ disastrous start, suffering a 69-53 loss at Texas A&M to open SEC play. The Razorbacks had chances to win at Georgia (66-61 in overtime) and Tennessee (81-74), but struggled to close those games.
They were routed in the first half at LSU, recovered after the break, but couldn’t break through in an 88-74 loss that dropped Arkansas to 2-6 in SEC play.
The Razorbacks finally won at Vanderbilt, overcoming a late collapse with Michael Qualls’ game-winning jump shot. Arkansas’ only loss sense came in a game-ending miss by guard Ky Madden in the 86-85 loss at Missouri.
“We’re doing a lot of good things that give us a chance to win,” Anderson said. “The key on that road is you’ve just got to hang in there. You’ve got to be in there. You’ve got to rebound well, you’ve got to take care of the basketball, you’ve got to make shots. So there are a lot of good things you’ve got to do, and we’re doing some of those things. That’s giving us a chance to win.”
The biggest improvement has come on offense. The Razorbacks averaged 65.5 points and shot 36 percent in its first four SEC road games, which were losses to Texas A&M, Georgia, Tennessee and LSU. Arkansas is averaging 76.5 points and shooting 45.1 percent on the road since, going 3-1 over the stretch.
Alabama coach Anthony Grant – whose team is 0-9 on the road in SEC play this season – credited Arkansas’ improvement to experience.
“I think sometimes you just need to get a break or two here or there and win some games and gain some confidence,” Grant said. “I think they’re a product of that. I think if you look at maybe some of the road losses, prior to their success, they were close. They were right there on the cusp of winning. I know in our game last year, it came down to the final couple of possessions. They’re a good team, obviously well coached. They’re playing really well now and playing with great confidence.”
Arkansas hasn’t won at Alabama since 2007, giving the Razorbacks a chance to wipe away another lengthy road losing streak (six games). But Arkansas knows it won’t come easy after grinding out a 65-58 win against Alabama last month.
Arkansas won the home game thanks to forward Bobby Portis, who set the school’s freshman scoring record with 35 points. Portis went 14-for-17 from the field, while the rest of the team struggled in going 8-for-40 (20 percent).
The offensive woes helped the Crimson Tide take by six-point lead in the second half before Portis and Alandise Harris – who had eight key points after the break – helped Arkansas take control and hold on down the stretch.
“It took a career game from Bobby Portis to get us over that hump,” Anderson said.
It also proved to be the start of Arkansas’ recent run of success, which included the 30-point win at home against Ole Miss on Wednesday night. The Razorbacks are confident it can continue even though Alabama is 6-2 in SEC home games.
Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade said the Razorbacks won’t take their recent success — which includes three road wins — for granted, though, with NCAA Tournament hopes on the line in the regular season finale.
“We have a lot of confidence,” Wade said. “Whenever you shoot the ball like that, you put up numbers like that, it gives us a lot of confidence going in (to Alabama). But at the same time, we have to stay humble. We can’t get the big head just because we’ve won a couple road games. We’ve still got to go in there. And it’s their senior night.
“Just imagine how we played on our senior night (Wednesday). Those guys are going to try to do the same thing. So we’ve got to go down there with the mindset that we’re going to get stops and just play with a lot of energy.”
Arkansas (21-9, 10-7 in SEC) at Alabama (12-18, 6-11 in SEC)
When: 3 p.m.
Where: Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Series: Arkansas leads 39-37
Last Meeting: Arkansas 65, Alabama 58 on 2/5/14
Coaches: Arkansas — Mike Anderson (58-36 in third season); Alabama — Anthony Grant (98-70 in fifth season)
Projected Lineups: Arkansas — F Bobby Portis (6-10, Fr., 12.3 ppg), F Coty Clarke (6-7, Sr., 9.6 ppg), G Michael Qualls (6-6, So., 12.1 ppg), G Ky Madden (6-5, Jr., 12.5 ppg), G Fred Gulley (6-2, Sr., 4.2 ppg); Alabama — F Jimmie Taylor (6-10, Fr., 2.6 ppg), F Shannon Hale (6-8, Fr., 8.4 ppg), G Rodney Cooper (6-6, Jr., 7.6 ppg), G Levi Randolph (6-5, Jr., 9.5 ppg), G Trevor Releford (6-0, Sr., 18.6 ppg)