Arkansas Getting Defensive About Commitment

Arkansas has gotten defensive lately - both literally and figuratively - heading into Sunday's game with Northwestern State, a program that has been second in scoring nationally the past two seasons and has the nation's second-leading scorer in 6-2 sophomore guard Zeek Woodley (25.3).

After a short holiday break, Arkansas’ basketball players returned to the practice floor Christmas night with visions of the program’s NCAA Tournament dancing in their heads.

The Razorbacks (9-2) have two home non-conference foes left – finishing this year with a Sunday 2:30 p.m. game against Northwestern State (4-5) on the SEC Network and then starting off 2015 with a Jan. 3 contest against Utah Valley (4-7).

Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson is hoping his team will use those games – and lots of practice since school is out – to launch itself into SEC play, which begins at Georgia on Jan. 6.

“We are trending in the right direction,” Anderson said. “We ain't where I want us to be but we are trending. I think they know what took place…I always tell the to remain as they continue to improve. Stay humble and hungry. Those are the two words, humble and hungry. You have got to do that.”

The Razorbacks – who have won 50 straight home games against unranked non-conference foes - are leading the SEC in scoring (83.5 which is 12th nationally), 3-pointers made per game (7.9) and 3-point percentage (41 percent) and assists (19.3), which is third nationally.

They have five players shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range with five having made at least a trio of 3-pointers in one game.

If Arkansas is going to make their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in nine years, the Razorbacks - off to a 9-2 start for the second straight year - are going to have to get defensive about it.

They have held two of their last three opponents in the 50s – a 69-55 home win over Dayton and last Monday’s 84-54 win over visiting Milwaukee – sandwiched around a 84-67 win over Southeast Missouri in North Little Rock.

That’s how the Razorbacks responded after their only two losses of the season came back-to-back at Iowa State and at Clemson.

Those came after opening 6-0 – the best start in 17 years – and being ranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time in seven years.

“We have got that edge and the chip on our shoulders back,” Arkansas sophomore forward Bobby Portis said.

Junior Michael Qualls noted that improved defense is something that Anderson has challenged his team to bring to the table.

“Coach showed us the statistics of our team right now about the percentage of people that score on us and how many points they score on us,” Qualls said. “Everybody really took it to heart, everybody really put that on our shoulders.

“People can’t score on us like that,” Qualls added. “We are supposed to be a defensive team. We can’t use the full court aspect as an excuse. We do speed people up so that means they are going to take more shots than they usually do.”

Portis, who had 19 points and Qualls 18 in the win over Milwaukee, says that defense has indeed been a focus in practice.

“Coach has been preaching defense a lot to us lately,” Portis said. “I think that is something that every one is picking up on. We can’t let people score on us.”

Qualls notes that Arkansas’ two losses both were because of lax defense.

“We lost because of defense,” Qualls said. “People were just picking us off, going one-on-one. Every since then, everybody has come together and bought in and said ‘that is not going to happen anymore.

“I don’t think that any one player has got off on us since then,” Qualls added. “I think it is going to continue to be that way.”

Northwestern State, who has the nation's second-leading scorer in 6-2 sophomore guard Zeek Woodley (25.3), is coming in off a 89-85 win over Louisiana-Lafayette back on Dec. 20.

It was the Demons’ first win over a Division I foe this season for head coach Mike McConathy.

"I'm so happy we got the win,” McConathy said. “It was a huge, momentum-building win going into Christmas. You sometimes can lose your team before you get to conference, especially playing a tough schedule like we do, but give these kids credit, they didn't lose faith in themselves or in us and it showed today."

Northwestern State has a top three of Woodley, 5-10 sophomore junior guard Jalen West (15.3) - a pre-season mid-major All-American - and 6-8, 220-pound senior center Marvin Frazier (10.6, 7.7).

Woodley is shooting 60 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 75 percent from the free throw line.

Mike Anderson

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