By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Rotnei Clarke said he never lost confidence.
His ability to knock down jumpers and score points in bunches is something that has followed him throughout every moment of his career.
But Clarke did admit to his share of frustration about the first five games of Southeastern Conference play. And for good reason. The team’s leading scorer was averaging 7.6 points, including a scoreless outing at Florida.
"I might have been down a little bit or frustrated," Clarke said Monday. "But the coaches told me I needed to focus more on getting my shots inside the 3-point line. It would open up if I took some shots or drove to the basket."
Clarke heeded the advice and, as a result, snapped out of his scoring slump last week.
He opened the week by notching 16 points (only three of which came from behind the 3-point line) in Arkansas’ win against Auburn on Tuesday. Four days later, he scored 36 (18 from 3-point range) in the Razorbacks’ 89-76 win at No. 19 Vanderbilt.
Putting the ball on the floor has been a new emphasis for Clarke, who has been blanketed by defenders all month. Moving well without it has been, too, something Arkansas coach John Pelphrey acknowledged during Monday’s press conference.
"He is obviously drawing the same amount of attention, but he has been able to create some of those things for himself and then make the right play whether it be to shoot the ball or pass it to somebody else," Pelphrey said. "He’s done a better job of that and the team has operated a little bit better. It’s a combination of both and maturing and finding ways to have an impact other than just standing behind the 3-point line."
Clarke did match his season-high for 3-pointers made at Vanderbilt, but much of his scoring early on came from inside the arc. He was 6-for-8 from both two-point and three-point range. Clarke also finished 6-for-7 from the free-throw line.
The 36-point performance was the highest by an SEC player in any game this season. It also was the fourth-highest total by an Arkansas player in an SEC game in school history. Clarke was named SEC player of the week for his efforts Monday.
"It’s a cool accomplishment," Clarke said. "But that doesn’t happen without my teammates."
Pelphrey agreed, saying the Razorbacks played an important role in Clarke’s week.
In fact, Pelphrey mentioned after the Auburn game he saw a change with them in practice.
The Razorbacks were setting more screens, communicating better and helping Clarke work his way into open looks. It was a "Eureka!" moment of sorts. They began to understand helping Clarke get back in rhythm offensively was vital for the Hogs and needed to be a group effort.
"Whatever we can do to get him an open shot," Arkansas point guard Julysses Nobles said Monday. "Every time he shoots we think it’s going in. We just try to get him every open look he can get."
Another key for Clarke — slowing down.
Clarke realized he was rushing himself whenever he tried shaking a defender, knocking himself out of rhythm. It was a big reason he was shooting 31.4 percent in five SEC play, including 11.7 percent (2 of 17) during three road games.
"I feel like the first part of the season I was moving so fast because I was being covered so tight or whatever," Clarke said. "I was speeding myself up. I tried to slow down, be more patient and set up my cuts and make sure I run off them tight and do different things like that."
In addition to breaking down his struggles, he paid attention to those who have done it right.
That has meant plenty of film study of former NBA great Reggie Miller, Detroit Pistons guard Richard Hamilton and Orlando Magic guard J.J Redick (especially when he played at Duke).
"I’ve done a lot of watching film," Clarke said. "And that’s helped me out a lot, I think."
It’s good news for Arkansas, which will hit the midway point of SEC play against the Bulldogs on Wednesday. The Razorbacks are in position to make a run with three of their next four games coming in Fayetteville, where Arkansas is 12-0, too.
Doing so will require solid rebounding and strong defending. And, of course, keeping Clarke on track after his struggles early in SEC play.
"It’s a team effort," Clarke said. "From watching film to these guys actually helping me out on the court when I do get open."