FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Ky Madden couldn’t live up to expectations his first two seasons with the Razorbacks, struggling on and off the court.
He was supposed to be a scorer, but rarely reached double figures. He was expected to mature, but was still trying to follow team rules off the floor.
The combination had Madden sinking to a self-described low point last season, creeping dangerously close to becoming another impressive high school talent who failed to materialize in college basketball.
So there weren’t many who would’ve predicted this: Madden has become Arkansas’ most important and consistent performer in Southeastern Conference play.
"Who would have ever thought it?" Madden said after leading Arkansas to a win against Kentucky last month. "Me, being a go-to guy for this season and this team."
Arkansas (13-7, 2-5 in SEC) will carry its conference struggles on the road today, facing the Tigers (13-6, 4-3 in SEC) in the Maravich Assembly Center at 4:05 p.m. There hasn’t been much going right for the Razorbacks lately, but it has become abundantly clear that Madden’s performance is vital to their hopes of turning things around in time to make a push for postseason play.
The Lepanto native has emerged as Arkansas’ top threat, averaging a team-high 12.9 points a game. He has been especially impressive in conference play, averaging 17.7 points in seven games. Madden has topped the 20-point mark three times during that stretch and is the SEC’s sixth-highest scorer in conference games.
"He’s playing really confident basketball," Arkansas guard Fred Gulley said. "Everybody can come out and do it one game, but he’s been doing it game in and game out. It’s something that we really need and we’re looking for from him now."
It’s a surprise, considering Madden averaged only 5.4 points in 63 games entering the season. But the program’s most reliable player said he’s relieved to finally see the results after two seasons he described as "humbling."
"Coming out of high school and being a top player in the country and having high expectations, you know, the first couple years weren’t great years," Madden said. "But it just humbled me a lot. Just knowing what I’ve got to do and focus on life and not just basketball. Being serious about everything.
"I feel like that’s what I did and it’s looking pretty good."
It wasn’t easy. Madden arrived at Arkansas as part of the program’s highly regarded 2011 signing class, joining guard BJ Young, Hunter Mickelson and Devonta Abron.
Young was the only member of the group who enjoyed instant success, leaving the program for a professional career after just two seasons. Abron transferred to Texas Christian after the 2011-12 season. Mickelson transferred to Kansas last summer.
Madden, meanwhile, was searching for answers after struggling through most of his first two seasons. He averaged 4.2 points and 16.8 minutes a game last season.
Madden got some advice from his cousin, former Arkansas football and basketball player Marcus Monk. Madden always looked up to Monk and valued his opinion. So he listened when Monk — now a student assistant — sat him down.
"He asked me, ‘What do I want to do? Turn the page and move forward? Or stay in the same spot I am and be average?’" Madden said. "Nobody wants to be average. I want to be the best, so in order to be the best you’ve got to put in the work."
Madden stayed in Fayetteville throughout the long offseason, never making the trip back home to East Arkansas. He spent more quality time in the gym than he had during any other point in his career, too. It included ample practice on his 3-point shot, which had been lacking through two seasons.
Madden said it wasn’t about spending a certain amount of time or getting an exact number of shots each day. It was simply about making sure every moment counted.
"I worked (in the past), but it was just going to work because that’s what you have to do," Madden said. "It wasn’t just productive. It was just going in and shooting around for 30 or 40 minutes just to say I was in the gym every day. It wasn’t working in the gym every day. When I came (last offseason), I was in here for an hour, two hours and I didn’t want to leave."
He has worked hard in other ways, too. Madden served his share of suspensions for violating team rules during his career. It included a two-game suspension earlier this season, which forced him to miss the season opener.
But Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said Madden’s maturation has been evident.
"I think Ky is just getting more serious about basketball and school, too," Anderson said. "It kind of goes hand in hand. And so he’s doing well in school and he’s doing well on the court. And he’s having a better understanding of what we want for him."
Madden hasn’t been perfect, making some mistakes down the stretch in losses. But it’s hard to imagine where Arkansas would be without his work in SEC play.
He had 23 points to help the Razorbacks push Florida to overtime earlier in the month. Madden added 18 points in the win against Kentucky, then recorded a career-high 24 to lead Arkansas to a win against Auburn last Saturday.
He’s coming off a 20-point performance in Arkansas’ loss at Missouri last Tuesday, which included a key 3-point play that helped the Razorbacks tie the game with 1:59 remaining. Madden couldn’t duplicate a minute later, though, missing a short runner with the Razorbacks trailing in its eventual 75-71 loss.
But Madden is shooting 51.3 percent from the field this season, including 47.2 percent behind the 3-point line (34 of 72). He was 24-for-106 (22.6 percent) from 3-point range his first two seasons and shot 41 percent from the field overall.
"It’s confidence and opportunity," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said about Madden’s improvement. "Last year’s team was built around BJ and his ability to score. Now with him going, he fits into that role perfectly. He scores it the same way if not even better with his ability to shoot the ball from behind the 3."
He can’t carry Arkansas alone, of course. But Madden’s continued success will remain vital to a program trying to dig its way out of a hole now.
It’s a responsibility Madden worked hard to reach. And it’s one he relishes.
"The coaches and my teammates have the confidence in me to go to me," Madden said. "They’ve seen the work I’ve put in and they’ve always believed in me. When you’ve got somebody behind you believing in you, just the coach, the whole team, I don’t want to let them down. So it drives me to go harder and harder and harder — just for my team and for the state."