FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas was gassed at this point last season, running into late-season issues with an undermanned roster.
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson is confident that’s why his team, which was 17-8 and 5-5 in Southeastern Conference play, stumbled to a 1-5 finish over its final six regular season games. The costly slump knocked the Razorbacks out of NCAA Tournament consideration and the National Invitational Tournament picture.
But Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade said there’s a different vibe for the Razorbacks (16-9, 7-5 in SEC) after 25 games this season.
"We feel like other teams are going downhill," Wade said. "And we’re going uphill.
The Razorbacks enter the final three weeks of the regular season brimming with confidence after winning four of their past five games. It included last week’s road win at Auburn, which was followed by an emotional home win against Missouri.
The recent success has helped Arkansas boost its postseason resume as it prepares for the stretch run. The Razorbacks can take another step in the right direction when it plays Georgia (12-13, 6-6 in SEC) in Bud Walton Arena on Thursday night.
Another victory would lead Arkansas to its first three-game win streak in conference play under Anderson. It also would be the first since 2009-10, when the Razorbacks won five straight SEC games under former coach John Pelphrey.
Anderson believes even more success is possible with six games to go because of the way his team has improved throughout the season.
"This is when you want to be playing your better basketball," Anderson said. "I think we are trending the right direction with this team. Guys are playing with a lot of confidence right now. They are starting to trust one another."
It was evident last Saturday, when the Razorbacks fought off a five-point deficit over the final 30 seconds to beat the Tigers. Guard BJ Young led the comeback, scoring seven points in that stretch to hand the Hogs another important home win.
The 2-0 week helped Arkansas move from No. 94 to No. 77 in the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) this week. While it remains well off the NCAA Tournament radar, the Razorbacks have taken steps lately. They’ve improved to 3-3 against teams ranked in the top 50 in this week’s RPI and 5-7 against the top 100.
Four of Arkansas’ final six games are against teams in the top 100, too, giving the Razorbacks opportunities to add to their postseason resume. It includes road games at Florida (No. 3) and Missouri (No. 38), and at home against Kentucky (No. 44).
"I think we’re in a good position," Young said about Arkansas’ recent surge. "We’re just now hitting our stride. We’re trying to put a string of wins together and just be playing our best basketball towards the end of the year like coach says."
That hasn’t been Arkansas’ strong suit the past several seasons.
The Razorbacks were 2-8 in February and March last season. They went 4-7 in 2010-11, 4-7 in 2009-10, and 1-10 in 2008-09. The late-season struggles played a big part in Arkansas missing out on postseason play each season.
But Arkansas is 4-1 so far this month and Wade believes the Razorbacks have the depth, experience and confidence to make it continue.
"We can get up and down and pressure teams more without having to be so conservative," Wade said. "We don’t have to hold back so much. We can let everybody play hard and do what we do best."
Anderson said that’s how he has built his teams in the past.
He’s hoping it continues as Arkansas moves into the final leg of the regular season.
"You want to build your team were you start playing your better basketball in late January and February," Anderson said. "So guys now have a better ideas what their roles are. The teams I have been associated with, unlike last year, because I think the numbers really caught up with us in terms of having the talent and enough numbers that we kind of hit a wall. But this team, I still think we have good basketball left."