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Bobby Portis Poised For a Breakout Season For The Arkansas Razorbacks

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The Little Rock native highlights a returning cast that won 22 games last season, and is ready to turn himself into a household name.

Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

Only a few seconds remained in the 2013 Arkansas class 6A state championship game with Hall trailing Jonesboro in Little Rock's Barton Coliseum.

A missed free throw was rebounded by Hall’s Bobby Portis, who threw a dart of an outlet pass to a teammate across half court. The clock continued to dwindle toward the end of regulation. The recipient of Portis’ outlet then rifled a pass to a teammate behind the 3-point line in the corner.

The 3-point attempt found the bottom of the net as the buzzer sounded. The Warriors defeated Jonesboro 34-33, giving Portis his fourth consecutive state championship.

Portis is a born winner, and it’s pretty much all he knows, winning 6A state titles at Hall his freshman and senior seasons and 7A titles his sophomore and junior campaigns.

As a 6-foot-10 high schooler, he had a dream of staying in his home state to play for Arkansas. Portis’ skillset evolved, and he became one of the top high school players in the nation, becoming a McDonald's All-American and earning an offer from the Razorbacks. Shortly thereafter, he signed with Arkansas, more than two years before he would ever suit up in the cardinal and white.

Now entering his second season at Arkansas, expectations for the sophomore star are high after a freshman campaign that landed him on the All-SEC Second Team at season’s end. Athlon Sports also tabbed Portis as a preseason third team All-American.

Portis poured in more than 12 points and pulled down nearly seven rebounds per contest as a true freshman, and with a successful first year under his belt, he is now a name synonymous with Arkansas basketball.

"You can’t ask for a guy to give as much as he’s given to this basketball team and this basketball program," head coach Mike Anderson said of his big man. "He’s almost sometimes the face of our program. He’s a guy that’s doing it on and off the floor, in the classroom."

Although Portis’ first season was impressive in many respects, it didn’t come without the typical freshman growing pains early on. The McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All-American struggled with the speed of the collegiate game at the beginning of his career.

The peak of his struggles appeared in the opening game against California during the team’s trip to the Maui Invitational. He contributed a mere five points on 1-of-5 shooting and one rebound in 28 minutes in an 85-77 loss.

"I did kind of feel uncomfortable because I didn’t really know my role for the team and what coach wanted me to do to make us successful," Portis said. "Last year, I was kind of thin and new to all the physicality of the game."

Anderson challenged his freshman forward’s toughness on the island after scoring more than 10 points and grabbing five or more rebounds just once in his first four games. Portis responded to his head coach’s message by totaling 30 points and 14 rebounds the final two games of the tournament against Minnesota and No. 11 Gonzaga.

Portis kept his aggressive play rolling once the team left Maui, and bloomed into an integral piece of Anderson’s offense, leading Arkansas to an 11-2 start to the season. But once conference play began, the team hit a wall, and the soft nonconference schedule proved costly.

The Razorbacks lost six of their first eight games to begin SEC play, and Anderson and the team were searching for an answer. The Razorbacks found their answer Feb. 5 in the form of a record-breaking performance from its star-studded freshman.

Portis scored 35 points, including 29 of Arkansas’ first 35 points of the game, in a 65-58 win over the Crimson Tide, setting a school record for points in a game by a freshman, a record previously held by Razorback great Scotty Thurman.

"We needed him," teammate Mardracus Wade said of Portis’ play following the record-shattering performance. "He stepped up big for us just like we always thought he could. I’m not surprised at all by what he did tonight."

Following Portis’ performance was a stretch of basketball comparable to Arkansas basketball of the mid-1990s. Arkansas won eight of its last 10 games to end the regular season.

The Razorbacks fell to South Carolina in the SEC tournament and lost in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament, but Portis’ name, by this point, was well known across the SEC and the college basketball landscape.

Anderson told Portis early in his freshman campaign not to worry about the pressure that comes with being an in-state kid, and to play at his own pace.

"Well, that pace was second team all-conference," Anderson said. "We’ve had a talk since then, so now I’m expecting it out of him this year. But I think he’s looking forward to the challenge. He’s really stepping up his game and helping the team have one of those special years."

Portis, to begin his sophomore season, is a preseason first team All-SEC selection and has his sights set on leading Arkansas to the NCAA tournament and beyond.

"It’s extremely important," Portis said of making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. "Last year we were this close to doing it, but like Coach said, we didn’t finish. This year, one of our goals is to finish and not only get there, but go far in the tournament."