FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Mike Anderson is looking for answers, just like everyone else.
The Arkansas coach can't pinpoint any one reason for a recent slide that's seen the Razorbacks fall from NCAA tournament hopefuls to a team on the NIT bubble.
Injuries? Lack of depth?
A group of four freshmen possibly wearing down from extended minutes in their first year of college basketball under Anderson's up-tempo style?
Anderson thinks it could be a little of each.
The last month has been anything but an easy one for Arkansas (18-12, 6-9 Southeastern Conference) and its first-year coach. The Razorbacks have lost six of eight, and that much-ballyhooed 17-game home win streak to open the season?
Well, it's long gone — reduced to a three-game losing stretch in Bud Walton Arena after a loss to Mississippi on Tuesday.
Rather than bemoan the recent struggles, however, Anderson is looking forward, starting with the regular-season finale at Mississippi State (20-10, 7-8) on Saturday.
"There is still a lot to play for," Anderson said.
The Razorbacks opened SEC play with a 98-88 win over the then-No. 15 Bulldogs on Jan. 7. The win was an unexpected one for a team already without leading scorer Marshawn Powell due a season-ending knee injury, but it fueled Arkansas' confidence moving forward.
Wins over a pair of ranked teams, Michigan and Vanderbilt, followed and the Razorbacks appeared well on their way to ahead-of-schedule success in Anderson's first season. Even an 0-9 start to the season away from Fayetteville didn't dampen the burgeoning hopes or expectations.
Those hopes came to a crashing end when the Razorbacks finally lost their first home game, a 98-68 dismantling at the hands of No. 14 Florida on Feb. 18. Since then, Arkansas has lost two more games at home, to Alabama and the Rebels, and Anderson's pressure defense has struggled to keep up its frenetic pace.
Both the Gators (58.3 percent) and Crimson Tide (55.1) shot season highs against the Razorbacks. Ole Miss struggled for a half on Tuesday, but the Rebels rallied from a 15-point deficit by shooting 58.1 percent in the second half to win.
"I just think our half-court defense is not where I would want it to be at this point and time," Anderson said. "We might do it for a half, but for a full game we're not finishing the way I think we're capable of doing."
Arkansas has played much of this season with only eight scholarship players, following Powell's injury and other assorted ailments to forwards Marvell Waithe and Michael Sanchez. Even with a boost from backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell, who has seen extended minutes lately after arriving after the football season, the Razorbacks are forcing an average of only 13 turnovers per game in their last three losses.
Arkansas still leads the SEC in turnovers forced (16.6) and turnover margin (plus 3.5), but Anderson knows the pressure has lacked lately.
"Some of that has something to do with I just think the toughness part of it," Anderson said. "Are they wearing down? I don't know. But I think it's something if we intend to continue to play, we've got to get better at it."Comment on this story
The Razorbacks did finally break through their road barrier their last time away from home, rallying for a 77-71 win at Auburn. Anderson hopes that translates to renewed effort and confidence at Mississippi State — as well as at next week's SEC Tournament and beyond.
"I think that, to me, is a great signal, great sign, for this young basketball team," Anderson said. "We grew up, and I think that's going to pay dividends.
"Whether it be this year or next year, it's going to pay off in a big, big way."