FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Even before his dunk against Kentucky, Arkansas' Michael Qualls was off to a strong start for the Razorbacks.
A poor start to Southeastern Conference play, however, has gotten in the way. Arkansas, which hosts Auburn (8-8, 0-5) on Saturday, has lost four of its first five games in SEC play.
If the Razorbacks (12-6, 1-4 SEC) are going to bounce back, they need better play from Qualls — the athletic sophomore who made highlight shows across the country last week with his spectacular dunk against the No. 14 Wildcats just before the buzzer in overtime.
Qualls, his team's leading scorer for much of the season, had 18 points in the win against Kentucky. None were bigger than his put-back slam that gave the Razorbacks their first conference win.
The performance, though, has turned out to be one of the few bright spots since the start of SEC play for the 6-foot-6 guard from Shreveport, La.
After an 0-for-3 shooting effort in a loss to Tennessee, Qualls is 9 of 49 from the field against SEC opponents. The performance against the Volunteers came in a season-low 10 minutes for Qualls, who coach Mike Anderson said had struggled in practice leading into the game.
"In the conference, they pay a little more attention to you," Anderson said. "I think it's a little bit more physical and people are putting bodies on him. I think the sense of urgency turns up a different notch, and hopefully he'll be able to bring his game up to that level."
Qualls was averaging a team-high 13.7 points per game in nonconference games, including a season-high 21 points in a loss to California at the Maui Invitational.
During nonconference play, he scored in single digits just once — something he's done three times in five games in the SEC. He scored two points in a loss at Texas A&M, three in an overtime defeat at Georgia and then a season-low one point against Tennessee.
The performances have included a 1-for-12 shooting effort against the Aggies and a 1-for-10 performance against the Bulldogs.
Qualls wasn't made available to talk with the media on Friday, but his teammates were quick to point out his hard work and the need for him to regain his early season form.
"He's a guy that we definitely need to get going and somebody that we look to to make plays for us," Arkansas guard Fred Gulley said. "He's kind of been in a struggle lately, but every player goes through that. He's working hard to get out of that and be able to help the team in any way possible."
Qualls' latest difficult game caused his scoring average to drop to 11.8 points per game this season, just below Ky Madden's 11.9.
Still, he leads the Razorbacks with an average of 2.3 assists per game and is third on the team with an average of 4.9 rebounds per game.
Against Georgia, despite his shooting woes, Qualls had seven rebounds and five assists — numbers Anderson would like to see more of even when the sophomore is struggling with his shot.
"We try to tell him to not even worry about scoring, because he can impact the game without scoring a point," guard Kikko Haydar said. "That Kentucky game, he did a lot of other things than just dunking the basketball at the end. We need him to bring his energy, and I'm sure he'll do it."