FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Bobby Portis has talked frequently throughout the season about what he considers his wake-up call to college basketball.
The Arkansas freshman will have a chance to make amends for one of the most difficult games of his young career when the third-seeded Razorbacks (22-11) visit California in the second round of the NIT on Monday night.
Portis, a McDonald's All-America in high school, entered this season full of expectations — both for himself and from a fan base eager to see the Little Rock native lead Arkansas back to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
For the most part, Portis has met — if not exceeded — those expectations. The 6-foot-10 forward is second on the Razorbacks in scoring with an average of 12.3 points per game, and he was recently named to the All-Southeastern Conference second team.
Despite the accolades, however, Portis has had his share of ups and downs this season.
His high point was unquestionably a career-high 35-point effort in a win over Alabama on Feb. 5, a game in which he scored 29 of Arkansas' first 35 points.
The low point?
None other than the Razorbacks' first matchup against the second-seeded Bears (20-13), an 85-77 loss at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 25. Portis, in just his fourth collegiate game, had just five points on 1-of-5 shooting in the loss.
He played 28 minutes in the game and had as many combined rebounds and turnovers (5) as he did points, leading to a long walk on the beach afterward as well as a talk with Arkansas coach Mike Anderson about where he needed to improve.
"He was eager to find out what could he do to be better, how can he be more effective for our basketball team," Anderson said. "And I think we have seen this guy really kind of blossom a little bit. Nowhere near what he is going to be, but he has gotten better."
Whatever Anderson said following the loss worked for Portis, who scored in double figures in his next nine games.
Portis, who had a career-high 13 rebounds in the opening-round NIT win over Indiana State, was eager at the prospect of a rematch with the Bears following the win over the Sycamores. He was also ready to atone for a 48-32 rebounding edge by California in the first game.
"I think it'll be a good game for us, because we lost to them in Maui," Portis said. "So, this time around, we're going to look for a win."
Arkansas had hoped a late-season eight-game winning streak would be enough to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008, but it faltered with losses at Alabama and to South Carolina at the SEC tournament.
The Razorbacks didn't show any leftover disappointment in their NIT fate in the win over Indiana State, with sophomore guard Anthlon Bell scoring a career-high 28 points in the 91-71 win.
That game was at home in Bud Walton Arena.
Monday night, however, will be a true road game — unlike when the teams met on a neutral court in November. Arkansas is just 3-6 on the road this season, but Anderson and the rest of the Razorbacks are counting on a newfound confidence — as well as a matured Portis — to show California how far they have come.
"I expect a totally different Bobby," Arkansas senior Mardracus Wade said. "He's gotten better since that game. I feel like he's going to come out with a lot of energy and a lot of effort and he's going to help this basketball team out."