While top-ranked Florida is certainly the SEC's top team, one could certainly make a case for Arkansas being the second-best at this point.
Coty Clarke had a career-high 23 points and Michael Qualls added 20 as the Razorbacks downed Georgia 87-75 Saturday before 18,547 fans at Bud Walton Arena.
Arkansas (20-9, 9-7) has now won seven of its last eight games after winning at second-place Kentucky (21-8, 11-5) on Thursday night and putting away the third-place Bulldogs (16-12, 10-6) at home.
"It's a winning locker room," Razorback head coach Mike Anderson said. "You can tell just in the locker room. They're going out there expecting to win. And I think that's kind of been the mindset all year long, although we've had some games where we just didn't finish."
Anderson noted a moment in last Saturday's win at Mississippi State where his team told him it would handle adversity.
"(They said) 'Hey Coach, we got this. We got this,' Anderson remembered. "They're taking ownership of this team and as a coach when you've got leadership taking place and the ownership, then all you've got to do is stay out of the way. So I hope I don't screw it up."
The Razorbacks used a 16-2 – which included some key minutes from senior guards Rickey Scott and Mardracus Wade - to end the first half to take a 44-38 lead to intermission and never trailed from that point on.
That lead grew to 60-45 midway though the second half before a spirited Bulldogs rally it within 65-60.
But Wade got inside the lane for a basket and Rashad Madden buried a 3-pointer and Arkansas cruised on to the win to split its season series with the Bulldogs.
Georgia hit 9 of its last 11 shots, but only 18 of its next 45.
"Hard fought SEC road game," Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. "I thought both teams really came out and got after it in the first half. And Arkansas certainly sustained it longer than we did. So we just played uphill in the second half once we got behind, you know we just played uphill, which is so hard to do on the road."
Arkansas started the week in a seven-way tie for fourth and ends it sharing the spot with only Tennessee.
The Razorbacks – who won their 20th game for the first time since last making the NCAA Tournament back in 2008 – are now just a game behind the Bulldogs for third place.
"I think they're trusting one another," Anderson said. "They're learning as we go. You've got to remember now, a team is made up of a lot of different parts. And so, as you're putting those parts together, it just don't mesh all of a sudden. But through the stuff we went through this summer, the bonding things that we went through, bringing in the sports psychologist, going through the conditioning, all that stuff, it goes with this year. They spent a lot of time in the weight room.
"We got our head kind of bumped when we got into conference play," Anderson added of the 2-6 start. "The first eight games, we lost a lot of close games. But we learned. So the experience is the greatest teacher. And I feel these guys have kind of embraced that. and then they started trusting one another. They really started trusting one another. Our bench has really developed. The unit, I'm finally settling in on a starting unit. So that's kind of important. So they know what their roles are for this basketball team."
Clarke was 5-of-11 from the field, 2-of-3 from 3-point range and 11-of-13 from the free throw line. He also had 3 steals, 2 assists and 2 assists.
"He's playing like it's his last game," Anderson said. "So if we can have that mindset in every game, each game is a big game. He played like it was a big game to him, and I thought our guys kind of fed off of him."
Clarke said that is exactly what he is doing.
"That is all that I think about – when that last horn is going to blow," Clarke said. "I just play every game and take every practice with the mindset with the ultimate focus....I just give my teammates all I got because I don't know when the last time I am going to bounce a ball or what my career holds for me after this. So I am just putting everything I can right now out on the line.
"My teammates want to do the same for the rest of us who are leaving," Clarke added. "We are just trying to get it to where it is suppose to be."
Qualls was 7-of-9 from the field and 5-of-7 from the line and talked about how the Razorbacks were determined to not have a letdown after the Kentucky win.
"I'd say it was like a be greedy mentality, not getting satisfied," Qualls said. "I felt like when we played Kentucky the first time, we were satisfied. Actually it was back-to-back games just like how it was now. We played Kentucky and then Georgia and there was a letdown.
"Stay greedy, stay hungry," Qualls added. "I don't feel like anyone was satisfied with the Kentucky win. They were happy that we got another win on the schedule like I said, but other than that, a game is just a game that we need. Just like this – it was a game that we need. We are going to approach the next game the same way."
Harris and Rashad Madden both had 8 points for Arkansas while Wade added six and Scott five. Freshman Bobby Portis had just two points, but 8 rebounds.
The Razorbacks certainly improved their NCAA Tournament resume with this week's results.
"You know what, all we've got to do is keep doing what we're doing," Anderson said. "Winning games. That would take care of itself. I've always been wired like that. I'm a day-to-day guy. I'm looking forward to having the day off tomorrow, then we get in the gym Monday and we're going to try to get better. that's all. We know the next game at hand is Ole Miss. Those are the only things we can control."
Fox thinks Arkansas should be in the tournament with several other SEC teams.
"Our league is a terrific," Fox said. "This is a terrific conference. And every league's got some black eyes, ours included. But I think I would echo (Kentucky head coach) John (Calipari's) thoughts that there's a lot of teams in this league -- Arkansas being one -- that belong in the NCAA Tournament."
The Razorbacks will host Ole Miss on Wednesday and then finish up the regular season with a game at Alabama on Saturday.
Anthlon Bell looks for an opening.
Ky Madden works on defense.
Alandise Harris works free for a layup.
Mike Anderson pleads his case with a referee.
Coty Clarke celebrates after a key basket.
Bobby Portis looks to pass.
Michael Qualls soars for a basket.
Mardracus Wade makes a move.
Photos by Jason Ivester
Arkansas 87, Georgia 75
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