FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas forward Bobby Portis was happy for a number of reasons after the Razorbacks’ annual game in North Little Rock last Saturday.
For starters, the Razorbacks won their fifth straight by beating South Alabama 70-62 in Verizon Arena. Portis, a Little Rock native, enjoyed a successful debut in front of his home crowd after scoring a team-high 15 points. But the best part, perhaps, was the opportunity to stay put for a few days over Christmas break.
"I haven’t been home since August, so my time here, I’m going to enjoy my family and my mom," Portis said. "I think it’s pretty cool for me to already be in Little Rock so I don’t have to travel to Birmingham or Memphis to go home. I’m already here."
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson turned his team free after the South Alabama win, giving them a chance to enjoy some family time at home this week.
Portis and forward Alandise Harris didn’t have to travel, considering they’re both from Little Rock. But playing in North Little Rock made the holiday trip much shorter for most of the Hogs like Ky Madden (Lepanto), Anthlon Bell and Mardracus Wade (Memphis), and Jacorey Williams (Birmingham).
So the Razorbacks won’t exactly be road weary over the break. That’s good news, considering Anderson expects his team back by 7 p.m. Christmas night as they begin preparation for the next Saturday’s game against High Point.
"We have a practice set up," Anderson said before turning his team loose. "I told them don’t be late, or they’ll have to pay the consequences."
The Razorbacks roll into Christmas with plenty of momentum after the South Alabama win. It was Arkansas’ fifth straight since returning to the state following a 1-2 performance at the Maui Invitational.
Most of them have come easy, too. Arkansas has three victories by 29 points or more, including a pair of 46-point wins against Southeastern Louisiana and Tennessee-Martin. The Razorbacks’ average margin of victory in the stretch — which also included a six-point win against Clemson — was 27.8 points.
The competition hasn’t offered big tests since Maui, but the Razorbacks believe their overall schedule continues to prepare them for Southeastern Conference play.
"I feel we’re in a good position," said Harris, who ranks third on the team in scoring (11.5 points a game). "We’ve won a couple good games, lost against two good teams. That made us learn the things we’ve got to do harder, or better. We’re just looking forward to these next couple games and getting ready for conference."
The Razorbacks have two more opportunities to fine-tune things when they return to Fayetteville. Arkansas plays High Point on Saturday, and takes another break before wrapping up nonconference play against Texas San-Antonio on Jan. 4.
Arkansas opens its 18-game SEC schedule at Texas A&M on Jan. 8.
"I feel like we’re pretty good right now," said Madden, who has scored in double figures during every game throughout the win streak. "We’re staying together, keep getting wins, and we’re working hard. And whatever happens, happens. That’s all we can control is day to day, and every day we plan to come out and work to get better. If we continue to do that, then we should be pretty straight."
Patience Pays Off
Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade had played only 23 minutes in Arkansas’ previous four games before the South Alabama win. But Anderson credited the senior — who did not get off the bench during two of those four games for the first time in his Arkansas career — for continuing to work to get back in the playing rotation.
"Most times guys get flustered or some guys will just kind of shut it down," Anderson said. "He’s starting to figure out I’ve got to fight if I’m going to get out on the floor. I’ve got to compete. And as I’m competing, I’ve got to take that same mindset when I get in the game whether it be for two minutes, four minutes, eight minutes. You never know with me because I’m going to go with the guys that it’s kind of like the hot hand. If that guy is going out there and he’s doing some things that are really helping our team we’re going to put him out there.
"So, to me, it’s good to see him respond in a positive way."
Wade logged 19 minutes — his second-highest total — in the South Alabama win, finishing with 5 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists.
Arkansas guard Rickey Scott left last Saturday’s game after being hit in the face by a South Alabama player trying to grab a rebound. Scott — who had four points before the injury — was helped off the court and didn’t return.
Anderson said he didn’t believe Scott suffered anything serious, though.
"He was ready to go back in if needed to be," Anderson said.
Guard Michael Qualls appeared to be in pain and held his elbow after getting the final points on a dunk. Anderson said Qualls was fine.
"He probably dunked too hard, knowing him," Anderson said.
Moses For 3
Arkansas forward Moses Kingsley took his first 3-pointer as a Razorback and made it in the first half of the South Carolina win.
Kingsley had the ball on the perimeter with the shot clock winding down, so he let it go before time expired. The ball bounced off the rim, kicked up in the air and fell through the basket to help the Razorbacks tie the game at 10-10.
"The good thing about it, just think about it, the clock was running down and he had the awareness," Anderson said after the game. "Maybe I should let him shoot some more threes. Nah, don’t write that. Don’t write that."
Arkansas blocked eight shots – which was two off its season high – against South Alabama, continuing to make an impact at the rim in nonconference play.
The Razorbacks are third in the Southeastern Conference in blocks this season, averaging 6.4 a game. Arkansas averaged 5 blocks a game last season.
"We’re blocking shots at a pretty good clip now," Anderson said. "We had 8 blocked shots tonight. So to me, we’re playing with our athletic ability."
The addition of Kingsley and Harris have made the biggest differences. Kingsley (2 blocks a game) and Harris (1.6) rank fourth and sixth, respectively, in the SEC.