FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas couldn’t produce a winning record during its three-game stint at the Maui Invitational last week, but guard Kikko Haydar believes the Razorbacks still secured something important in paradise.
A legitimate win outside the state.
"It’s definitely a big win for us," Haydar said, referring to last Tuesday’s 87-73 win against Minnesota. "It kind of gets that monkey off our back that we’ve had for awhile. We know we can win away from here and that was a few miles away from here. That was far away. So it brings us confidence."
The Minnesota win was Arkansas’ third away from home under coach Mike Anderson. The previous two came in Southeastern Conference play, when the Razorbacks beat struggling SEC opponent Auburn in 2011 and 2012. The win in Maui also was Arkansas’ first in nonconference play outside of Arkansas since former coach John Pelphrey’s team beat Seton Hall in Louisville on Dec. 8, 2010.
While it didn’t eliminate Arkansas’ disappointment in losses to California (85-77) and Gonzaga (91-81) to open and close the tournament, respectively, Anderson still saw plenty of promise in the experience as the Razorbacks (4-2) return home to play Southeastern Louisiana (3-3) in Bud Walton Arena at 7 p.m. tonight.
"I think we got better," Anderson said. "I think it benefitted us. I think we’ll find out how much better we have gotten here in the month of December."
Tonight’s game tips off a seven-game stretch of games that will be played in Arkansas. Six of them will come in Bud Walton Arena, while the seventh – against South Alabama – is played in North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena on Dec. 21.
Arkansas won’t go on the road again until it opens conference play at Texas A&M on Jan. 8. So Anderson said Arkansas’ trip to Maui — and its small taste of success while there — was important as the Razorbacks continue to grow.
"We learned a lot more about ourselves," Anderson said. "We are not as good as we think we are. There is room for improvement and it’s early in the year. So if we are going to learn, lets learn our lessons in the environment such as we had in Hawaii."
There was plenty to digest. For starters: Arkansas was dominated physically in its opening loss to California, struggling to keep the Golden Bears off the glass. But forwards like Bobby Portis, Coty Clarke and Moses Kingsley responded to the challenge the next game, shoving back in the Minnesota win.
"It was just one of them days," Clarke said. "You have to readjust and look yourself in the mirror and see what you have to do better. … We came out when we played Minnesota and tried our best to get every board and every rebound. We just had to make that adjustment. And that’s the adjustment we made."
There was inconsistent guard play throughout the tournament. There were some defensive struggles, too, against No. 9 Gonzaga. Guard Kevin Pangos scored 34 points, while Arkansas surrendered a season-high 91 points in the loss.
But Anderson was impressed with the way his team responded to the California loss last Monday. Arkansas trailed Minnesota at halftime before overwhelming the Golden Gophers in the second half with its length, athleticism and pressure defense.
"These guys are like a sponge," Anderson said. "They want to be coached. They want to get better. That’s why I really like this basketball team. So my expectations haven’t changed at all. As a matter of fact, it kind of opened my eyes up to even some more possibilities with this basketball team."
So the Razorbacks believe the trip, as a whole, was important even with two losses.
"I think we learned we’re a good team," Haydar said. "I think we were exposed on some things and we made mistakes and that’s what happens when you play other good teams. But we took positives out of it. We took that we can compete with anybody in the country. And I think the fans saw that."
Arkansas returned home from Hawaii on Friday morning, took the day off, then began preparation for the home stand. Anderson doesn’t believe the lengthy will affect his team when it returns to the court against Southeastern Louisiana.
The Lions are playing their third SEC opponent tonight after losing to Missouri (89-53) in the season opener on Nov. 8 and at LSU (89-66) on Nov. 22). Southeastern Louisiana has never beaten Arkansas in four tries, but tested the Razorbacks throughout a 62-55 loss during Anderson’s first season in 2011-12.
Anderson said it’s important team his team builds on its Maui Invitational experience by taking another step forward — no matter the opponent — tonight.
"It’s not like they haven’t played anybody," Anderson said. "They’ve played some teams. So they won’t come in here fearing anything, and we’re just going off of a trip.
"I just want to see how we respond not only after the loss to Gonzaga, but the travel as well, and getting back into a routine of being in school."