FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas recognized the possibility as soon as the National Invitation Tournament bracket was revealed last Sunday night.
They didn’t want to talk about it then. There was a first-round game with Indiana State to take care of first. But sophomore Anthlon Bell made it clear a rematch with California — which beat the Razorbacks 85-78 in the Maui Invitational — was in Arkansas’ mind as it began postseason play last week.
"Of course you want another shot," Bell said. "It’s just a natural instinct. But we didn’t want to look ahead. So we’ve got them now. So we’re ready to play."
Arkansas (22-11) will get its chance to make amends for the early-season loss to the Golden Bears (20-13) at Cal’s Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, Calif., tonight.
This time, the season will be at stake for both teams. The winner advances to play a third-round game against either Southern Methodist or LSU, moving closer to a spot in the NIT Final Four in New York City. The Razorbacks will try to take the next step by winning their first NIT road game on Cal’s home court.
"We want to get revenge," Bell said.
Arkansas will need a better performance on the boards to accomplish it.
The Golden Bears – who were led by big men David Kravish and Richard Solomon — opened the Maui Invitational last November by outrebounding Arkansas 48-32. They collected 19 offensive rebounds, outscored the Razorbacks 24-10 on second-chance points and handed Arkansas its first loss of the season.
Kravish had 19 points and 15 rebounds in the win. Solomon added 11 points and 7 rebounds. Meanwhile, Arkansas freshman Bobby Portis had 5 points and 1 rebound, enduring his first frustrating performance as a Razorback.
Portis said he sat on the beach alone after the loss. He also met with Anderson one-on-one in hopes of finding ways to improve after the difficult game.
"They did a really good job of dominating the boards, and I thought that was the difference," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "They attacked us on the glass, got to the free-throw line and got some easy buckets, and got second and third efforts. We have to negate that by putting body on body."
Portis and the Hogs will see a significant change to Cal’s lineup in the rematch.
Solomon, who is averaging 11 points a game and a team-high 10.2 rebounds, won’t play for the second straight game because of a concussion. The Golden Bears didn’t struggle in their first game without the Pac-12’s top rebound — a 77-64 win against Utah Valley — but faces a bigger test in the Arkansas frontcourt tonight.
Portis, who said after the Indiana State win he was eager for the second chance at Cal, will get an opportunity to show his progress since November. So will freshman Moses Kingsley, who didn’t play in the first meeting, but has been key off the bench.
"Our guys are a little bit more seasoned," Anderson said. "They have got a little more experience. You take that game and you build on it with the nonconference schedule and then go through with one of the more athletic leagues in the country such as the SEC. So (Portis) has been against (LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant). He has been against the kids at Kentucky. He has played against some pretty good players.
"So hopefully that experience will help us as we move on into this tournament."
But Anderson stressed the task can’t fall on Portis and the frontcourt alone.
It’s no secret Arkansas’ rebounding — from all positions — has been an issue most of the season. The Razorbacks have typically enjoyed success when they make shots, get out in transition and harass opponents with their pressure. But rebounding woes have cost them at times, even when they were successful in other areas.
So guard Ky Madden said the Razorbacks can’t afford another bad performance.
"We’ve got to rebound together as a team," Madden said. "Us guards don’t put it on the bigs. We’ve got to go down there and help those guys rebound."
Bell showed it can be done in the backcourt against Indiana State win, collecting a career-high 6 rebounds. The Hogs dominated the smaller Sycamores throughout the first-round win, finishing with one of its biggest advantages of the year (46-32).
There’s no doubt Arkansas faces a much bigger test in its second-round game.
But the Hogs are determined to take advantage of their second chance at Cal.
"We have to do our jobs and we didn’t do it very well," Anderson said looking back at the November loss. "We have some things we have got to get better at and this game will give us an opportunity. We played Indiana State and did what we are supposed to do in terms of rebounding the basketball. Now let’s see if there is some carryover to get ready to play a much better basketball team."