FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Arkansas’ Bobby Portis looked around following a first-half dunk against Dayton, letting out an excited scream heard throughout Bud Walton Arena.
If ever there was a moment that showed how far Portis has come, this was it.
With his confidence and comfort level soaring during his second season with the Razorbacks, Portis has elevated more than just his game.
The 6-foot-11 preseason first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection has finally embraced his role as an emotional leader for an Arkansas team desperate to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.
”I was a leader in high school, and I think last year I kind of got away from that,” Portis said. ”I kind of shied away from it, but this year it’s something I have to do, just because I’m one of the best players on the team, so that’s what I have to do.”
Arkansas (7-2) hosts Southeast Missouri (5-5) on Saturday night in North Little Rock, not far from where Portis led Little Rock Parkview to back-to-back state championships to close out his prep career.
Portis was a clear leader on the court while in high school, constantly seen talking to teammates during games and on the bench. As a freshman at Arkansas, he deferred to the older and more established Razorbacks while working to prove himself on the collegiate level.
Portis didn’t lack for personal success with the approach, earning second-team All-SEC honors while averaging 12.3 points per game. However, the lack of a vocal leader on the court cost Arkansas at times during the season – including a pair of late-season losses that kept the Razorbacks out of the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight season.
This season, Portis has made a point to learn from last season’s failures. He’s done so by demanding accountability from teammates during practices as well as calling for the ball more during games, much to the liking of Arkansas coach Mike Anderson.
”With his play and being one of the better players on the team, he is kind of demanding it a little bit more,” Anderson said. ”He is speaking and saying some things that last year he wouldn’t have said. That tells me that he is maturing into that role.”
Following back-to-back losses on the road at Iowa State and Clemson, Anderson made it clear the path back to winning for Arkansas led through Portis – calling for the sophomore to demand the ball more in the post and be even more of a focal point on the court.
Portis heeded his coach’s advice against Dayton last week, finishing with 18 points and nine rebounds in a 69-55 victory over a team that came within a win of the Final Four last season.
More importantly, it was how Portis impacted the game – calling for the ball in the post repeatedly in the first half and hitting several long jumpers – that left Anderson and the rest of the Razorbacks smiling.
It was a performance Arkansas hopes to see more of this season from the talented Portis, who leads the Razorbacks with an average of 15.8 points per game this season.
”Last year, we saw a lot of leadership potential in him; he was just kind of playing like the freshman role,” Arkansas junior Jacorey Williams said. ”But now it’s like he’s more talkative. He’s engaged, talking to everybody on the team, trying to lead, and that’s what we’ve been needing.”