Arkansas has to be feeling pretty good about itself after opening league play with a huge road victory over Georgia. Mike Anderson, who has signed a contact extension through March 2020, has his team sitting at No. 23 in the nation by the latest AP Top 25 poll after an 12-2 overall record.
Depending on which pundit you ask, Arkansas is largely thought of as the second best team in the league, a distant second to Kentucky. But a couple of teams will threaten and challenge the Razorbacks for that slot in the league.
Here are my keys to Arkansas fending off LSU, Ole Miss and others, and staking its claim as a top tier team this season:
Michael Qualls getting off to a quick start
A lot has been made of the duo of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls. Quite frankly they've led the Razorbacks this season as one of the most dynamic scoring punches in the league. And as you may remember, Qualls didn't get off to the greatest of starts in SEC play last year after an impressive showing before New Year's Day.
Mike Anderson is going to need the junior's production, especially on the road if Arkansas wants to take the next step in becoming a legit team. Typically, close road games come down to the star players. And once Portis draws attention, Qualls needs to step up and deliver. That doesn't necessarily mean only scoring, though. Qualls can contribute in several other areas that have a major influence on the outcome of a game.
Jacorey Williams becoming a consistent contributor
No one on the Arkansas roster has improved his game more since last season. It's been a pleasant surprise to fans and Anderson, who spoke of how well conditioned Williams was in the preseason. It's paid dividends for him, finding himself in the starting lineup multiple times this season and on SportsCenter's Top 10 plays last weekend.
Williams is another key high energy guy. His long, lanky arms and athleticism give him an advantage over a lot of players, especially as the top man on the press. I wondered who would replace Coty Clarke's savvy play on the top of the press after he left, but Williams has done really well. Anderson says he's one of the best he's been around at that spot.
His seven points and four rebounds per game will be huge for Arkansas if he can sustain it in league play. It didn't happen last night but he still has plenty of opportunities. Short corner and pinch post shots are his sweet spots. And my favorite part about his game this year? 0-0 from the 3-point line. He knows his limits.
Ky Madden returning to 2014 SEC play form
There were very few players more fun to watch last season in league play than Ky Madden. His confidence was through the roof and he played at an All-SEC level, hitting big shot after big shot and making terrific passes. This year it may be the addition of Jabril Durham and Anton Beard, but he seems to be pressing a bit.
Or so you might think. Actually, he's almost playing BETTER than last season. His scoring has dropped a bucket per game, but he's nearly doubled his assists/game to 5.4 while virtually keeping his turnovers/game the same as last season (2.3 in 2014, 2.5 this season). Oh, and he's shooting it better from distance (45 percent) as well and connecting on 92 percent of his foul shots. These are just the facts.
If Madden's level of play rises and gives Arkansas a third scoring punch, look out. He's averaging 10 points/game now, but we know he's capable of more if his mind is right. Like Williams, Madden also had an off game in Athens, but don't expect him to stay down for long.
At some point over the next two months, you would think Portis and/or Qualls will have an off night. It's basketball, these things happen. Perhaps a team gameplans to stop Portis and maybe the other two aren't on their games. Who steps up?
This is where Mike Anderson's depth and his bench become a major factor. Anton Beard, Manuale Watkins, Williams, Alandise Harris, Moses Kingsley, all of these guys have the potential to pitch in and be difference makers in a ballgame. And you have to believe they'll have to be.
Winning the winnable road games
Arkansas is off to a head start with the Georgia victory, but there's still more work to be done. The Razorbacks need to bring that type of effort to all their road games and avoid any Clemson-like disasters. That's what separates good teams from what Arkansas has been the last few years. Winning the winnable road games is crucial.
Plus, Arkansas hosts neither Kentucky nor Florida this season so getting wins on the road will be big in conference tournament seeding and with the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Here is the Razorbacks' road schedule: Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, Florida, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Kentucky and South Carolina. I count six should-win games, two toss-ups (UGA, FLA), and Kentucky.
Six road wins plus the nine at home (which if they don't sweep would be a travesty), would have Arkansas sitting pretty. The selection committee couldn't turn away from that.
The Razorbacks made a strong impression with the win last night. They're set up for a great season if they can keep it up.