Although it’s one of the top offensive teams in the nation, Arkansas is feeling confident entering its SEC opener because of the strides it has made on defense and the boards.
Ranked at the start of league play for first time in 16 years, the No. 23 Razorbacks will put their five-game winning streak to the test Tuesday night when they face a surging Georgia squad that’s looking to remain unbeaten at home.
Led by the SEC’s second-highest scoring duo of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls, Arkansas (11-2) ranks ninth nationally with an average of 84.5 points while leading the country with 19.2 assists per game.
Portis, averaging a team-high 16.8 points, and Qualls (15.4) totaled 50 in a 100-92 home win over Northwestern State on Dec. 28. They weren’t relied on as much in Saturday’s 79-46 rout of Utah Valley, combining for 23 points on 7-of-21 shooting.
After sweeping a five-game homestand that followed road losses to then-No. 20 Iowa State and Clemson, Arkansas moved into the AP poll for the third time this season Monday and for the first time entering SEC play since 1999.
The Razorbacks are feeling good heading into Athens after allowing a season-low point total while holding the Wolverines to 29.3 percent shooting and outrebounding them 55-30. That was significantly better than their previous contest when they allowed their second-most points and Northwestern State shot 51.4 percent.
"If you’re going to be able to contend in the SEC, you’ve got to be a good defensive team and you’ve got to be able to dominate the glass when you get a chance to," coach Mike Anderson said.
Anderson’s team hopes to bring that effort on the road, where it has dropped six of nine in this series. Arkansas, 1-2 away from home in 2014-15, was outrebounded 56-34 in a 66-61 overtime loss at Georgia last Jan. 18.
Qualls had 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting in an 87-75 home win March 1 as Georgia had a 39-28 advantage on the boards.
The Bulldogs (9-3) are rolling into SEC play with six consecutive wins by an average of 13.7 points. They also own a plus-4.5 rebounding margin during the run, which is their best since winning nine in a row in 2010-11.
"We’ve got to shore up some things from the standpoint of rebounding and the physicality of the game, especially on the road," Anderson said. "They’ve got some great guards and they have their whole team back. It’s a tremendous challenge."
Starting guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines are averaging 12.7 and 11.3 points. J.J. Frazier is scoring 9.2 per game in a reserve role after finishing with a career-high 20 in Saturday’s 63-50 home win over Norfolk State.
Gaines totaled 40 points and hit 8 of 14 from 3-point range in the two matchups with Arkansas last season.
”We are not going to celebrate yet,” coach Mark Fox said. ”We still have work to do. We are not in the tournament. We don’t have a ticket. We are still in line. We are just in a different place in the line.”
The Bulldogs, who own their best pre-conference record since 2011, have held opponents to 32.9 percent shooting – 22.9 from 3-point range – during the winning streak.
Georgia lost to then-No. 10 Gonzaga 88-76 in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 26 in its only matchup with a ranked opponent this season.