South Alabama (6-5) vs. Arkansas (8-2) • When: 7 p.m. Saturday • Where: Verizon Arena, North Little Rock • TV/Radio: KATV-7/KABZ-FM 103.7 • Series: Arkansas leads 5-1; last meeting South Alabama 74, Arkansas 61 on Nov. 29, 2009
FAYETTEVILLE — Bobby Portis was in Verizon Arena two years ago to watch Arkansas’ 87-78 loss to Houston.
Alandise Harris was there, too, but he wasn’t watching from the stands. The Houston forward was leading the Cougars to a win against his home state school, capping a happy homecoming with a highlight-reel dunk in the final minutes.
"It was pretty crazy," Portis said thinking back to Harris’ big moment, which was named the top play on ESPN’s SportsCenter later that night.
The good news for the Razorbacks (8-2) is that both Central Arkansas natives will be in Arkansas uniforms as they try to avoid a similar fate against South Alabama (6-5) in North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena at 7 tonight. In fact, Harris and Portis are leading a Little Rock revival, of sorts, as the Razorbacks make their annual stop.
The duo will become the first Little Rock or North Little Rock natives to play for the Razorbacks in their homecoming game since 2008-09. They’ve also become the first Little Rock natives to make a significant impact for Arkansas basketball since Joe Johnson played for the Razorbacks during the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons.
Little Rock Central High coach Oliver Fitzpatrick predicted the turnout for tonight’s game will be an indication of just how important they are to the area.
"I’m sure you’ll see a big crowd there," said Fitzpatrick, who coached Harris. "It means a lot to the city to have guys here playing. It means a lot to the young kids who play here at the middle schools and even the high schools to have guys leaving these programs in and around Little Rock to go and play up there."
There aren’t many who have done it since Johnson’s departure. While the Central Arkansas faithful have welcomed the Hogs and East Arkansas products like Ky Madden and former Arkansas forward Hunter Mickelson to Verizon, there hasn’t been a player from the Little Rock metropolitan area on the Razorbacks’ roster since former North Little Rock High forward Andre Clark in 2008-09.
Even more, Arkansas has only had four scholarship players from Little Rock or North Little Rock since Johnson, a Little Rock Central star. Those four — former Little Rock Central High’s Michael Jones (2000-01 to 20004-05) and Jamar Blackmon (2001-02 to 2002-03), Little Rock Fair’s Vincent Hunter (2003-04 to 2007-08) and North Little Rock’s Clark (2008-09) — never made much of an impact, either.
But that has changed this season. Harris, who transferred from Houston two years ago and sat out last season before of NCAA rules, is third on the team in scoring (11.6 points) and fourth in rebounds (4.9 points). Harris said he is embracing the opportunity to play for his hometown now that he’s a Razorback.
"You’ve got to represent for the state," Harris said. "This is the biggest thing in the state right here. This is something that I’ve always wanted to do and I’m pretty sure (Portis) did too. It’s the biggest thing. This is the professional sport in the state. It’s all you know growing up is Arkansas Razorbacks. You don’t know nothing about Arkansas State or UCA. You don’t know none of that until you get bigger or older. You always know Razorbacks, Razorbacks, Razorbacks. Football and basketball."
Portis, a McDonald’s All-American who helped Little Rock Hall win four state championships, has lived up to expectations in averaging 11.7 points and 5.6 rebounds as a freshman. He’s the only Razorback to start every game this season and has scored in double figures in six straight.
"Just growing up in Little Rock everybody wants to be a Razorback," Portis said about his motivation to play at Arkansas over other offers. "But it’s like reality now for me because I put in the work to get here and now I’m just living the dream."
Fitzpatrick — who also coached Johnson while the Brooklyn Nets guard was in high school at Little Rock Central — said many others share that dream as well.
But he couldn’t explain exactly why the Razorbacks have endured a Little Rock drought on their roster before Harris and Portis arrived.
Some players — like A.J. Walton (Baylor) and Archie Goodwin (Kentucky) — ended up elsewhere. Little Rock Parkview’s Aaron Ross, meanwhile, signed with Arkansas but couldn’t qualify academically. Others are playing college basketball at smaller schools like UT Martin forward Myles Taylor, who played at Hall.
Either way, Fitzpatrick said it’s good to see Little Rock high school players now at Arkansas under Anderson.
"I think more than anything else it was the unfamiliarity of the coaches up there with (Stan) Heath and (John) Pelphrey," Fitzpatrick said. "They just didn’t have a lot of Arkansas connections being from out of state like they were. Mike Anderson was basically born and bred here at Arkansas. … He’s familiar with the landscape around here with the coaches and the kids who are from the Little Rock metropolitan area."
In addition to Harris and Portis, Arkansas has four others from state high schools on its 2013-14 roster (Madden, Fred Gulley, Kikko Haydar and Manny Watkins).
There are more coming, too. A third Little Rock player — Parkview guard Anton Beard — has joined Forrest City High’s Trey Thompson in the next signing class.
"It’s good to have players in your state, there’s no question, and it’s even better that they can come up here and be of impact," Anderson said. "That’s not only great for our program, but it’s great for their city, it’s great for the University, and I think it creates excitement for our fans because they have some guys that are from here."
Portis and Harris understand it while trying to round up enough tickets for friends and family eager to attend tonight’s game. Portis said Thursday night he and Harris feel like "our whole town will come out and support us" against South Alabama.
Fitzpatrick said Harris is aware of the impact he and Portis can have on other basketball players from the area who hope to live out their dreams at Arkansas, too.
They’re not taking the responsibility lightly.
"He’s very conscious of the image that he plays in terms of being a Little Rock kid and how hard he works and how well he plays at the University of Arkansas," said Fitzpatrick, who spoke to Harris on Thursday night. "It could have a good impact on those kids coming through the high school level and the middle school level."
The Arkansas roster hadn’t included impact players from the Little Rock area for the past decade until Harris and Portis stepped on the court this season. But both are confident that is changing as they play in front of friends and family tonight.
"I think that just makes more people want to be a Razorback just because we are on the team and they see us from Little Rock," Portis said.