Improved Portis leads rejuvenated Arkansas in search of NCAA tournament berth



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FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas — Bobby Portis spent much of the offseason working to improve his post moves and scoring touch around the basket.

That's saying something for the Arkansas forward, who was good enough last season to earn second-team All-Southeastern Conference honors.

Led by the new-look Portis, optimism is as high surrounding the Razorbacks as it's been since Mike Anderson returned as coach in 2011. Arkansas last reached the NCAA tournament in 2008, but it was picked to finish third in the SEC behind league powers Kentucky and Florida after a 22-12 record a season ago.

The attention has been a welcomed change for a once-dominant program that's been largely an afterthought in the SEC since Anderson departed following the firing of former coach Nolan Richardson in 2002.

"It's not where you start, it's where you finish," Anderson said. "But one thing that's very evident is they're noticing us more, so we're on the right track."

If Arkansas is to end its NCAA drought, it will likely be due in large part to an abundance of talented frontcourt players — led by the 6-foot-11 Portis.

The sophomore averaged 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season, including a career-best 35-point outburst in a win over Alabama. He also shot 50.9 percent from the field, doing so while struggling at times to finish close to the basket against the more developed post players in the SEC.

"He's a sponge," Anderson said. "He's one of those guys who learns from all his previous experience that took place last year. He got pushed around quite a bit ... He's not going to get pushed around much anymore."

Following his introduction to the physical style of college basketball, Portis — who largely played on the wing in high school — worked throughout the offseason on his post moves. He also added almost 10 pounds and now weighs 243 pounds.

"Last year, I was kind of thin and new to the physicality of the game," Portis said. "But this year, I've embraced it and think I'm ready for it."

Portis is expected to have plenty of help up front for the Razorbacks, who reached the NIT last season before exiting in the second round with a loss at California.

While Arkansas did lose forward Coty Clarke to the professional ranks, the high-flying tandem of Michael Qualls and Alandise Harris return this season. The two combined to average 20.6 points per game last season, and they expect to provide the perfect inside-out compliment to Portis' continued emergence under the basket.

Qualls had the game-winning putback dunk at home against Kentucky last season, one of two wins for the Razorbacks over the Wildcats, and he's counting on an improved all-around game to help lift Arkansas back to the NCAA tournament.

Harris, meanwhile, is expected to move into the starting rotation as a senior after largely coming off the bench last season in his first on the court after transferring from Houston.

Regardless of how their roles play out, the Razorbacks are enjoying their preseason pick as one of the top teams in the SEC.

"It's nice that they're finally giving us our props," Harris said. "Basically, we earned our respect last year, and now we have to go out and prove it."

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