FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has won two road games this season, equaling its total from the previous two years under coach Mike Anderson.
There have been some other near misses, too, including the 86-85 loss at Missouri.
So it’s no surprise Arkansas – which is 2-5 in Southeastern Conference road games — is brimming with confidence with four games left in the regular season.
“We feel like we can go anywhere and win right now,” guard Anthlon Bell said.
The Razorbacks (18-9, 7-7 in Southeastern Conference) will get a chance to prove it Thursday night, when they travel to play 17th-ranked Kentucky (21-6, 11-3 in SEC) in Rupp Arena. Arkansas has won five of its past six games to crawl back into the NCAA Tournament conversation with four games remaining and can strengthen its case immensely by beating the Wildcats for the second time this season.
Kentucky, which is No. 10 in the NCAA’s latest Ratings Percentage Index, is 15-1 in Rupp Arena this season with its only loss against top-ranked Florida. It’s also a place Arkansas — which is No. 70 in the RPI — hasn’t enjoyed any success in 20 years, losing nine straight times since its national championship season.
But the one-sided history doesn’t bother the current Razorbacks, who believe anything is possible after its recent run of success. Arkansas ended a 12-game losing streak at Mississippi State last Saturday, while Anderson said beating Kentucky at home earlier this season has helped raise his team’s confidence.
“We’ve played these guys before, so we’re familiar with them, and they’re familiar with us,” Anderson said. “And, of course, they have the homecourt advantage. We know that, that’s where they practice and play each and every day. So, that’s the advantage for them, and somehow we’ve got to figure out a way to negate that, where we can go in and make it an advantage for us. How do you do that?
“Go in and play some of your best basketball you’ve played all year. That’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to take the fight to Kentucky.”
Arkansas held on to beat Kentucky 87-85 in overtime during the first meeting, getting the game-winner on guard Michael Qualls’ putback dunk with 0.2 seconds remaining in overtime. The highlight was one of the most memorable in the series between the teams and the win has since stood as the Razorbacks’ best this season.
But the Razorbacks weren’t perfect in the win. Kentucky held a 50-32 advantage on the glass thanks largely to freshman phenom Julius Randle, who finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds. Anderson said Arkansas must do a better job on Kentucky’s big lineup this time or repeating the feat is unlikely.
Arkansas forward Bobby Portis — who had 11 points, 10 rebounds and three assists — believes he learned plenty in the first matchup against Randle and the Kentucky frontcourt. Portis said he and the Razorbacks are ready for the second round.
“He’s a good player.” Portis said of Randle. “He’s physical and he’s kind of quick off the dribble too. So if we can contain him, then, yeah, I like our chances in the game.”
Portis and nine other teammates will play in Rupp Arena for the first time in their careers Thursday night. Only four current Hogs — guard Mardracus Wade, Ky Madden, Kikko Haydar and Rickey Scott — have been part of an Arkansas team that played at Kentucky, suffering an 86-63 loss in Anderson’s first season.
But Arkansas believes they’re capable of ending the 20-year drought in Lexington.
“We’re a dangerous basketball team,” Anderson said. “This is when you want to be playing some of your better basketball and go in that direction and I think we are going in that direction.”
Qualls said a win would be “big for our state and our ballclub.”
“Like I said, it would be big,” Qualls said. “But I’m more worried about us just getting the win in general. Just take away the Kentucky name. It could be anybody. We just need wins. We need them now and not later.”