"I never thought we'd be 12-1, just being very honest," Pelphrey said Tuesday night after his team's 67-61 victory over No. 7 Texas. "We got asked a lot of questions at the very beginning about rankings and all of that stuff, and we talked about how it shouldn't affect us."
Well, these young Razorbacks, with five new starters and six freshmen, certainly haven't appeared impacted by the meaningless forecast. They confidently managed their nonconference slate with only one slip-up — a five-point defeat at Missouri State on Nov. 22. And they finished it with two wins in eight days over Top 10 foes.
Arkansas has become one of the surprise stories in college basketball because it has embraced the concept of being a team, junior guard Stefan Welsh said.
Sure, as evidenced by Arkansas' recent efforts, the Razorbacks' roster is littered with quality individual talent.
Welsh and junior forward Michael Washington have thrived as team leaders, on and off the basketball court. Freshman point guard Courtney Fortson has provided tenacity, toughness and creativity. Freshman guard Rotnei Clarke has given the Hogs a dangerous outside shooting threat. And freshman forward Michael Sanchez and sophomore guard Marcus Britt have blossomed as role players.
But Welsh spoke as if he truly realized the importance of the Razorbacks' growing chemistry.
"When this team is riding confidence and everybody knows their role, we can be very dangerous," Welsh said. "We're finally starting to scratch the surface of our potential of how good we can be."
Early in the season, the Razorbacks weren't doing much scratching at all. They were merely surviving.
They had to rally back from a six-point deficit with 100 seconds left to beat Southeastern Louisiana in overtime in their opener. They followed that up with an ugly nine-point victory over California-Davis and the loss at Missouri State.
Welsh may have saved the season with his last-second, game-winning 3-pointer at South Alabama, a shot that sparked nine consecutive victories. The next three wins after South Alabama came at home against inferior opponents as final exams approached, took place and concluded.
Pelphrey always has said that scheduling those three contests was vital to his team's long-term health. That stretch allowed the Razorbacks to gain confidence and develop better work habits. The Razorbacks also underwent a slight roster overhaul that positively changed them.
Junior forward Montrell McDonald quit the team after being suspended in late November. Senior forward Marcus Monk, the former UA wide receiver, joined the Razorbacks at the end of the first semester. Monk's arrival was sorely needed because of the erratic tendencies shown by talented freshmen forwards Andre Clark and Brandon Moore.
"We've practiced really well for a month or month-and-a-half," Pelphrey said. "The last six games, we've made progress because of our attitude and because of how hard we've worked."
Much of the progress Pelphrey alludes to can't be measured by box scores.
You can obviously scan the SEC statistical leaders, and it's evident that Arkansas possesses plenty of skilled players. Washington ranks 7th in scoring (17.8), 3rd in field goal percentage (60.4) and 1st in rebounding (10.3). Fortson ranks 1st in assists (7.1) and 12th in scoring (15.1). Clarke ranks 2nd in 3-point percentage (.425).
Those numbers don't explain the Razorbacks' rise to possible SEC West favorites, though.
Arkansas' newly-established identity does. The Razorbacks want to be known as a hard-working group that harasses on defense, dives onto the court for loose balls and flourishes offensively at an up-tempo pace. They also strive to treat every game the same, never getting too high or too low as they thirst for victories.
"There's a lot of people out there who say we're young and we might get the bighead and not go play hard," Fortson said. "But you know what, this is the face of our team now. We're just going to play hard every game."
The possibility of that mindset forming was why Pelphrey "didn't want to change the expectations at Arkansas" this season because of youth.
Welsh promised the Razorbacks wouldn't change, even as they get showered with compliments, as they embarrass the coaches and writers who picked them last in the West.
"The good thing about this team is we've been able to beat two (possible) Final Four teams, and we haven't become complacent," Welsh said. "We still have a long way to go. ... Nonconference doesn't mean anything now. We're starting a brand new season. Our record is 0-0, and we're going in with that mindset."
Mississippi State at Arkansas
When: 7:05 p.m.
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: Fox Sports Network (Cox Ch. 27)
Radio: KEZA-FM 107.9, KKEG-FM 92.1, KUOA-AM 1290, FM 105.3
Records: Mississippi State Bulldogs, 10-5; Arkansas Razorbacks, 12-1
Coaches: Mississippi State, Rick Stansbury (11th season); Arkansas, John Pelphrey (second season)
Series: Arkansas leads 26-19
Last Meeting: Mississippi State beat Arkansas 80-74 on Feb. 16, 2008, in Starkville, Miss.
Date Opponent Outcome
Nov. 14 Southeastern Louisiana W, 91-87 (OT)
Nov. 20 California-Davis W, 68-59
Nov. 22 at Missouri State L, 62-57
Nov. 26 at South Alabama W, 79-77
Nov. 29 Florida A&M W, 86-61
Dec. 3 Texas Southern W, 80-61
Dec. 10 North Carolina Central W, 98-70
Dec. 17 Austin Peay# W, 89-80
Dec. 20 Stephen F. Austin# W, 67-51
Dec. 27 Northwestern State W, 95-56
Dec. 30 Oklahoma W, 96-88
Jan. 3 vs. North Texas* W, 86-75
Jan. 6 Texas W, 67-61
* — in North Little Rock
# — Jim Thorpe Classic, Fayetteville
Nonconference Statistical Leaders
Michael Washington 17.8
Courtney Fortson 15.1
Stefan Welsh 14.0
Rotnei Clarke 12.2
Michael Sanchez 6.5
Marcus Britt 1.5
Brandon Moore 0.6