CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Bobby Portis didn’t know much about what the city of Charlotte meant to the 1993-94 Arkansas team that won the national championship. In fact, he hadn’t even been born yet when the Razorbacks cut down the nets, and the building where they beat Duke to win the title on that long ago April night, the Charlotte Coliseum, no longer exists. So when the Arkansas basketball representatives flew into Charlotte for SEC media day and head coach Mike Anderson, who was a Razorbacks assistant from 1985 to 2002, started pointing out spots he remembered from the Final Four, Portis noticed a shift in his coach’s attitude.
“Coach A’s not the type of guy that harps on talking about the NCAA tournament and national championships,” Portis said last Wednesday. “But something this year I’ve seen that’s different from last year, he’s preaching more on us finishing our games. Last year we were this close from being there.”
Indeed, last season Arkansas went 22-12 but stayed home from the Big Dance, in part because it lost two games in overtime (one to Florida, which went undefeated in the league) by a combined seven points, another by one point and still another by two points. Had the Hogs won those games, they may have reached their first NCAA tournament since 2008. Instead, they settled for the NIT and got bounced in the second round.
Portis certainly did his part during a strong freshman season. The 6-11 forward from Little Rock, a five-star recruit out of high school, averaged 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game to go with 1.6 blocks. He was also the only Razorback to start every game last year. He'll get help this season from returning guards Rashad “Ky” Madden (12.7 points, 2.8 assists) and Michael Qualls (11.6 points, 4.5 rebounds) and forward Alandise Harris (9.0 points, 3.3 rebounds).
Arkansas also brings in junior college transfer Jabril Durham and will have junior forward Keaton Miles, who sat out last season after transferring from West Virginia. All those pieces were enough to convince media members to vote the Razorbacks third in the preseason SEC poll behind Kentucky and Florida.
Anderson is certainly hoping the lessons from an up-and-down 2013-14 season will stick with his team. Whether it is grabbing rebounds early to keep teams from getting second-chance opportunities, putting teams away by hitting free throws or simply not allowing themselves to get beaten by a team that is not as big or strong as they are, the Razorbacks have to bring a finisher’s mentality into an SEC that league coaches claim is stronger than people are giving it credit for.
“It’s like anything else,” said Anderson. “You’ve got to go through some things to get where you want to go. We experienced those, and we came out on the other side of them. [...] Now they understand the things you’ve got to do in order to win.”
If they don't do those things, the Hogs could fall into the same traps as they did last year. Getting beaten at Texas A&M by 16 in early January looked bad. Losing 83-58 at Alabama in a March game that Arkansas desperately couldn’t afford to lose looked worse. The Razorbacks' slim tournament hopes were officially extinguished when they were upset by South Carolina, 71-69, in their first game of the SEC tournament, after a Portis shot rimmed out.
“We had a shot to win it and we didn’t,” Anderson said. “You give me that same situation, I’ll let Bobby take that shot again. I like our chances now.”
If Arkansas is going to make a jump in Year Four under Anderson, it will likely coincide with one from Portis, who made second-team All-SEC last year.
This year, Portis has said he wants to average a double-double, which bodes well for a team that has made rebounding a priority after finishing a middling seventh in the league with 35.9 boards per game a year ago.
“Rebounding is the ending of the defense,” Portis said. “You can play defense for 33 seconds or 34 seconds and they can shoot, and they get the rebound back and there’s no point in playing defense. If me and Alandise and all the other guys rebound, then we’ll be right there.”
Don’t expect Arkansas to fly under the radar, though, at least not among SEC circles.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin said at media day that it “broke [his] heart” to see his team’s SEC tournament win over the Razorbacks end their NCAA hopes. Kentucky's John Calipari isn’t taking the team lightly after Arkansas swept the Wildcats in two matchups last season, and Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has called the Hogs “a team to be reckoned with.”
The Razorbacks finished last season at No. 52 in the KenPom ratings and 67th in RPI, just on the cusp of an at-large bid, and KenPom is bullish on them heading into this season, pegging them at No. 44 in the predictive model with another 20-win season on tap.
“We’re in a great position,” Harris said. “The odds aren’t really that against us. Everybody’s expecting us to do it this year. Last year, it was all ‘the odds are against y’all. Y’all are not gonna make it. They were right.’ But now they expect us to make it and they put us third. They expect us to do it, so I guess we’ve got to do what they expect.”
With nonconference games against power five opponents Wake Forest, Iowa State and Clemson, as well as tilts against Dayton and SMU, Arkansas will have some chances to help its tournament résumé before conference play, an opportunity that has evaded some of the non-Florida and Kentucky SEC teams in the recent past.
Should they make it to the Big Dance,there’s a chance the Razorbacks will go through Charlotte, which is one of the host cities for the second and third rounds. If that’s the case, Anderson can share some more memories of the Razorbacks’ title with his entire team – and possibly make a few new ones.
“When you win a national championship you own the city,” Anderson said. “The banners that came down at the Coliseum, I still have some of those at my house. I have a lot of fond memories here.”