Surging Arkansas hopes to stay focused, keep pushing for NCAA berth, after win at Kentucky
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas stepped squarely into the national spotlight — and NCAA tournament discussion — with its victory at Kentucky on Thursday night, the Razorbacks' second overtime win over the 17th-ranked Wildcats this season.
Now, coach Mike Anderson knows there's no time to let up for an Arkansas (19-9, 8-7 Southeastern Conference) team on the brink of earning its first postseason berth since 2008.
The surging Razorbacks, winners of six of their last seven games, host another of the SEC's hottest teams Saturday when Georgia visits what's expected to be a sold-out Bud Walton Arena.
Like Arkansas, the Bulldogs (16-11, 10-5) have won six of their last seven games — and they already own an overtime win over the Razorbacks on Jan. 18.
Arkansas moved up from 70th to No. 59 in the NCAA RPI numbers following its win over Kentucky. With only three regular-season games remaining, Anderson said they take on added importance as the Razorbacks try to play their win back into the NCAA tournament.
"Now they're more magnified," Anderson said. "Why? Because there are only so many games left."
Georgia hasn't played since a 71-56 win over Missouri on Tuesday night, providing an extra two days of recovery time compared to an Arkansas team that arrived home late Thursday night after its win in Rupp Arena.
The Razorbacks were greeted at the airport and arena parking lots by a handful of fans following the win in Lexington, and Anderson said they'll need the same kind of support on Saturday if they are to avoid a letdown following Thursday night's emotional win.
"You don't want to have the hangover effect," Anderson said. "... Of course, you know the guys are feeling good about themselves, but it's a quick, quick turnaround. So, we've got to muster up some kind of energy so we can go out and play against a rested-up Georgia team."
Arkansas won in Rupp Arena despite committing 20 turnovers, including six by junior guard Ky Madden. It did so, earning the school's first win at Lexington since its 1993-94 national championship season, behind seven points in overtime from senior Coty Clarke.
Clarke hit all four of his free throws in overtime, finishing a perfect 6 for 6 in the game and leading the Razorbacks — who combined to hit all 16 of their foul shots compared to a 12-of-22 effort from the Wildcats from the line.
The win was Arkansas' third road win in four games, a remarkable feat considering the school had won just one SEC road game in each of the last two seasons under Anderson.
It also showed just how far the Razorbacks have come this season since opening with a 2-6 mark in conference play, igniting a wave of good vibes on talk radio and message boards from a fan base that's been largely skeptical of Arkansas in its third season under Anderson.
Clarke said the recent improvement says a lot about the Razorbacks' improvement, and that he's doing his best not to look ahead to the postseason.
"Staying poised, staying with each other through adversity and everything," Clarke said. "We'll worry about Georgia now before we worry about postseason."
Following the game against the Bulldogs, Arkansas hosts Mississippi next week before closing out the regular season at Alabama.
Whatever happens down the stretch, for one night at least, the Razorbacks enjoyed their time in the national spotlight after sweeping the regular-season series against Kentucky.
Now, Anderson is ready to move on — and see where the recent success leads.
"I have already moved on to the next (game)," Anderson said. "... You do it on the national stage, obviously you get some people taking notice. But, more importantly, our focus is on getting ready for this next game."