FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said he and Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy have talked about scheduling a game for some time now.
The plan never came to fruition until recently, when the Demons called to ask if there was an opening on Arkansas’ 2012-13 schedule. So Anderson said the eagerness to travel to Fayetteville must mean one thing about McConathy’s team.
"They’re pretty good," Anderson said.
Arkansas (7-4) returns to the floor after a short holiday break to play Northwestern State (5-3) in Bud Walton Arena at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
Anderson said the Razorbacks better be ready for an opponent he likened to previous foe Robert Morris, which fought closely with Arkansas throughout a 79-74 loss on Dec. 20. While the Demons don’t carry the name recognition of other nonconference opponents like Syracuse, Wisconsin or Michigan, the Razorbacks are preparing for a challenge against another opponent eager to play up-tempo.
Northwestern State is averaging 86.2 points a game, which ranked second in the nation in scoring behind Indiana (88.8 points) entering the week. Northwestern State also is shooting 48.5 percent from the field.
"It may be up, up and away tempo," Anderson said of Saturday’s game. "They want to play fast. We want to play fast. So we’ll see what takes place."
The Demons haven’t registered a big win in nonconference play, but there have been plenty of close calls against power conference opponents.
LSU escaped with a 102-95 win against Northwestern State on Nov. 20. Texas was pressed, too, before pulling away for a 78-65 win six days later. Then there was Northwestern State’s narrow 69-65 loss to Oklahoma on Nov. 30.
Northwestern State hasn’t played much this month, grabbing wins against Louisiana Tech (89-83 on Dec. 4) and Missouri Valley (95-78 on Dec. 15). So the Demons should be eager for their biggest nonconference test remaining at Arkansas.
"We’ve seen them play. They’re a pretty good team," Arkansas guard BJ Young said. "We just want to send out a message to anyone that comes in here that they’re going to have a hard time. We just want to play tough and as hard as we can."
The Razorbacks played well their last time out, beating Alabama A&M 95-68 in North Little Rock last Saturday. Anderson turned his players free to go home for Christmas after the game and, after some experienced travel trouble through snow storms returning to Fayetteville, resumed workouts Christmas night.
Anderson said five or six players couldn’t make it back in time for the light shooting practice. But his group was back in tact for workouts Wednesday and Thursday.
"Coach A wanted to run all the food out of us and make sure that we’re more than ready for the game coming up and conference play and all the other games," Young said. "Everybody came back with a good focus. We’ve been going through two-a-days, and everybody looks ready for this game."
The Razorbacks are aiming for their fourth-straight win, which would signal the second-longest win streak during Anderson’s tenure. Arkansas hasn’t won four straight since last winter, when the Hogs pieced together a seven-game run between late December and early January.
While there have been some easy wins during the stretch, Anderson said there’s still room for improvement. He’s hoping the Hogs can keep adding to the successes.
"It remains to be seen if we’re in that same mode that we’ve been playing with prior to the break," Anderson said. "But our guys are excited about playing. And as you can see we’re getting closer and closer to conference play. You want to hopefully be playing a little bit better basketball than you were earlier in the year.
"One of the things I really talked about is our effort. Our effort to the glass. Our effort on defense. Our effort in pushing the ball. Our effort in screening and getting other guys open. So effort and attitude are very, very important this time of year."
Northwestern State may not bring the same clout as Arkansas’ previous opponents, like Syracuse, Michigan and Wisconsin. But Anderson said the effort will be needed Saturday against a team that is eager to get out and run with the Razorbacks.
"This is a team that kind of sought us out," Anderson said. "It’s going to be a good test for our basketball team. I always tell our guys, you can’t afford to just look at the name on the jerseys. … This team here, a pretty good basketball team."