FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) When Mike Anderson was hired at Arkansas in early 2011, he was considered the school's best chance at returning to national prominence.
Despite a once-promising start to this season, that hope for Anderson and the Razorbacks (12-4, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) has never seemed as far away as it does now following an 84-78 home loss to Mississippi State on Tuesday night.
Arkansas dropped from 27th to 41st in the NCAA's RPI ratings, but more importantly the loss left the Razorbacks with little room for error in their search for a postseason berth.
''Yeah, I've got tremendous concern, but at the same time, it's one game and it's four games into conference play,'' Anderson said. ''We can turn it around, and we will.''
Arkansas has reached the NCAA Tournament only once in its first five seasons under Anderson, the former assistant to Hall of Famer Nolan Richardson who had success at UAB and Missouri before returning to Fayetteville.
That's why this season was seen as critical for Anderson's long-term future with the Razorbacks, who followed a 27-win effort two seasons ago with a disappointing 16-16 record last year.
With preseason SEC Player of the Year Moses Kingsley and three of the top junior-college recruits in the country, the preseason expectations in Arkansas were relatively high.
Those expectations haven't changed, even after back-to-back home losses to open conference play for the first time since 2008-09 - putting the pressure squarely on Anderson.
''We've got to get this right,'' senior guard Dusty Hannahs said. ''None of us are trying to do anything close to last year or anything like that. We all know what we want to do, and we need to come together as a team and make it happen.''
Part of the reason for the early SEC struggles has been the schedule, with losses to No. 23 Florida and No. 6 Kentucky. However, a road win at Tennessee last week showed Arkansas' promise - right up until the clunker against a Bulldogs team that has lost to Central Florida, Lehigh and East Tennessee State this season.
A familiar problem showed itself in the loss for the Razorbacks, who allowed Mississippi State to connect on 12 3-pointers. Arkansas was 247th in the country in scoring defense last season, allowing 74.7 points per game, and it's currently 216th while allowing opponents to score an average of 73.3 per game.
''We've got to right the ship,'' Anderson said. ''That's the key, getting back on the same page about what we want to do defensively.''
The road back to the NCAA Tournament won't be an easy one for Arkansas, particularly with only one remaining game against a ranked opponent - at Florida on March 1. Before the Razorbacks can worry about any postseason destinations, however, they have to win the games they're expected to.
That begins on Saturday against a Missouri team that's lost seven straight games.
''We didn't think we were going to be in this situation, but we've got to come out and try to win Saturday,'' Kingsley said.
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