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Arkansas is winless on the road yet in the hunt for an NCAA bid

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Mardracus Wade (1), Rickey Scott (3) and Devonta Abron (4) (US Presswire)

If Arkansas is going to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years, it's certainly no mystery where the Razorbacks must improve.

They need to find a way to play at close to the same level on the road as they do at Bud Walton Arena.

Whereas Arkansas is unbeaten at home this season, the Razorbacks have lost all six games they've played away from Fayetteville by an average of more than 12 points. Opposing teams are averaging 53.1 percent shooting and 1.11 points per possession against Arkansas away from Bud Walton Arena, both more than 20 percent higher than the Razorbacks' season totals at home.

"We've done a good job of taking care of the home court, so now the next level for us is to go out on the road and prove we can do it," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said.

"We're a young basketball team, and it takes time for leadership to take place. That's what you have to have on the road. You have to have leadership. We've played some games on the road better than others. The last one at Alabama, we were right where we needed to be and we just didn't do a good job finishing."

The good news for the Razorbacks is that an NCAA tournament berth is well within reach if they can find a way to defeat teams below them in the SEC standings away from home. Arkansas (16-6, 4-3) tallied home wins against Mississippi State, Michigan and Vanderbilt last month, a good enough trio of victories to quietly elevate Anderson's team to the cusp of the at-large picture entering February.

The first opportunity for Arkansas to show improvement on the road will come Saturday at LSU. That starts a stretch of five out of eight away from home to finish SEC play, though all but the season finale against Mississippi State come against teams that aren't considered NCAA tournament contenders.

"If we can build our consistency, then I like our chances," Anderson said. "Typically the teams I've been associated with start picking up things in February and March and start playing our best basketball. Let's hope that's the case with this team."

It's a testament to the job Anderson has done since leaving Missouri last spring that the Razorbacks are in NCAA tournament contention at all.

Only two starters from last year's 18-win team returned this season after sweet-shooting senior-to-be Rotnei Clarke decided to transfer to Butler instead of staying to play under Anderson. The Razorbacks then lost their leading scorer and rebounder Marshawn Powell to a season-ending knee injury two games into the season.

A neutral-court loss to Houston in November and back-to-back road losses to UConn and Oklahoma in December didn't seem to bode well for Arkansas, but Anderson has since steadied things. The Razorbacks are one of the SEC's worst rebounding teams, but they make up for it with their frenetic pressing defense, leading the league in steals and forced turnovers and doing a credible job of turning those into easy buckets.

In the absence of Powell and Clarke, the highly touted freshman class that originally signed with former coach John Pelphrey has been forced to make immediate contributions. Guard B.J. Young leads Arkansas in scoring at 14.3 points per game in just 24.4 minutes, while fellow freshmen Rashad Madden and Hunter Mickelson are also receiving extended minutes.

"It has been by committee," Anderson said. "Everyone had to raise their level of play because we don't have Marshawn and he was a go-to-guy. Different games, it has been different guys stepping up."

When Anderson left Missouri to return to the school where he was an assistant under Nolan Richardson for 13 years, it was a difficult decision for him since he left a senior-laden team behind in Columbia. In retrospect, it looks like a good decision for both parties with Anderson helping to rejuvenate interest in the Arkansas program and Missouri thriving under Frank Haith's more conventional, structured approach.

"It was the toughest decision I've ever had to make," Anderson said. "It was my sixth year and we had seven seniors who had won 77 games. And on top of that, more so than very good players and a very good team, these were some great people. But at the end of the day, once we made that decision, it was made. I couldn't be more proud and happy for them that they've had success, but I'm also happy with where I'm at too."

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