FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas basketball guard Michael Qualls doesn’t chalk up his recent success to simply maturing as a freshman.
He realizes practice, experience and patience are all part of the equation. But when Qualls was asked what has changed with his play, he pointed to a subtle move made by coach Mike Anderson after Arkansas returned from its last road trip.
“He’s putting me back on the wing,” Qualls said. “So I feel more comfortable playing my natural position then having to play the four.”
There’s no doubt Qualls, who spent a good chunk of his freshman season providing depth at the power forward position, has started to break out since the change. He started on the wing the past two games and is averaging 9 points and 7.5 rebounds, giving the Hogs a big lift in wins against Tennessee and No. 2 Florida.
Arkansas (14-8, 5-4 in Southeastern Conference) is hoping Qualls’ valuable production will continue when they go back on the road to play Vanderbilt (8-13, 2-7 in SEC) in Memorial Gym at 12:30 today. It’s the second meeting this season between the teams. Arkansas won the first game 56-33 in Fayetteville on Jan. 12.
Qualls wasn’t much of a factor then, scoring four points in 9 minutes.
But Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade said so much has changed since.
“He’s playing out of his mind right now,” Wade said. “Rebounding the ball, dunking, knocking down shots. He’s doing what we need him to do.
“He’s always played with energy, and now coach is unleashing him. Mike’s one of those guys, you just need to let him play, and he’s helping us out a lot.”
Qualls earned the opportunity after making an impression the Alabama loss on Jan. 31. He came off the bench to score nine points and grab six rebounds, helping the Razorbacks come close to wrapping up their first road win of the season.
It made Anderson take a long look at giving the freshmen extended minutes. He started him on the wing against Tennessee and the move paid off. Qualls scored seven points and grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds in 31 minutes during a 73-60 win.
“You can see he’s got that pop,” Anderson said. “I think the Alabama game was big for him. I think although we lost, it was big for him. Because you could see in the next few practices, and then we played Tennessee, and then of course now we played Florida. You can just see some things are starting to click with him.”
It has been evident. Qualls — who has turned in his share of highlight moments on dunks this season — has been a solid all-around performer the past two games.
He has used his long arms and athleticism to help Arkansas harass opponents defensively. He has crashed in from the wing to grab big rebounds.
Qualls has had big dunks, too, like his crowd-pleasing jam and stare after wrestling a rebound away from Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes off a missed free throw last Saturday. But Qualls also has shown off his jumper, knocking down a three-pointer and a few medium range shots en route to 11 points against the Gators.
Qualls said he always has been a confident shooter. The difference now is that he’s comfortable taking them after feeling hesitant earlier this season.
“Now that coach is going to let me take it, I’ve got the confidence to knock it down,” Qualls said. “If you think your coach doesn’t want you to take that shot, you’re not going to be ready to knock it down.”
He’ll get more opportunities today when the Razorbacks meet the Commodores in Memorial Gym’s unusual setting. Qualls was asked if he’s prepared for the unique environment, but said he hadn’t even been told about it by his teammates.
It doesn’t matter to the freshman. His only goal is helping Arkansas win its fourth straight game against the Commodores. Anderson said Qualls’ performance will be key in whether the Razorbacks can win on the road for the first time.
“He’s playing well. He’s not playing like a freshman any more,” Anderson said after the Florida win. “I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence. And it’s not necessarily about the scoring part of it. His energy is contagious on the defensive side. …
“He’s a guy that’s excited about playing and being in the starting lineup.”
Arkansas (14-8) at Vanderbilt (8-13)
• When: 12:30 p.m. today
• Where: Memorial Gym in Nashville, Tenn.
• TV/Radio: SEC Network (KATV-7)/KABZ-FM 103.7
• Series: Arkansas leads 18-9; last meeting Arkansas 56, Vanderbilt 33 on Jan. 12