Arguably no college basketball player this season — or any recent season — has experienced higher highs and lower lows than Arkansas sophomore Michael Qualls.Putback dunk in the final second of overtime to beat Kentucky. Game-winning three-pointer with 2.6 seconds left at Vanderbilt. Seven appearances on ESPN SportsCenter's top 10 plays.
But Qualls has also lost his spot in Arkansas' starting lineup for a while. He served a one-game suspension for what the program called "conduct detrimental to the team." He made only one of 10 shots in a game, one of 12 in another and none in a third.
When asked how he explains this season's wild ride, Qualls said simply, "I don't. I don't explain."
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That said, Qualls attributed this season's downturns to not dealing well with early success, which began with a dunk over a 6-foot-10 player from SIU-Edwardsville in the season opener (No. 4 on SportsCenter's top 10 list that night).
A trio of alley-oop dunks against Minnesota in the Maui Invitational returned Qualls to SportsCenter's top 10 list (dunks in triplicate at No. 7), as did yet another alley-oop throwdown against South Alabama (No. 8).
Later dunks at Missouri (No. 3), at Missouri (No. 4), home against Missouri (No. 9). SportsCenter ranked the winning dunk against Kentucky No. 1.
(Perhaps it says something that the winning three-pointer at Vanderbilt, a mere jump shot, did not make an ESPN top 10 list.)
"Basketball is basketball," Qualls said of the highlights that preceded his fall. "You get out of it what you put in it.
"It's easy when you're being praised to just lay back."
Of course, no college player rests completely on his laurels. Teams and players continue to practice no matter what appears on television highlight features.
"I put in time," Qualls said Tuesday. "But it wasn't the time I used to put in."
He normally would take 200 extra shots after each practice. "I got to the point I was putting up (extra shots) two days out of a week," he said.
"Everybody has to work on their craft. I feel I kind of just wasn't working on it. I kind of lost focus."
Qualls, a 6-foot-6 wing, downplayed the notion that the winning dunk against Kentucky somehow consumed him. He does not re-live the moment in his mind often.
"Not a lot," he said. "Coach (Mike Anderson) says, 'You know what? Live it up till midnight. When midnight comes, we worry about the next game."
That timetable gave Qualls not much more than an hour to drink in the thrill of a winning dunk. He said he called his grandmother and his father. They talked about how he became a hero and prayed.
"The media brings it up," he said of the dunk against Kentucky. "They ask me, did that help spark my confidence to get through some of the stuff I was going through. I told them, there wasn't anything wrong with my confidence."
Qualls noted that he considers the winning shot at Vanderbilt a bigger thrill. "Just because it was on the road," he said. "We've proved we can beat a lot of teams at home. On the road, we've not been able to finish."
Arkansas had won only two of its previous 24 Southeastern Conference road games before winning at Vandy. That began an uptick that saw the Hogs win two of the last three road games (the loss at Missouri on a shot in the final seconds) going into Thursday's game at Kentucky.
Qualls brushed off losing his starting position, which came after he made only nine of 46 shots in his first four SEC games.
He was philosophical about being suspended for Arkansas' loss at LSU.
"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "You can't just get down on yourself. Some people worry about the wrong things. What I was worried about was helping my team."
Qualls comes to Kentucky on a roll. He's averaged 16 points in the Hogs' last three games, making 17 of 39 shots (nine of 19 from three-point range) and returning to the starting lineup in that span.
"I feel lately I've been playing some good ball," he said. "Even more than that, my team has been playing some good ball."