For the past several seasons, the Arkansas basketball team has stumbled to the finish line.
But second-year Razorback head coach Mike Anderson – whose team has won four of its last five games - doesn't see that happening in 2013 as his team heads into its final six regular season contests.
That stretch begins Thursday night at 6 p.m. when Arkansas (16-9, 7-5) hosts Georgia (12-13, 6-6) at Bud Walton Arena in a game that will be televised by ESPN2..
"This is a fun time of the year," Anderson said. " I think when you want to be one of the better teams in your league, you've got to play these teams. They're challenges, but at the same time, they're opportunities. There are six games left, and every game is a big game. The focus of our guys, though, is going to be on each and every day. I can't say it enough, emphasize it enough.
"…I think it's important to play some of your better basketball at this time of the year," Anderson added. " They're going in the right direction, talking about peaking and playing some of your better basketball. I'm not saying we're peaking, because I don't think we've hit on all cylinders yet. But I think we're getting a better understanding of who we are. That identity is starting to show. I can just see it in how we play, offensively, defensively.
"…We are trending the right way," Anderson continued.
Anderson's first Razorback team lost 8 of its last 10 games when low numbers caught up with Arkansas and it hit a wall.
That should not be the case this season according to Arkansas junior forward Marshawn Powell (15.2, 5.4), the SEC's reigning Player of the Week.
"We really don't think about the past," Powell said. "This is a different team from two or three years ago, different from last year. We have everybody now, and hopefully we'll have everybody through the rest of the season. We're just going to keep trying to get better, and hopefully we'll get to where we want to be by the end."
Arkansas sophomore guard B.J. Young (16.5) echoed that same sentiment.
"I think we're in a good position," Young said. "We're just now hitting our stride. We're trying to put a string of wins together. And just be playing our best basketball towards the end of the year like coach says."
Razorback junior guard Mardracus Wade says the team definitely has a different mindset this season.
"We feel like other teams are going downhill and we are going uphill," Wade said. "We are playing more guys and people are stepping up. That's what we want and that's what we need. I am just ready to get things rolling."
Georgia had won four games in a row before losing its last two contests – a 53-45 home loss to Alabama and at Ole Miss 84-74 in overtime last Saturday.
"We are playing against a Georgia team that has been very hot," Anderson said. "They had won four or five games in a row and took Ole Miss to overtime at Ole Miss, which tells you they are playing at a high level."
The Bulldogs are led by one of the league's best players in 6-5 sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (6-5, 205), who had 19 points and 12 rebounds in the loss to the Rebels.
Caldwell-Pope (17.7, 6.6) is the only Georgia player averaging in double figures this season.
He is a guy that is putting up numbers and it is not necessarily just scoring," Anderson said. "He is doing so much for his team. He is a big guard and he is rebounding the basketball and he is a guy that can take over a game.
"I think defensively he is a guy that Mark says is leading his team and for a sophomore to do that it shows you what kind of player is," Anderson added. "He is one of the better guards in the conference – scoring, can pass the basketball, very athletic and has a pretty good basketball IQ."
Caldwell-Pope joins 6-8, 220-pound sophomore forward Nemanja Djurisic (7.8, 3.8), 6-4 freshman guard Charles Mann (5.9), 6-9 junior forward Donte' Williams (5.5, 4.7) and 6-0 senior guard Vincent Williams in the Bulldogs' starting line-up.
That group combined to manhandle Ole Miss on the boards last Saturday.
"Hopefully we can get our guys in the right state of mind and come out and defend and to push tempo," Anderson said. "Tempo is going to be important in this game, push the up tempo against a Georgia team that likes to play the medium tempo playing power basketball. They outrebounded Ole Miss by 15. That's something that really caught my eye. Ole Miss is a very good rebounding basketball team. We will have our work cut out for us."
Georgia has already won three games on the road in SEC action this season – at Texas A&M, at South Carolina and at Tennessee.
"We have played well on the road this year and I thought we played well the other night on the road (at Mississippi)," Fox said. "Our kids have accepted that challenge to play well away from home and we have just improved as a team and have been pretty stable away from home.
"I think our defense has been pretty consistent all year and that has been a great stabilizer for us," Fox added. "One of the keys to winning away from home is trying to slow that home team down and I would say our defense is probably the one thing that has given us a chance to win away from home."
Fox knows his team is facing a challenge in playing at Bud Walton Arena, where the Razorbacks are 15-1 this season.
We got to Fayetteville this week which is one of the toughest places to play in the league," Fox said. "Mike has a team that is playing certainly very well at home and is a good team overall.
Fox is impressed with Arkansas' versatility on offense and defense.
"I think they have a number of guys that can score, a number of guys that can make plays shooting the ball in or dribbling the ball into the lane. I think they have an inside-outside player in Powell, who is just really playing well. I think their defense is terrific.
"For us to win in Walton, we are going to have to extremely complete," Fox said. "We have to make sure we take care of the ball offensively and we find some way to guard so many guys that can score."
Anderson, whose team will be trying to win its third straight SEC game for the first time in two years, knows the most important thing is getting a win Thursday night.
"That's what you want to do, you want to win games," Anderson said. "And this is the time you want to win them. They're more meaningful during this time of the year, and we know conference games are even bigger. They magnified…. Hopefully, we can go out and do the things that we've been doing and those things, those wins will take care of themselves."
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