FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas had plenty of confidence entering its Southeastern Conference opener, believing its road woes were a thing of the past.
So the first result — a 69-53 loss to Texas A&M — surprised the Razorbacks.
“It humbles you,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said about the loss, which snapped a seven-game win streak. “You think you’re playing well, you think you’re a pretty good basketball team. We won so many games in a row.
“Now, all the sudden, you get smacked in the face.”
Anderson is hoping the bruises disappear today, when the Razorbacks (11-3, 0-1 in Southeastern Conference) try to bounce back from the poor performance against No. 10 Florida (12-2, 1-0 in SEC) in Bud Walton Arena. Arkansas will put its 23-game win streak in Fayetteville on the line, beginning an important four-day stretch that also includes next Tuesday’s game against 14th-ranked Kentucky.
Forward Alandise Harris said preserving the home win streak is a source of motivation for the Razorbacks, whose early-season swagger took a hit in College Station, Texas, on Wednesday night. But the junior knows Arkansas is capable of bouncing back against the Gators because of what it has accomplished at home.
“It’s like an extra edge,” Harris said. “People already have a little bit on their mind because they’re already scared of the pressure. They know that it’s very hard to win here. So it already gives you just an extra edge.”
Florida understands after last season’s 80-69 loss. The Gators had won 10 straight and rose to No. 2 in the country before its road trip to Bud Walton Arena.
The Razorbacks responded by knocking down 14 of their first 18 shots to ambush the Gators, building as much as a 23-point lead in the first half. Arkansas never relinquished it, celebrating its biggest win to date under Anderson.
“I don’t know what it is, but when they’re there and they’re a completely different team,” Florida center Patric Young told reporters in Gainesville, Fla. “We have to prepare for that. We can’t take them lightly like we did last year. We have to be ready for the first punch they might throw at us, react and stay together.”
But to duplicate the feat, the Razorbacks must improve after struggling through their latest road disaster. Arkansas opened conference play with a double-digit loss at Texas A&M for the second straight season in their first true road game.
Leading scorers Michael Qualls and Bobby Portis combined for just nine points on 4-for-22 shooting. The Razorbacks missed 11 layups and half of their free throws.
“I think our guys were disappointed, but I don’t think they were discouraged,” Anderson said. “I thought they played hard. I thought nerves were going. I thought we missed some shots early on, and I thought that just triggered on other parts of the game. … But as I told them, that’s just one game.”
So Arkansas guard Anthlon Bell said the Razorbacks shook off the frustration in practice sessions Thursday and Friday. He said Qualls and Portis looked confident, too, seeming to move past the ugly night against the Aggies.
Anderson plans to shuffle his lineup as well in hopes of sparking the Hogs. Qualls, who has come off the bench six of the past eight games, will be back with the starters.
“It’s time,” Anderson said. “It’s time for it.”
Florida, meanwhile, won’t be at full strength today. Coach Billy Donovan announced that his leading scorer – forward Casey Prather – won’t be available because of a knee injury. Prather is averaging 17.7 points a game this season and leads the Southeastern Conference in field goal percentage (62.4 percent).
Prather’s absence isn’t the end of the injury report, either. Starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who is Florida’s second-leading scorer (12.3 points a game), suffered an ankle injury late in the win against South Carolina and is questionable today. So is Young, who is dealing with tendinitis in his knees.
Young said he plans to be “full-go.” Either way, Florida’s depth will be tested.
“We’ll go in there as best we can and do the best job we can with what we’ve got,” Donovan said. “We’ll see who’s available.”
Anderson expects Florida — which did end Arkansas’ 17-0 start in Bud Walton Arena in 2011-12 with a 98-68 win — to be prepared no matter who is on the floor.
He’s confident the Razorbacks will be ready, too, after watching them bounce back from a first-game loss to California at the Maui Invitational earlier this season.
Anderson said Arkansas is much better than the team that struggled against the Aggies. The Hogs need to show it as they try to extend their home win streak today.
“To me, this will be the true test of our team, what kind of team we’re going to be,” Anderson said.