FAYETTEVILLE — A bright smile formed on Arkansas forward Jacorey Williams’ face when he thought about tonight’s game against No. 5 coaches-ranked Syracuse.
It’s a prestigious opponent. One ranked in the top 10 and led by one of the game’s most renowned coaches in Jim Boeheim. So the freshman said he couldn’t wait to get on the floor in front of the home crowd to play his biggest game to date.
“It’s very, very exciting being a freshman and playing in this type of game in this type of environment,” Williams said. “I feel like it’s going to be crazy. I know our fans are going to be here for us. It’s going to be crazy for 40 minutes.”
Arkansas (3-2) welcomes a rare opponent into Bud Walton Arena when it faces the Orange (4-0) as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge tonight at 7:30.
It marks the first time the programs have met since 1995, when Arkansas coach Mike Anderson was an assistant on Nolan Richardson’s staff. The Razorbacks beat Syracuse 96-94 in overtime during the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Plenty has changed since then, of course. Syracuse has remained among the nation’s elite, while Arkansas has struggled. But Anderson said his team is viewing tonight’s opportunity as a chance to show the Razorbacks are working their way back.
“When you talk about the ultimate challenge, that’s what we are going to face here,” Anderson said. “We are playing against some really good competition and we will have a chance to find out a little bit more about ourselves in this particular game.”
Tonight’s game is the midway point of a rocky five-game stretch for the Hogs. It began with losses to Arizona State and Wisconsin in the Las Vegas Invitational last weekend. It will end with a game against Oklahoma next Tuesday and at No. 3 Michigan on Dec. 8.
The Razorbacks weren’t happy with how it began, either, crumbling in the second half of both games in Las Vegas after strong starts. Arkansas trailed by two points at halftime before a 15-point loss to Arizona State. It squandered an 11-point lead against Wisconsin the next night en route to a 77-70 loss.
So the trip will be remembered as a lost opportunity for the Razorbacks.
“You work hard all summer before the season with conditioning and you think you can just pile drive teams because we’re deeper and we can run these guys out of the gym,” Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade said. “But that’s not the case sometimes.”
In that regard, Arkansas considers it a valuable experience as well.
“We need to continue what we’re doing in the first half for the whole game,” forward Marshawn Powell said. We’ve got to play the whole 40 minutes. In the first half, we’ve been playing team basketball. In the second half, we’ve kind of gotten away from that and gotten ourselves in a hole and have to dig out way out. … That comes with being a younger team sometimes. We’re going to work on that and get better.”
Arkansas will find out if it pays off against a Syracuse team led by guards Brandon Triche (15.3 points a game) and Michael Carter-Williams (10.3). They’re part of a Syracuse lineup limiting opponents to 52.5 points a game so far this season.
Syracuse is the first top 10 ranked team to play Arkansas in Bud Walton Arena since the 2009-10 season, when No. 2 Texas beat the Razorbacks 96-85. The Longhorns also were the last top 10 ranked team Arkansas has beaten in Fayetteville since 2008-09, when the Hogs knocked off Oklahoma and Texas in the span of one week.
Anderson is expecting an “electric atmosphere” for tonight’s matchup against a top 10 team. He and the Hogs are hoping to deliver another memorable night, too.
“It’s going to be a good challenge for us,” Wade said.
Syracuse (4-0) at Arkansas (3-2)
• When: 7 p.m. today
• Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
• TV: ESPN
• Rankings: Syracuse No. 5 in coaches’ poll
• Series: Arkansas leads 1-0 (last meeting Arkansas 96, Syracuse 94, OT, on March 19, 1995)