(AP) – Bobby Portis isn’t one to usually stump for respect anywhere other than on the basketball court.
Saturday, however, is no usual game for surging Arkansas – and its star forward had much more than normal to say about the No. 18 Razorbacks’ chances when they visit No. 1 Kentucky.
Arkansas (23-5, 12-3 SEC) enters on a pair of winning streaks, seven straight this season and three in a row over the Wildcats (28-0, 15-0).
That includes a pair of wins last season by the Razorbacks, who have won 10 of 11 overall and hope to do much more than play the underdog role in the SEC’s most marquee matchup of the season.
”People really don’t believe in us, I feel like,” Portis said. ”I feel like teams, and so many people around the country, are still kind of sleeping on us at the moment. Hopefully, Saturday, our team can change that.”
Kentucky was ranked in both meetings last season while Arkansas wasn’t in the Top 25 in either.
"I think our guys will have fire … I just think they have a competitive edge about them," Wildcats assistant head coach Kenny Payne said. "The freshmen know that this team has beaten us twice."
Portis, second in the SEC with 17.6 points per game, has been at the forefront of Arkansas’ quest for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2008. The 6-foot-11 sophomore had 22 points in an 81-75 win over Texas A&M on Tuesday, his 23rd straight game in double figures.
"We’ll be facing really good players, and (Portis is) one of them," Payne said. "He can really shoot the ball to be that size. He’s good around the basket and can shoot 3s. He’s excellent from the post and shooting turnaround jumpers. He’s a really good player."
Portis is also the lone prep McDonald’s All-American at Arkansas, a sobering fact as the Razorbacks prepare to face Kentucky’s abundance of recruiting riches.
Just don’t try to tell Portis that.
”That doesn’t mean anything anymore,” Portis said. ”That’s high school stuff, that’s old stuff, that’s out the window. The McDonald’s All-American stuff has nothing to do with playing basketball.”
Kentucky boasts nine McDonald’s All-Americans.
"I don’t think that really matters," Wildcats freshman forward Trey Lyles said. "Just gotta go out there and compete and just, you know, go out there and play harder than they do."
Arkansas shocked the Wildcats in Fayetteville last season when Michael Qualls slammed home a thundering two-hand dunk with 0.2 seconds remaining in overtime, giving it an 87-85 win. The Razorbacks followed that with their first win in Rupp Arena since their 1993-94 national championship season, again coming in overtime.
"You know, nobody wants to lose to them again – the players or the coaches – so they’ve been talking about it the past couple days and everybody’s pretty much getting energized for it," Lyles said Friday.
"I think they definitely remember. They talk about it quite a lot now since the game is coming up, so I think they’re going to have a little bit more energy and passion going out there tomorrow night."
While Portis said Arkansas is ”very confident,” he also stressed ”last year has nothing to do with this year.”
Fourth-year Arkansas coach Mike Anderson has repeatedly said this season that each ”next game is the biggest game” for a program desperate to return to the NCAA tournament – as well as re-establish itself as nationally relevant.
The Razorbacks will have their biggest stage of the season, an opportunity they’ve earned while climbing back to the ranks of the SEC’s elite.
”When this league was at its best, Arkansas was very relevant,” Anderson said. ”We feel like we’re trending in that direction.”
Kentucky’s 28-game winning streak is the second-longest in school history, trailing only a 32-game stretch from 1953-55. It’s also the longest in a single season for the Wildcats, who haven’t faced a ranked opponent since a 58-50 win at then-No. 4 Louisville on Dec. 27.
”We respect our opponent, but we don’t fear anyone,” Anderson said. ”So, going in, our guys are going with a lot of confidence.”
Lyles led the way with a season-high 18 points as Kentucky won 74-56 at Mississippi State on Wednesday, but he’s expecting a bigger challenge from Arkansas.
"I just think there’s more energy from the crowd and from the team, and, you know, we just try to go out there and make a statement every time we play ranked opponents, and stuff like that," Lyles said.