FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Mike Anderson knew what he was getting into with a difficult early schedule.
After back-to-back losses, the Arkansas coach hopes to come through the brutal opening stretch without any long-term damage - a task that doesn't get any easier when the Razorbacks (3-2) host No. 6 Syracuse on Friday night.
Arkansas lost a pair of games during last week's Las Vegas Invitational, falling to Arizona State and Wisconsin. The tournament started a five-game stretch that could go a long way to determining how seriously the Razorbacks are taken as they try to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.
Following the game with the Orange (4-0), Arkansas still has two difficult nonconference games next week. The Razorbacks host Oklahoma on Tuesday before traveling to No. 3 Michigan on Dec. 8, a return game following last season's home win over the Wolverines.
All in all, the stretch is hardly the usual lineup of early season cupcakes.
"It's a slate that's probably very similar to what you're going to see in the (Southeastern Conference)," Anderson said. "So, it gives us an opportunity to find out more about this team. We want to be one of the better teams in the country, so we get a chance first hand with this particular slate."
While Anderson focused on the positives of such a difficult nonconference schedule, he carefully avoided the potential negatives - primarily the possibility of a series of losses that could damage both Arkansas' postseason hopes as well as its psyche.
The Razorbacks were 18-14 last season in Anderson's first year as coach after leaving Missouri. After an offseason of roster turnover, Arkansas has featured four new faces - three freshmen (Anthlon Bell, Jacorey Williams and Michael Qualls) and one junior college transfer (Coty Clarke) - so far this season.
Clarke has had the most immediate impact for the Razorbacks, leading the team in rebounds (6.8) in less than 20 minutes per game. The other newcomers have shown potential but have yet to help an Arkansas team that's struggled to connect from the outside - hitting just 22 of 79 (27.8 percent) of its 3-pointers.
That must improve against Syracuse and its zone defense.
"It will be a great experience for me as a freshman," Williams said. `It's a great opportunity to see where we're at as a team."
The younger players aren't the only ones being counted on to improve.
Guard Mardracus Wade led the SEC in 3-point shooting last season, connecting on nearly 46 percent of his shots from behind the arc. The junior has hit 40 percent of his 3-pointers so far this season, but he's only attempted 10 shots and Anderson wants him to become more assertive - both against the Orange and moving forward.
Wade said the younger players took last week's losses "pretty hard." He also welcomed the chance for the Razorbacks to redeem themselves so quickly against more top competition.
"I knew (the early schedule) was going to be tough, but at the same time I knew what these guys bring to the table and I knew that we were going to have to step up," Wade said. "It's not an easy challenge, but we're up to it."
Sophomore BJ Young led the Razorbacks in scoring last season and has returned from an early two-game suspension for violating team rules to once again serve as the focal point of the offense. The guard is averaging 20.5 points per game, scoring a season-high 29 points in the loss to the Sun Devils.
Young will face his most difficult task yet Friday in trying to slow the Syracuse backcourt duo of Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. Carter-Williams is averaging nearly 10 assists per game after tallying a career-high 13 in a win over Colgate, and Triche is tied with teammate James Southerland for the team lead in scoring at 15.3 points per game.
Arkansas forward Marshawn Powell, who is averaging 12.2 points per game while returning from last season's torn ACL in his right knee, said he'll approach the highly ranked Orange "like it's an ordinary game."
Anderson was a bit more mindful of the talented Syracuse roster. He was also confident that the Razorbacks will carry forward their confidence - regardless of their record during the difficult five-game stretch.
"I think in any game you play to win, and that's going to be our mindset," Anderson said. "Obviously, we want to take care of the home court first. To me, the most important game is going to be this one here. I think there's a lot of basketball in the season and lot to be played."