Back in 1992, Corliss Williamson was the last homegrown McDonald's All-American to play for Arkansas. Longing for another such star grew for more than 20 years, until Bobby Portis signed with the Razorbacks.
No wonder Coach Mike Anderson tried to temper expectations of the great things to come by pointing out that Portis needed time to develop as a college player.
"I didn't want the pressure on Bobby of being the savior of our program," the Arkansas coach said. "My deal with him was, 'Go at your own pace.'"
That pace included being named to the All-Southeastern Conference second team as a freshman last season. In the Razorbacks' two-game sweep of Kentucky, he scored 20 points and grabbed 16 rebounds.
This season, Portis is well on the way to being an all-league first-teamer, a plausible SEC Player of the Year candidate and, surely, a central figure in Kentucky's game plan for Saturday.
In leading Arkansas to a 23-5 record (12-3 in the SEC), Portis is among the league's top five players in scoring (17.6 ppg), rebounding (8.5 rpg), shooting (56.4 percent) and blocks (1.6 bpg).
"He's been real steady," Anderson said Monday. "That's been a big key to the success that we're having."
Portis' 10 double-doubles this season match the total of such celebrated players as Jahlil Okafor of Duke, Mon trezl Harrell of Louisville and Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin.
"He can get a double-double any night," Anderson said before adding, "What I'm excited about is his presence on defense, now. He's become that guy making it real difficult for people to score at the rim."
Like Karl-Anthony Towns and his Karlito, Portis has an alter ego that he speaks with.
"My little personal thing in my head," he said. "I do it almost every game."
Anderson smiled when asked about Portis' personal chats.
"Just tell him to keep talking to himself," the Arkansas coach said. "He's doing a good job."
Not that Portis contributed little last season (he averaged 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds), but there's been a noticeable spike in his production and on-court presence this season.
"His confidence is real high," Anderson said. "Last year, he got pushed around."
Since last season, Portis has grown an inch. "He's 6-11 now," Anderson said. He's stronger. He's wiser.
"Last year, I really didn't shoot it with confidence," Portis said earlier this season. "I was just shooting it to shoot it.
"But this year I feel like I'm confident in everything that I'm doing — shooting, posting up and just being a basketball player, really."
During the offseason, Portis attended the LeBron James Skills Academy and the Nike Elite Youth Basketball Big Man Skills Academy. His counselors included former Kentucky big men Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
"I thought being at the camps really pushed Bobby's confidence to another level," Anderson said.
After Portis scored 22 points in a victory over SMU, Mustangs Coach Larry Brown said, "The kid Portis is a pretty damn good player. He's a whole different deal. He's going to be playing somewhere else soon. He can step outside, he posts up."
At SEC Media Days, Georgia Coach Mark Fox said he was surprised that Portis did not enter the 2014 NBA Draft.
But Anderson said Portis does not just want to play in the NBA, he wants to be a productive pro player.
"Bobby is different than a lot of other guys," the Arkansas coach said. "With a lot of guys, it's like they chase it. Bobby is going to let it come to him."
Corliss Williamson, now an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings, worked with Portis in AAU basketball. Portis was in second grade when Williamson became his coach and mentor.
"Every year our relationship got stronger, just because I really didn't have a father in my life," Portis said this season. "Corliss stepped in and helped me out a lot.
"He tried to teach me the ins and outs of basketball and in life."
Anderson, an assistant coach when Williamson led Arkansas to the 1994 national championship, sees how Williamson influenced Portis.
"Bobby's mentality is very similar to Corliss," Anderson said. "Corliss was a great player coming out of high school and obviously did some great things here, but he was one of the most humble guys you had ever seen.
"You would never have known that he was that great a player. He never talked about himself, he always talked about his teammates."
This season, Arkansas asked that Portis be more of a leader.
"Last year I was kind of shy," he said. "I didn't really know what to say, and I didn't want to say the wrong thing. ... I had a freshman persona.
"Now, it's cool. I just say what's best."
Cauley-Stein, Portis among Oscar Robertson finalists
UK junior Willie Cauley-Stein joined Portis among 14 finalists named Thursday for the Oscar Robertson Trophy, which goes to the nation's top men's college basketball player.
The award is presented by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
Cauley-Stein is averaging 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds. He leads UK with 39 steals and has blocked 43 shots this season. The 7-footer is the first player in UK history to amass 200 or more blocks and 100 or more steals in a career.
Joining Cauley-Stein and Portis as Oscar Robertson finalists are Kyle Wiltjer — a former UK player — of Gonzaga and Louisville native D'Angelo Russell of Ohio State.
Others on the list are Ron Baker, Wichita State; Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia; Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse; Jerian Grant, Notre Dame; Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin; Georges Niang, Iowa State; Jahlil Okafor, Duke; Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga; Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa; and Delon Wright, Utah.
The award will be presented at the Devon Energy College Basketball Awards on April 14 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.