FAYETTEVILLE — Michael Qualls realizes he may be the most reviled player in Kentucky when Arkansas plays in Rupp Arena tonight.
He gladly jumped into that role with his dunk against the Wildcats on Jan. 14, capping the Razorbacks 87-85 overtime win against Kentucky in Bud Walton Arena. That’s why Qualls, when was asked if he expected the Wildcats to put a body on him to make up for their defensive mistake during the first meeting between the teams, shrugged it off Tuesday.
“I’m still going to go in,” Qualls said.
Qualls turned in one of college basketball’s plays of the year when he followed a missed shot with a two-handed slam with 0.2 seconds left in overtime. Now, he’s trying to help the Razorbacks secure another significant moment when the teams meet again at 6 p.m. tonight.
Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 in Southeastern Conference) — which was 2-6 in SEC play earlier this season — has jumped back into the NCAA Tournament conversation by winning five of its past six games. The Razorbacks could take a big step toward securing a spot in the 68-team field if it finds a way to upset Kentucky (21-6, 11-3) once again.
It won’t be an easy, considering the Wildcats are 15-1 at home this season. The Razorbacks have lost nine straight in Rupp Arena dating back to the 1993-94 championship season. too. But forward Bobby Portis said Arkansas is eager to prove it can beat the Wildcats for a second time.
“It’s a big opportunity for us,” Portis said. “No one is talking about us. We aren’t on anyone’s bubble or anything right now. So I think if we go out there and win that will be a wakeup call.”
There’s a good chance Arkansas would need another memorable moment from Qualls to make the opportunity become a reality.
His game-winning dunk was just one part of his late-game heroics in SEC play. Qualls also made, arguably, an even bigger basket a few weeks later by knocking down a three-pointer in the final seconds at Vanderbilt. It helped Arkansas finally grab a road win and the victory has served as the catalyst for the Razorbacks’ recent success.
Qualls played a key role in holding off Mississippi State’s late charge last Saturday, too, knocking down a jump shot that proved just enough to help the Razorbacks hold on. His three-pointer against South Carolina last Wednesday helped the Razorbacks regain a 58-55 lead they wouldn’t relinquish during a rugged win in Fayetteville.
“I think he relishes that opportunity to do that,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I think, left up to him, he’d like to take all the shots. Big shots, as a matter of fact. … Some guys have that makeup. Being at the right place at the right time. You’ve got to have the confidence, and he has that confidence in himself that he’ll knock it down.
“It’s one of those sayings, you can be the hero or the goat. And you’ve got guys that don’t mind being the hero or the goat.”
It’s a far cry from where Qualls was earlier this season.
He enjoyed success in nonconference play, leading the Razorbacks in scoring. But he struggled when SEC play began, shooting 3-for-22 against Texas A&M and Florida. Qualls also was just 4-for-13 against Kentucky before the game-winning dunk.
Qualls blamed himself for the struggles, admitting his work ethic dipped.
“I wasn’t in the gym, how I was supposed to be,” Qualls said. “I’m a gym rat and stay in the gym putting shots up, but I got real comfortable with my game and that kind of messed me up. I was just trying to shoot my way through it, but I actually needed to get in the gym and just correct it.”
He emerged from the shooting slump during Arkansas’ loss to Missouri in Bud Walton Arena, scoring 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting. But his progress was short-lived because Qualls was suspended - along with forward Alandise Harris - for conduct detrimental to the team.
Qualls didn’t travel with the Razorbacks for the 88-74 loss to LSU. Anderson reinstated both players after a one-game suspension and Qualls has worked hard to make amends.
He rescued Arkansas from another late-game collapse when he buried a three-pointer against Vanderbilt and has played with confidence since the road win.
Qualls is averaging 15 points in his past five games and is shooting 44.9 percent (25-for-57) during the stretch. He’s 13-for-27 (48.1 percent) behind the three-point line.
“I felt like I was supposed to be the person trying to take those shots and I don’t feel like I was taking bad shots, I just wasn’t making them,” Qualls said about his early-season performance. “I feel like I hurt the team that way and then when I got suspended it made it even worse. So me being able to help my team to come through, that was big. A big-time boost.
“It shows it’s not all about what you say, but what you prove. You say you are there for the team, you’ve got to show it.”
Qualls is now averaging 10.2 points, 4.4 points and 2 assists a game in SEC play.
Anderson called the success, struggles and suspension part of the learning experience.
“Sometimes the hype is there and you start believing it. So sometimes that happens,” Anderson said. “The biggest thing, especially, for young players is to stay focused. When you have some success, be humble about it and just keep working, keep working. … It seems like now he’s got that pop back in him and he’s playing with confidence.”
Qualls believes it began with the dunk against Kentucky even though it took a little longer for the consistency to show. Kentucky coach John Calipari said the play was a clear sign of Qualls’ athleticism, turning in a game-winning bucket even when Arkansas’ final possession had seemingly broken down.
Calipari added that it says “a lot about the young man” to recover from the SEC struggles that plagued him earlier this season, too. But he also wouldn’t mind seeing Qualls go back into a slump tonight, when the Razorbacks try to sweep the season series against the Wildcats.
Qualls isn’t planning on it. Instead, he’s ready to play a big role on an important night.
“If you want to be better, if you want to be great, you can’t shy away from those type of moments,” Qualls said.