Before leaving the mainland and heading to the EA Sports Maui Invitational, Mike Anderson and Arkansas knew the importance of having a good showing in front of a national audience and picking up wins over quality non-conference opponents.
Although the Hogs returned from their trip to paradise on Friday with only one victory, coaches, players and even fans alike will agree the team is better off than it was prior to the trip.
Anderson says California and Gonzaga "exposed" some weaknesses throughout the tournament that the team has to work to fix, but overall, thought the trip did a lot of good for his squad.
"I liked the effort that our guys gave," Anderson said. "I think we got better, and I think it benefitted us."
One of the primary reasons the trip was something of a success, despite a 1-2 record, was the victory over Minnesota. The win marked just the third win outside of the state of Arkansas since Mike Anderson’s arrival.
"It’s definitely a big win for us," senior Kikko Haydar said of the win over Minnesota. "We know we can win away from [Bud Walton Arena]. It brings us confidence."
The Razorbacks also benefited from facing strong competition in a California team with talented guards and physical bigs, and the 11th ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs and Kevin Pangos. There's no question the trip contributed to the team’s overall strength of schedule, which will be looked at by the selection committee come March.
Plus, with the beyond weak schedule Arkansas faces in December, they absolutely needed the tough games from a strength of schedule standpoint and as a potential resumé booster. The Hogs won't face a top 100 RPI team until conference play begins in January.
Now looking back on the trip, Anderson acknowledged several positives, maybe none bigger than the emergence and play of freshman big man Moses Kingsley in the final two games.
Anderson said that before the Minnesota game he sat Kingsley down after not playing him against California, and told him he was going to get an opportunity to play. Kingsley told Anderson he would go get him rebounds and protect the rim, and he did just that.
Kingsley was a big part of the win over Minnesota, scoring seven points, grabbing four rebounds and tallying a blocked shot in just 10 minutes of action. He then followed that performance up with a nine-point, seven-rebound game against Gonzaga.
"Moses did a lot for us," Haydar said. "We were talking after the game, he was the player of the game in the Minnesota game."
Another freshman, Bobby Portis, was also a positive, averaging 15 points and seven rebounds in the final two games in Maui. Portis poured in a team-high 18 points and seven rebounds in the 91-81 loss to Gonzaga.
"Bobby has a pretty good, high basketball IQ," Anderson said. "He’s a guy that can step away from the basket, and make good passes."
But those positives didn’t end on the court. Senior forward Coty Clarke said the trip was a great bonding opportunity for the team.
"We always hang together, so we were all out together swimming and walking around, and just being a family," Clarke said. "Especially spending Thanksgiving with our team, that’s just like family."