FAYETTEVILLE — Savannah State doesn’t carry the same allure as NCAA Tournament hopefuls like Clemson, Minnesota, California or Gonzaga.
It doesn’t have a legendary coach like Southern Methodist’s Larry Brown or a guard with NBA potential like Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton. In fact, the Tigers don’t even have a win against a Division I opponent through eight games.
But Arkansas coach Mike Anderson doesn’t care who his team plays tonight, next week or the rest of December. There’s plenty to fine-tune with only five games remaining before the Southeastern Conference opener at Texas A&M.
“That’s going to be the emphasis,” Anderson said. “And it starts with defense.”
The big-name opponents on the nonconference schedule are in the rearview mirror, leaving Arkansas (6-2) with no more nonconference chances to add to its NCAA Tournament resume. But Anderson said the Razorbacks shouldn’t lack motivation when the final five-game stretch begins against Savannah State (2-8) in Bud Walton Arena at 7 p.m.tonight because of a checklist of items that must be accomplished.
Improvements in rebounding and free-throw shooting, two trouble areas in the 74-68 win against Clemson, are on the agenda. So is Arkansas’ defensive intensity, which Anderson wants to crank up closer to his liking.
“I think our defense has really got to turn up the pressure,” Anderson said. “I think we can be a lot more assertive, a lot more aggressive with our defense. I think we’re playing sometimes maybe not as fast as I want us to.”
The Clemson game was proof. Arkansas had trouble dictating the tempo against a team determined to slow the pace. Anderson said his teams, ideally, get 70 to 80 shots a game because of its aggressiveness and fast-paced style.
The Razorbacks managed only 51 shots against the Tigers.
“We started playing their game,” Arkansas forward Bobby Portis said. “They tried to slow the game down and we started playing their game instead of our game.”
More proof: Arkansas was outscored 12-2 on fast breaks.
“We won, but we didn’t really play our style of play,” forward Alandise Harris said.
So Arkansas is planning to correct it by “ratcheting up” the pressure throughout the rest of nonconference play, according to Anderson.
He also wants to make sure his group doesn’t become too predictable in what it is doing defensively even though pressure is the key to Arkansas’ success.
“I want us to be a team that plays multiple defenses, so it leaves teams guessing what we’re doing,” Anderson said. “What are we in? I want to look out there sometimes, and, hell, I don’t know what we’re doing.”
The Razorbacks are sixth in the SEC in steals a game (6.9), which is uncharacteristic of Anderson’s teams who are accustomed to being near the top.
Harris said Arkansas has spent practice time working to press harder, jump passing lanes, get a hand on the ball and turn steals into easy baskets.
But Anderson added that defensive cohesion is key as well. Arkansas’ pressure will only pay dividends if every player on the court is in the right place.
“You’re going to be as strong as your weakest link,” Anderson said. “And as I watch tape, there are some links out there — it might be one guy that’s not getting all the way over there and rotating. We’ve just got to keep working on it to where all those guys that are out there, they’re like a fist. They’re all together. They’re all on the same page, and whomever I sub in, they can even take it to another level.”
Savannah State may not present the stiffest test, but Anderson believes the Tigers will try to slow the pace as well tonight. They suffered a 55-50 loss to Northern Iowa on Wednesday night in a game where the teams combined to take 89 shots.
It wasn’t enough to help Savannah State avoid its sixth straight loss, which has the program last in the nation in Rating Percentage Index (No. 351) according to RealtimeRPI.com. But Harris said Arkansas, which is No. 26, isn’t paying attention.
The Razorbacks have enough work to do before SEC play begins.
“Get everything almost perfect,” Harris said about Arkansas’ goals the next three weeks. “We need to be clicking at 100 percent by the time January gets here.”