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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – After three seasons of patience, Mike Anderson knows the time for a return to the NCAA tournament is now at Arkansas.
The fourth-year coach, finally with a full complement of depth on his roster, begins this season with his highest level of expectations since leaving Missouri for the school he won a national championship with as an assistant 20 years ago.
Arkansas nearly reached the NCAA tournament last season thanks to a late six-game winning streak. However, a pair of losses ended those hopes — sending the Razorbacks to the NIT instead and extending their NCAA drought to six seasons.
Three of those seasons have come under Anderson's watch, though none have featured the lofty expectations Arkansas begins with this year.
And that's just fine with Anderson.
"I'm more comfortable with my team now," Anderson said. "Why? Because I've got guys that fit what I'm doing."
What Anderson plans to do this season is build off a talented frontcourt that's led by returning All-Southeastern Conference performer Bobby Portis. The 6-foot-11 sophomore averaged 12.3 points last season, and his return is a key reason why the Razorbacks were picked to finish third in the SEC behind NCAA powers Kentucky and Florida.
Whether Arkansas can live up to its early praise hinges on the development of Portis' interior game as well as the improvement of high-flying forwards Alandise Harris and Michael Qualls — both regulars on national highlight shows last season because of their powerful dunks.
Including Portis, Harris and Qualls, the Razorbacks return six of their top seven scorers from last season. That also includes senior guard Ky Madden, who led Arkansas with an average of 12.7 points and had 11 assists in the team's preseason scrimmage Thursday night.
All in all, it's a team with plenty of experience and confidence.
"This is a totally different feeling," Qualls said. "Everybody knows what we have to do, the type of success that we want. This unit that we have is the best I've seen since I've been here."
Five points to watch as Arkansas has its sights set on its first NCAA tournament berth since 2008:
FASTEST 40 MINUTES: Arkansas led the SEC and was 16th nationally in scoring last season, averaging 80.1 points per game on its way to a 22-12 record. Anderson will continue to push the tempo this season, and he has the experience to do so — with eight returning players who helped the Razorbacks lead the SEC with 8.4 steals per game last season.
POWERFUL PORTIS: As good as Portis was last season, he struggled at times to finish close to the basket against stronger interior competition. The sophomore spent much of his offseason working on his post moves, and he's added nearly 10 pounds and now weighs in at 243 pounds. His evolution into more of an interior weapon could provide Arkansas with a reliable go-to offensive option as well as propel Portis into next year's NBA draft.
POINT OF ATTACK: The Razorbacks led the SEC in assists last season, averaging 15.3, but the lack of a playmaking point guard often hurt in late-game situations when Arkansas needed someone to break a defender down off the dribble. Anderson hopes he's found the answer at point guard with the arrival of junior-college transfer Jabril Durham, who averaged 21.2 points and 6.7 assists last season at Seminole State College.
OTHER NEWCOMERS: While Durham could have the most immediate impact this season, Arkansas has five other newcomers — four who could play — this season. They include West Virginia transfer Keaton Miles, who sat out last season, as well freshmen Trey Thompson, Nick Babb and Anton Beard. Also, junior Dusty Hannahs transferred from Texas Tech but must sit out this season.
BELL'S BREAKOUT: Junior Anthlon Bell tied for the most 3-pointers made on Arkansas last year with 50, doing so despite only averaging 16.1 minutes per game. The 6-foot-3 guard started to show flashes of his long-range shooting ability late last season, scoring a career-high 28 points in an opening-round NIT win over Indiana State, and Anderson expects him to improve his 33.1 percent 3-point shooting this season.