Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
When the Arkansas Razorbacks take the Mizzou Arena court today against the Missouri men’s basketball team (8 p.m., SEC Network), it will be without the team’s two biggest contributors from last year’s NCAA Tournament team: Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls.
Not that the matchup will be lacking in familiar faces.
There is, of course, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, who led Missouri to three NCAA Tournament appearances as the Tigers’ head coach from 2006-11. But there’s an added Columbia tie this season with Hickman High School graduate Jimmy Whitt averaging seven points in 21.8 minutes per game as a freshman for the Razorbacks.
The Tigers will look to spoil the homecoming as they attempt to win consecutive Southeastern Conference games for the first time under second-year coach Kim Anderson.
Missouri is coming off its first Power-5 win of the season, a 76-61 home defeat of Auburn. Missouri (8-7, 1-1 SEC) is 8-1 at Mizzou Arena.
“A good win on Saturday for us, a team win,” Anderson said Monday on an SEC coaches teleconference. “Eleven guys played, 11 guys scored. In order for us I think to win and be successful, we’ve got to have that type of performance every game.”
When the Tigers last hosted Arkansas (8-7, 2-1), the Razorbacks escaped with a 61-60 win when Missouri’s Wes Clark missed two free throws with 3.3 seconds to go. Arkansas had a little more breathing room in the rematch in Fayetteville, a 84-69 Razorbacks win less than a month later.
Portis and Qualls averaged 17.5 and 15.9 points per game, respectively, in their final seasons at Arkansas. Portis is currently averaging 7.7 points per game with the Chicago Bulls, who drafted him 22nd overall in June.
Now, with Rashad Madden also gone, the Razorbacks’ top three scorers have been replaced by Anthlon Bell, Moses Kingsley and Dusty Hannahs (17.3, 16.8 and 16.3 points per game, respectively).
“I’m really impressed with their talent level. I think Bell’s just, he’s a guy that shoots the ball so well and Kingsley’s a guy that’s developed into a really, really outstanding inside player,” Anderson said. “Hannahs is a guy that shoots it well, gets it to the hole, shoots that little floater and never seems to miss it.”
Whitt, meanwhile has posted 10 or more points five times this year. He started nine of his first 10 games with Arkansas, before moving to the bench after four straight single-digit scoring outings.
“I think confidence has a lot to do with it,” Mike Anderson said. “He’s kind of been up and down, but I’m looking forward to Jimmy really coming out and playing well. He’s been playing well in the last couple of games. The last game he didn’t get in and play as much, so, but he’s been having some tremendous practices, so I’m sure he’s looking forward to having an opportunity to play at home and show his improvement.”
Whitt was a four-star recruit and the top Missouri player in the Class of 2015, according to ESPN. He was targeted by Missouri as well as Wisconsin, Memphis, Wake Forest and Illinois, among others.
“Obviously, this is the first time he’ll get a chance to come back and play in front of friends and family where he prepped at,” Mike Anderson said. “There there’ll be some nerves then, but once the sweat comes, man, just play basketball. That’s what you do. Go and help your team. Hopefully put them in a position to win.
“And I have no doubt he will. But like I said, I know the nerves will be going. Maybe (he’ll) go out and get that out of his system and hopefully have a productive game for our basketball team. Like I said, he’s a student of the game, and he’s really, really important to what we’re doing.”
Also important to what Arkansas is doing? Three-point shooting. The Razorbacks have hit a combined 22-of-38 3-point attempts (58 percent) in their last two games, wins against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
“I think we’d probably better guard the 3-point line,” Kim Anderson said. “I think Bell and Hannahs are guys who, you’ve got to get to them. They’re shooting at an amazing clip from the 3 line, so that is a concern for us.”
Arkansas is currently the fourth-best 3-point shooting team in the nation, having made 44.4 percent of its shots behind the arc this season.
But the Tigers’ concerns extend beyond the 3-point line. As Missouri fans will recall, Mike Anderson employs a press-style defense meant to disrupt his opponents’ offensive flow.
“I think Arkansas does a great job with their pressure,” Kim Anderson said. “We obviously will work on it. We have worked on it. The important thing is to play basketball and realize that you’ve got to look up the floor, you’ve got to get the ball to the middle of the floor, you’ve got to get the ball reversed.
“You’ve just got to play basketball. You can’t really diagram it, because Mike’s team does such a great job of changing things up. So, hopefully our experience of being through it with some of these guys a year ago and facing a team or two this year that’s pressed us a little bit will be enough to allow us to play in a little bit of a comfort zone.”