As if head coach John Pelphrey's third season at the University of Arkansas hasn't been riddled with enough challenges, along comes another big one on Thursday night.
That's when the Razorbacks (7-8) – after a nine-day layoff - will open their SEC conference slate at Mississippi State University (13-3, 1-0) in a 6 p.m game.
They'll play inside Starkville's Humphrey Coliseum – a place that hasn't been kind to even the best of Razorback teams – and a venue the UA squad will enter riding a 13-game overall road losing streak.
"It's something you want to do as a program, be able to go win on the road," Pelphrey said. "I think those are the best moments for a team…to go into somebody's back yard and withstand all the adversity that comes your way."
Arkansas has had very little success doing that lately on the road in the SEC – especially this decade when the Razorbacks have had two 13-game losing streaks.
That's the worst since 17 straight Razorback losses in the early 1970s back during the school's membership in the Southwest Conference.
UA sophomore guard Rotnei Clarke, who knows his team had the lead at halftime of seven SEC games last season, thinks it is time to get a road kill instead of being it.
"To have a chance at getting a road kill is a really good opportunity for us," Clarke said. "Hopefully we can capitalize on it.
"…We have to come together and unite and make sure we are going to get it done," Clarke added. "We were always there (last season). It just came down to the end and little things we weren't doing."
No UA team has more than two road wins in any one year since Nolan Richardson's next-to-last team won three games away from home in the 2000-2001 season.
The last SEC road win was a 68-52 win – one of two road wins Pelphrey's first team got – and are 10-54 on the league road in the last eight seasons.
The Razorbacks did lead the Bulldogs by 15 at halftime last season in Starkville.
"We weren't able to accomplish that last year," Pelphrey added. "We got close on a number of occasions, but we couldn't get it done."
Clarke said he and his fellow Razorbacks – who showed life in a loss to then No. 2 and current top-ranked Texas - are intent on not having a repeat of what happened during the 2009 SEC season.
That was skidding to a 2-14 mark after roaring out to a 12-1 mark in non-conference action.
"We're really focused already," said Clarke, who leads the SEC with 55 3-pointers. "We don't want what we had last year in the SEC. We don't want it in the last half of our season like we did last year. We want to be able to hopefully take some momentum from this last game and go into the SEC and hopefully do some really good things. We don't want to have the season we had last year, especially in conference play."
Part of that optimism is because of the return of starting point guard Courtney Fortson, who had 19 points and 7 assists against Texas in his debut after sitting out the first 14 games of the season.
"Just being able to work together and work with him in practice and knowing our game plan going into the game is going to be really good," Clarke said. "Just knowing that he's going to be out there again. Just having that week to get ready for it and knowing he's with us the whole week, that's important."
Especially since Fortson will be called upon to go against Mississippi State point guard Dee Bost, who joined with 6-9 center Jarvis Varnado to lead the Bulldogs to a 80-75 win at Ole Miss last Saturday.
"Dee Bost is tremendous at his spot and Varnado is as good as anybody in the country at his spot," Pelphrey said. "That is two good places to start, they are very well-coached, they already have big road win and we all know how valuable they are."
Fortson and Bost had a pair of hotly contested games last season – with Bost walking away with wins in both games.
"They've had a couple of battles before," Pelphrey said. "Two very good players. Two guys that are certainly important to their teams. They have the ability to score points and be defensive playmakers as well as make the game easy for the guys around them. Two really good players."
Mississippi State is on the verge of breaking into the Top 25.
"Obviously they are a very good basketball team and have lot of veterans," Pelphrey said. "I think that some of their guys –Kodi Augutus and others - are playing larger roles than there were a year ago and that has made their team stronger. "
Bost is just one of standouts on a team that is shooting 41 percent as a team from the field.
Ravern Johnson (14.6) has hit 50 of his 102 3-pointers.
"It puts a lot of pressure on your defense," Pelphrey said of the three-point shooting. "They've got a number of guys that can shoot it from the 3-point line and they have done that against us. They've also got a tremendous low post player. And on top of that, they're arguably the fastest team in our league on the break."
One of Arkansas' weaknesses over the past two seasons has been in its 3-point defense.
"It's a concern," Pelphrey said. "I think they hit double figures here last year and then they had a big number down there, especially in the second half. But they did that to a lot of people. I think they're averaging 10 this year made a game."
Clarke said his team has been focusing on that aspect in practice.
"We've already started in practice working on closeouts and forcing guys, we're going to have to make them drive it more," Clarke said. "We're not going to be able to let them settle for 3-point shots because they're going to hit it. We're going to have to do whatever we can to run them off the 3-point line."
The MSU inside game is keyed by Varnado (13.9, 10.6), who already has 80 blocks this season and is just 61 from the NCAA record of 535 by Louisiana-Monroe standout Wojciech Mydra (1998-2002).
"He definitely changes the game in there," Pelphrey said. "…There is nobody better at it than him."
Arkansas will have a quick turnaround with a home game against Alabama (11-5, 1-1), who lost to Vanderbilt 65-64 at home on Wednesday night.
It is the first of three straight Thursday-Saturday games – one each at home and on the road.
"It won't be a big deal for us as coaches to have a game plan prepared," Pelphrey said. "It will be a little bit more of a challenge for our players because of the short turnaround…But again, everybody deals with the same thing across the league and we'll take that challenge on as well."
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