FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2014, file photo, Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson, center, waits with his team after an overtime victory in an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky in Fayetteville, Ark. After a dismal start to SEC play, things don't get easier for Arkansas over the next two weeks, beginning at LSU on Saturday.(AP Photo/Gareth Patterson, File)The Associated Press
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Mike Anderson won't go so far as to call Arkansas' recent struggles the most difficult stretch of his three years with the Razorbacks.
"Challenging, how about that?" the coach said. "I'd say challenging."
However Anderson characterizes Arkansas' fall from preseason NCAA tournament hopeful to Southeastern Conference also-ran, one thing has become clear in Fayetteville this week if Internet message boards and talk radio are any indication: The honeymoon is over for Anderson, the former Arkansas assistant under Nolan Richardson who left Missouri following the 2010-11 season to return to the school he called home for 17 seasons.
The Razorbacks (13-7, 2-5 SEC) enter Saturday's game at LSU having lost five of seven to open conference play, including Tuesday's 75-71 loss to Missouri. It was Arkansas' second defeat of the season at home, where it was undefeated last season in the SEC.
If the Razorbacks were hoping for a reprieve on the road against the Tigers (13-6, 4-3), that's not likely to happen — especially considering LSU is coming off a wire-to-wire win over No. 11 Kentucky on Tuesday.
"We've just got to get to the point where we finish the win," Anderson said. "I think they're competing; they're battling. ... But we've got to be able to finish. We've got to make plays."
The game marks the beginning of a stretch of three out of four games on the road for Arkansas, which has struggled mightily to win away from Bud Walton Arena under Anderson. The Razorbacks are just 2-18 on the road in the SEC under Anderson, with one win in each of the last two seasons.
Arkansas has lost its three conference road games this season, the latest a disheartening 81-74 defeat at Tennessee — a game in which the Razorbacks led until the closing minutes.
As difficult to explain as the road woes have been for Arkansas, its struggles have been muted somewhat in Fayetteville by what has been a remarkable home record.
That is, until recently — when the Razorbacks lost two of their last three games at home. Talk radio was filled with anti-Anderson commentary the day following the Missouri loss this week.
Despite Arkansas' recent struggles, LSU coach Johnny Jones is well aware of the Razorbacks' potential. Like the Tigers, Arkansas has a win over Kentucky on its resume — and junior Ky Madden is averaging 17.7 points per game in SEC play.
Jones, however, is also aware of the potential for an LSU letdown following its convincing victory in Rupp Arena on Tuesday. Junior forward Johnny O'Bryant had 29 points and nine rebounds, shooting 12 of 20 from the field.
"Certainly, (we're) coming off an emotional game with one of the top-ranked teams in the country," Jones said. "But we understand the ramifications of our next game if, in fact, we don't approach it the way we should and make sure that our focus and attention is certainly on (Arkansas)."
While LSU is looking to continue trending upward in Jones' second season, Anderson has continued to face questions about the Razorbacks' road struggles.
Now, he's also faced with questions about protecting the home court — something he hopes to quell with a win against the Tigers.
"Players making plays," Anderson said. "I think that's going to be the biggest key. Players taking plays, taking on the initiative, the ownership. ... And so, it's an experience factor. We're getting a lot of experience, let me put it that way. So, it's time for us to cash in on that."