FAYETTEVILLE — Forward Coty Clarke is only in his second season with the Arkansas basketball program.
The 45 games has been more than enough for the senior to grow pretty tired of the recurring chatter about the Razorbacks, though.
“Going around all you hear is, ‘Road this, road that,’” Clarke said late last week, referencing Arkansas’ road struggles under coach Mike Anderson the past two seasons. “When it gets here, you will know that we have fixed that.”
It has arrived. Arkansas opens Southeastern Conference play on the road at Texas A&M’s Reed Arena at 8 p.m. Wednesday. It’s the first of an 18-game conference schedule that will determine whether the Razorbacks — who have put themselves in solid postseason position through nonconference play — are NCAA Tournament worthy.
That will largely be determined by how well Arkansas, which carries a seven-game win streak into conference play, performs on the road. Arkansas guard Fred Gulley said the Razorbacks understand and are eager to prove they’re much improved from the group that has gone 3-24 outside of Arkansas under Anderson.
“It’s a new year. We’ve got a new team, and we’ve got a new attitude,” Gulley said. “We approach everything differently. We’re going to take this show on the road.”
There may be no better barometer to begin with than the Aggies (9-4), who will host Arkansas (11-2) for the SEC opener a second straight season.
The Razorbacks traveled to College Station last year and struggled during a 69-51 loss. It was just one of 18 conference games, but the blowout seemed to set the tone for what would be another disappointing year on the road in conference play.
Arkansas got off to a rough start after its top post player — forward Marshawn Powell — fell into early foul trouble. Powell and the Hogs never recovered, suffering a lopsided loss in which Arkansas was beat up in the post by the physical Aggies.
“Getting out-rebounded, just being dominated on the boards,” Clarke said when asked about what he remembered last year. “They played more physical than us and, of course, me and my teammates, we let them down by getting into foul trouble and forcing too small of guys to be in the post and not quite have the bodies to bang with those guys and box them out. It really hurt us and put us at a disadvantage.”
Arkansas went on to finish 1-8 in SEC road games last season, collecting its only win against lowly Auburn. It was the second straight year the Razorbacks only logged one conference road win. The struggles have kept Arkansas out of postseason play.
But Anderson is confident his team is much better equipped this season as it prepares for its first true road test of the season. Arkansas showed some promise at the Maui Invitational, going 1-2 in the neutral site nonconference tournament. The Razorbacks have been dominant since, strolling to seven straight wins.
“Our guys feel good about themselves,” Anderson said. “We have been playing some good basketball so let’s hope it’s a continuance of what we’re doing. We won’t change much. We will just play smarter. When you go on the road, you have got to be able to defend and you have got to be able to take care of the basketball.”
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy knows Arkansas is capable after noticing a change in the Razorbacks during preparation for Wednesday’s game.
“I just think this is a different team, it’s a veteran team,” Kennedy said. “Mike’s had them now for three years. We don’t look at (past road struggles) as being any kind of factor to be honest with you.”
The Razorbacks do bring more size, depth and athleticism than years past with newcomers Bobby Portis (12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds), Moses Kingsley (6.1 points, 4.2 rebounds) and Alandise Harris (10.5 points, 4.5 rebounds) making an impact. The Razorbacks also have produced points in a number of ways, getting production in the paint, the perimeter, off turnovers and from a variety of sources.
Arkansas travels to Texas A&M as the SEC’s top scoring team (87.2 points a game), but doesn’t have any individual player who ranks in the conference’s top 18. Leading scorer Michael Qualls — whose 13.7 points a game ranks 19th in the SEC — is one of four Arkansas players averaging more than 10 points a game.
“I just think we have balance now – more balance than we have ever had in the couple of years that I have been here,” Anderson said. “That balance is not only from a scoring standpoint, but where your scoring comes from. We have some big guys that can give us a presence. That can make plays whether they score or we start inside out and they kick the pass out to the guards and the guards knocking shots down. We have guys with good mid-range games.
“Hopefully we are just better equipped to go on the road.”
The Razorbacks will find out beginning Wednesday, when they open conference play by trying to reverse their SEC road woes at Texas A&M.
“We have everything to prove,” Arkansas guard Kikko Haydar said after nonconference play ended. “We haven’t done anything yet and we’re excited for the opportunity. We know how the past has gone and we’re ready to break through and start something new, so we’re ready to start it off.”