State of the Hogs: Road Fun

It's getting to be a trend, the Arkansas basketball team knows how to handle themselves away from Bud Walton Arena. Going back to last February, the Hogs have seven SEC triumphs on the road.

The media needs to come up with a new narrative on the Arkansas basketball program. After years of trotting out the lack of road conference victories as the prominent negative theme for the Razorbacks, the trend has down an about face.

Don't look now but the Razorbacks won twice on the road in SEC play last week to give them seven in their last 11 league trips dating back to February of last year. Included was a get-over-the-hump overtime victory at Kentucky.

It bumped the Hogs up to No. 17 in the coaches poll, No. 18 by the Associated Press ahead of date with Missouri at 8 p.m. Wednesday. This is the latest in the season the Hogs (20-5, 9-3 SEC) have still been in the rankings since 1999.

I delighted in bringing up that statistic to Mike Anderson at his media opportunity Monday afternoon at Bud Walton Arena. The specific question, “What have you done to teach this team to win on the road?” Anderson smiled and looked down at his stat sheet for a bit before tackling the question, perhaps with as much delight as the reporter.

It was a long explanation, similar to the one he gave when I also asked if he was drawing up a few more plays for Manny Watkins after the sophomore guard hit the game winner with six seconds left at Ole Miss on Saturday night to lift the Hogs to 4-2 in SEC road games this season.

“It's about players making plays,” Anderson said to conclude his answer on the first question. “And, it's about everyone on the team trusting each other to make plays.”

That was Anderson's summary of the two questions, noting that it takes awhile for everyone to know what each player can do. It came down to senior Ky Madden going through his options and finally hitting Watkins with what amounted to option number four on the winning play.

“It wasn't his first option, wasn't his second,” Anderson said. “It was about his fourth.”

Anderson said Tim Brandon asked a similar question about Watkins on a national radio show earlier in the day.

“I told Tim this is just a different team than last year,” Anderson said. “We were a play away from winning these type games last year. I told everyone last year that we were a play away. I think I said that last year when we lost at home to Florida and Missouri. We were a play away in those two games.

“Now we are making those plays at the end of the game. It's a year of maturity. You have more players.

“But it comes down to everyone having trust. Last year, Ky might have tried to get in the lane, draw a foul or take the shot. Now, our guys can just play. Manny made the cut and Ky trusted him. The ball found the open man.

“It's not just offense. Alandise Harris made a big block late in the game. We are making defensive plays. We have guys who know each other and they rotate or fix things. That wasn't Alandise's man. It was Mike Qualls' man, but Alandise fixed it.”

Anderson said it's a matter of just changing the culture.

“It takes time,” he said. “When I got here, we had players that were used to losing on the road. We inherited guys who only knew losing on the road. So it takes time. They go on the road and they revert back to what they know.

“As we got more players, they make more plays. You have to find players who are both mentally and physically tough. I think we've done that. I think you saw the road wins start to come last year and they have continued this year.

“Our guys don't panic at the end of the game. They've been in the position enough that when they were down five with three minutes left at Ole Miss, they knew what they had to do. We got some stops. We recognize what it takes to win.

“One thing, you realize that when you make a basket, you don't celebrate. You get your butt back to the other end and play defense. We did that. We forced a tough shot.”

Watkins said Saturday night it was his first game winning basket of his career, even going back to elementary days. Given two days to think about it, Watkins still said his list is at one.

“No,” he said. “None until that. I didn't have to do anything but shoot. It was just basketball instincts. Ky did all of the work. It's just hitting the shot I work on every day in practice.”

Watkins said it was a fun flight back from Oxford, but it's back to work. He sounded exactly like a coaches son, what he is.

“It was fun to be in the locker room,” he said. “It was a fun flight. But you want to handle it all like a veteran. What I was thinking about, concentrate on the next practice and then the next practice. That's what we do. I was just glad Ky trusted me.

“We have to get back to work. I don't think we'll be complacent. We know that Missouri beat us here last year.”

Madden said, “We know what we have to do. We can't afford to look at anyone's record. We are not the greatest team.”

Maybe not, but Arkansas is a team with a pretty good road record now just in case no one has been paying attention.

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