Arkansas Aims To End Colonial Life Arena Woes

No. 18 Arkansas (23-6, 12-4) has already clinched the second seed in next week's SEC Tournament in Nashville, but hopes to start another win streak Thursday night at South Carolina (14-14, 5-11) in a 6 p.m. game that will be televised by ESPN2 from Colonial Life Arena - a place the Razorbacks are 0-6 at since 20002.

Arkansas’ basketball team proved it could beat the latest Northwest Arkansas winter storm by practicing early Tuesday and getting out of Fayetteville in advance of Thursday night’s game at South Carolina.

Now the Razorbacks just have to prove they can win at the Gamecocks’ Colonial Life Arena, a place it is 0-6 at since the building opened in 2002.

No. 18 Arkansas (23-6) will play South Carolina (14-14, 5-11) in a 6 p.m. game that will be televised by ESPN2.

“(It’s) the final week of conference play and this is the time of year you want to finish up on a positive note and have some momentum going into the SEC Tournament,” Razorback head coach Mike Anderson said.

“Our next opponent is going to be South Carolina, a very defensive-minded team,” Anderson added. “They play a physical brand of basketball, up in your face defensively. They attack the glass.”

The Razorbacks, who clinched the second seed in next week's SEC Tournament when visiting Tennessee beat LSU Wednesday night, can record a program-record tying 14th SEC win with a win at South Carolina and one in Saturday’s home game with LSU.

Arkansas had won seven straight games before Saturday’s 84-67 loss at No. 1 and unbeaten Kentucky and freshman guard Anton Beard says it is a defeat that the Razorbacks are putting behind them.

That's one of those losses you just throw away, as Coach (Anderson) says,” Beard said. “ It's not a tougher loss that Florida and those games, because we felt like we should have those games. At Kentucky, we knew it was going to be hard. We knew we had a war going in there. That's just one of those losses you throw away.”

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin believes Arkansas is one of the better teams in the country and Razorback sophomore forward Bobby Portis one of the better players in the nation.

“Getting ready to play Arkansas, who is one of the better teams in the country,” Martin said. “At their place we competed for a while then they got away from us. They are very talented. Bobby Portis is a heck of a player.”

Portis had 18 points and 13 rebounds as the Razorbacks downed the short-handed Gamecocks 75-55 back on Feb. 3 at Bud Walton Arena when the visitors had just seven healthy scholarship guys.

“We have got nine guys,” Martin said. I don't know if that means full strength but it's better than having seven. We are in a better place. When we went to Fayetteville we were a team that had kind of lost our identity. Our spirit was not as strong as it needs to be. I had some issues going on with our team that obviously I had to eventually stress.

“But we are in a better place right now - spiritually, mentally and we were able to practice with 10 guys for the first time in a month and the day before Mississippi State,” Martin added.

“…I really enjoy my team,” Martins continued. “They have given me everything I can ask of them, and to see them go out and play with such confidence and courage as we did against Mississippi State reinforces to me that we have got quality people in our program.”

Anderson knows his team will face a bigger challenge than it did in the first game between the two.

“We played them roughly maybe two and a half, three weeks ago and they are a much better basketball team since that time and so are we,” Anderson said. “It's a game we know is going to be very, very physical.

“…So the teams are familiar with one another and we certainly know they are going to come out and give us the best shot and hopefully we will give them our best shot as well,” Anderson added.

Anderson and Martin – a former Miami prep coach who had NBA players Udonis Haslem and Steve Blake on his roster - have split 14 games on campus sites with the home team always winning.

Martin, whose team downed visiting Mississippi State 81-68 on Saturday night, previously was a head coach at Kansas State and an assistant for Bob Huggins at Cincinnati.

“Mike and I have been chasing each other from Conference USA to the Big 12 to the SEC,” Martin said. “Mike has won on his home court and we have won on our home court. It's just one of those things and I hope it continues but knowing that has happened in years past has no impact whatsoever on this year. We have to play, real, real well to compete with a team like Arkansas.”

Anderson – whose team has won five SEC road games this season and six games away from home overall - agrees that stat will have no bearing on Thursday night’s game.

“Different teams, different year, but Frank does a really good job of getting his teams prepared,” Anderson said. “As most teams, they play better at home. They play a little more comfortable. They get after you. They really guard you. So it's one of those deals you have got to shoot the ball well.

“The game here we played earlier this year, I think Bobby had a pretty good game for us,” Anderson added. “So we took advantage of his size and his skill level. Up there I am sure they are probably going to double up on him so we have got to have some other guys make plays for us.”

Arkansas sophomore Manuale Watkins – son of former Missouri and current Arkansas assistant Melvin Watkins – was on hand for many of the Anderson-Martin match ups.

“I was always at those Mizzou and K-State games,” the younger Watkins said. “Those were always good matchups. I didn't know neither team had won the road, but I really don't think that has anything to do with it. I just think the other team outplayed them night.

“So I think if we go in there and do what we need to do, focus on defense, toughness and the way we play, I think we'll be fine,” Watkins added.

South Carolina – who went 14-18 and 14-20 in Martin’s first two years at the helm - got a career-high 28 points from 6-3 senior guard Tyrone Johnson (9.9) in Saturday’s win over Mississippi State.

Johnson was 7-of-10 from the field and 13-of-15 from the line in that win for the Gamecocks, who broke a streak of 11 straight games in which they had shot under 40 percent from the field.

“Tyrone is a senior,” Martins said. “He understands his career is winding down. He has been great to coach. Unfortunately, he has had inconsistencies throughout his career because of injuries during his freshman year at Villanova and during his first year here. He also lost a year of eligibility because of transfer.

“This year is the first year he has been able to put a whole year together,” Martin added. “He has played well for us and he has also had some other times I wanted him to be more aggressive. Obviously he did those things against Mississippi State and set a career high in points. I just hope he finishes off his senior year the way he played against Mississippi State not from a numbers standpoint but from an aggressiveness standpoint.”

Arkansas’ 12 SEC wins are the most for the school since the 1995 Razorbacks, who made a return trip to the national championship game after winning it all in 1994.

Arkansas has won 28 straight games when leading at halftime, is 19-0 when forcing 15 or more turnovers this season and is ranked in the top 10 nationally in points, assists, assist/turnover ratio and turnover margin.

“I think they (the Razorbacks) are really good,” Martin said. “A typical Mike Anderson team. Everyone talks about the defensive pressure and all that stuff which obviously they are real good at.

“But no one ever gives Mike's teams credit for how good they are on offense, how unselfish they are,” Martin added. “They are always among the nation's leaders in assists per game. And that has not failed, that has continued to be built up as this year has gone on. They are playing at a high level. Arkansas is a team I think will be going a long way in the postseason.”

Arkansas was on the verge of getting into last season’s NCAA Tournament before a road loss at Alabama in the regular season finale and a loss to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament.

“That game, there were a lot of things that didn't go our way,” Watkins said. “But that year is over with. We have a new team, they have a new team. We're just looking at it going like it's a must win like we look at every game. It's the next game and we've got to win it.

“We're going to go in there with that attitude,” Watkins added. “We don't really think about any of that other stuff. We just think about, this is the next game and we need to win this game. So we're going to go in and give it all we've got.”

Bobby Portis scrambles for a loose basketball in Arkansas' 75-55 win over South Carolina earlier this season.

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