The University of Arkansas basketball team has learned all too well about playing through adversity over the last year, but now the Razorbacks face a different challenge.
That's staying hungry while experiencing a moderate level success that has seen them elevate to a tie for first place in the SEC Western Division with Mississippi State.
Arkansas (11-11, 4-3) will try to at least maintain that status and win its fourth straight game Saturday afternoon when it hosts Auburn (11-1, 2-5) at 12:47 p.m. inside Bud Walton Arena.
"As a coach there's always some concern and adversity is a huge challenge we all face," Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey said. "Success is a completely different animal. It's human nature to become soft and forget how hard you worked, to think things come easy and it doesn't work like that."
It's not as if the last three wins have come easy.
In fact, Arkansas has trailed by double digits in each of the three wins before rallying in the second half to whip Mississippi State (67-62) at home and both No. 18 Ole Miss (80-73) and Georgia (72-68) on the road.
"We've been fortunate to win a couple of games that were close and could have gone either way," Pelphrey said. "The margin of error in winning is very small. Hopefully some of the experiences we've had will help us to be tougher and have a stronger will to compete better. If that's the case then it needs to continue. These challenges will only become greater as we go along because these games won't get any easier."
That's a similar sentiment that Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo is trying to get across to his Tigers, who despite their 2-5 league mark are just a couple of games out of first.
"We have played Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt," Lebo said. "A lot of teams haven't yet. I don't see a whole lot of difference in the West here night in and night out."
Ironically, the school newspaper called for Lebo's ouster this week despiter his team downing arch-rival Alabama 58-57 in its last game back on Saturday.
The Tigers also started 2-5 in conference play last season before reeling off 8 wins in their final 9 SEC games.
"We will talk about that a little bit with our group," Lebo said. "There is still a lot of basketball to be played."
Pelphrey sees a lot of things to like about the Tigers.
"Auburn is very, very good from the offensive side of it in terms of being able to space the floor," Pelphrey said. "They're a good steal team and very aggressive on defense.
"It'll be a challenge in terms of their speed and passing from a defensive side and another team in the west that I think is right there to be able to compete and challenge for all of it," Pelphrey added.
It will be Arkansas third game in six days with none of the teams resembling each other that much.
"The way I look at it right now is that it's our third game of the week and a completely different style of play," Pelphrey said when asked if revenge played a factor in preparation. "We need to know what we're doing in terms of rebounding the ball and transition offensively."
The Razorbacks are truly benefitting from the return of starting point guard Courtney Fortson, who missed the first 14 games of the season.
He has been spectacular in this current winning streak, including a career-high 35 points against Mississippi State and 27 in the win at Georgia on Wednesday.
"Him being added to the team the last eight games has changed the whole way they play," Lebo said. "It has put a fourth scorer on the court."
Indeed Fortson (19.8 points, 6 assists per game), fellow sophomore guard Rotnei Clarke (17.4), freshman power forward Marshawn Powell (15.1, 6.9 ) and senior center Michael Washington (13.4, 6.1) are forming a balanced crew.
The Tigers are led by Dwayne Reed (16.2), Lucas Hargrove (13.2, 7.1) and Frankie Sullivan (13.2).
Their fourth scorer lately has been Tay Waller, who has averaged over 20 points the last two games.
Arkansas will be trying to avenge a 73-51 home loss to Auburn last season according to Clarke.
"It's tough when you get beat like that and especially on your own court," Clarke said. "We felt like we had let our fans down because we're trying to get them excited about something and get them to fill the seats and excited about Razorback basketball again. Now we're on a good run and we appreciate all their support. It's really important to protect our homecourt.
"It can give us a little extra motivation remembering that."
Arkansas hosts Auburn
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