FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas forward Michael Qualls could tell last season’s trip wasn’t just a normal road game when the Razorbacks stepped into Mizzou Arena.
It was clear when the team took the floor. Even more obvious when coach Mike Anderson made his entrance to a chorus of boos just before tipoff. The tension didn’t ease during the game, either, which ended with Arkansas’ worst loss of the season.
“I felt the hate,” Qualls said when describing the scene at Missouri on Tuesday. “It’s just a crazy atmosphere. You can tell it was things more than basketball related. Mike Anderson used to coach there. And with all that, there’s a lot of pressure.”
Most of the emotion regarding Anderson’s move to Arkansas after the 2010-11 season has dissipated, but the Razorbacks (15-8, 4-6 in Southeastern Conference) expect another tense atmosphere when they play Missouri (16-7, 4-6 in SEC) at 6:05 p.m. tonight. It’s the second game between the teams this season and the second time Anderson will walk back into the arena as an opposing coach.
Anderson — who coached the Tigers for five seasons — brushed off the topic this week. He didn’t coach anyone on Missouri’s current roster, so Anderson believes the importance of tonight’s game is the only thing that will matter for both teams.
“It’s a big game,” Anderson said. “That’s probably as emotional as it’s going to get. It’s that time of year. We’ve got eight games left and it’s going to be Missouri vs. Arkansas. I’m not playing. So the key is for our guys to go out and, hopefully, have a continuance of playing good basketball.”
The Razorbacks bring a two-game win streak — their first since SEC play began — into tonight’s game against the Tigers. Arkansas carries plenty of confidence into the border battle, too, after collecting its first road win of the season at Vanderbilt.
Arkansas forward Bobby Portis believes it will spill over into tonight.
“You’ll see that same team that you saw Saturday at Vandy,” Portis said.
Qualls said there’s even more motivation to do so after Arkansas suffered the 75-71 loss to Missouri in Bud Walton Arena earlier this season. The Razorbacks want to get even with the Tigers, who won for the first time in Bud Walton Arena.
Qualls believes that type of motivation was a driving force behind Missouri’s 93-63 win in Mizzou Arena last season. The Tigers had lost the first game in the series in Fayetteville and didn’t want to go 0-2 against the Razorbacks. Especially in Anderson’s return.
“They had that extra motivation that we weren’t going to beat them twice,” Qualls said. “They held that on their shoulders. I feel like we’re that same team that has those troubles. We’re just going to bring it. Not think about none of the negatives.”
To do so, Arkansas will have to do a better job on the boards after being dominated in the first meeting. The Hogs must keep track of Missouri’s three-guard lineup, too.
The trio of Jabari Brown, Earnest Ross and Jordan Clarkson made big plays throughout the second half to help Missouri to collect an important road win.
Missouri hasn’t won since, losing three straight to Kentucky, Florida and Ole Miss.
“They’re hungry just like we are,” Anderson said. “I think they’re going to be hungry. They tend to play well at home as most teams do. They’ve already played us, they beat us here, so I’m sure for them it’s a game they’re looking forward to to have an opportunity to improve and get a win. The reverse of that is, they stole one here so we want to have the mindset to try to steal one there.”
Missouri coach Frank Haith said there’s no chance his team will get caught being overconfident after beating Arkansas earlier this season.
“We had good bounces in that ballgame down the stretch,” Haith said. “We made our free throws, had a big stop. It was a tight ballgame. There’s no way we can go into this game thinking that way. We understand we were fortunate to beat a good team on the road. Those things are hard to do. We’re going to get a very determined, very passionate ballclub in here on Thursday, and we’ve got to be ready to play.”
The game is important for both teams in their hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas could use a significant road win to add to a resume that needs to improve, while the Tigers are trying to end their three-game slide.
So Anderson believes there are more important storylines than his second trip back to his former place of employment. He believes fans won’t be there “to see me.” But he wouldn’t rule out receiving another chorus of boos when he steps on the floor.
“I’m sure they’re going to be rooting their team,” Anderson said. “They’ll boo any coach that comes with any team that comes in there. That’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s just part of it. That’s passion. That’s all that is.”