FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson thought his team was flat, missing energy and not its usual self in Bud Walton Arena on Tuesday night.
It proved costly in a 75-71 loss to Missouri. It was the second time the Razorbacks had lost at home in four SEC games and the defeat further damaged Arkansas’ fading NCAA Tournament hopes one month into the conference season.
So how could it have happened?
“I have no answer for that,” Anderson said Tuesday night. “When we did get it going, I thought when we had energy on defense and made some stops. I thought the crowd got into it, and we did some good things. We got to the free-throw line, and were making one, missing one. It just seemed like we never got a rhythm.”
Arkansas (13-7, 2-5 in SEC) began picking up the pieces when it returned to practice Thursday, beginning two days of preparation for its next test at LSU (13-6, 4-3).
The problem: the Razorbacks have to go back on the road — where they are 2-21 during Anderson’s tenure — looking for ways to end their conference slide.
They’ll need a quick solution or it will get much worse. LSU is the start of a four-game stretch in which the Razorbacks will be on the road three times and Arkansas can’t afford to lose any more ground as it tries to reach postseason play of any sort.
But Anderson remained optimistic when asked if the Razorbacks were toiling through the most difficult stretch of his Arkansas tenure.
“Challenging,” Anderson said. “How about that? I’d say challenging. But I see the positives that are taking place. And so, with young players, you’ve got to build on that. Because they are (young). Every game we’ve played we’ve been in it, so just got to be able to make the plays. And again, identifying those guys that can make those plays for us going down the stretch. That’s the key.”
Arkansas had a chance, once again, against Missouri. The Razorbacks took a one-point lead when Michael Qualls knocked down a three-pointer with 3:28 left. They tied the game when Ky Madden completed a 3-point play at the 1:59mark.
But Arkansas couldn’t finish off the Tigers. Missouri scored nine straight points over the next 1:39 seconds to take control and beat the Razorbacks. Missouri got the key plays in the game’s critical minutes, while Arkansas struggled to finish once again.
Anderson said there’s only one way to get out of it.
“Players making plays,” Anderson said. “I think that’s going to be the biggest key. Players making plays, taking on the initiative, the ownership. I think just the leadership. That’s what’s got to take place.”
But the lack of success over the four minutes weren’t the only problems that must be addressed if Arkansas hopes to snap out of its struggles.
Arkansas spent much of the first half settling on three-point shots – even though most went in. The Razorbacks were dominated on the boards once again, reintroducing an issue that plagued them at Georgia. Missouri spent a good chunk of the second half on the free-throw line because of the Razorbacks issues in committing fouls.
“We have a history of taking care of home here and its easy coming out knowing you are going to take care of business and lose focus,” Qualls said. “We lost focus.”
Anderson said his team was “disappointed” and “somber” after the Missouri loss, but stressed the Razorbacks continue to show resilience despite the struggles.
He won’t make sweeping changes in personnel or philosophy, believing it wouldn’t be wise to “go crazy.” Anderson did open the possibility of injecting more of his “energy” players on the floor in hopes it will help the Hogs finish stronger.
Arkansas also may pull back a bit defensively as well on the road, trying to avoid a mass accumulation of fouls. Arkansas’ three road opponents — Texas A&M, Georgia and Tennessee — attempted 47 more free throws than the Razorbacks.
But Anderson still insists his team is close to a breakthrough even after the home loss to Missouri, which he labeled as a “half-step back” Tuesday night. Two days later, Anderson pointed to Arkansas’ last road performance at Tennessee as an example of what his team could still accomplish at LSU on Saturday.
“We’ll build on that,” Anderson said. “I thought we came out at Tennessee, that was a game I thought, our guys, we were going to win that game. Our guys were focused, engaged. They took the game plan, and we just didn’t quite finish it.
“So, we’ll have a game plan going to LSU. Let’s see if we can go and execute it. That’s the key. Stay to the script and finish it out and just go and compete and battle.”