State of the Hogs: Toughness

If there is one intangible that pays big dividends in basketball, it's toughness. Anton Beard may be extra tough for a true freshman.

The stroll towards the media room was entertaining. In the hallway just outside the workout room and before I could step into the interviews stood greatness.

There was Lee Mayberry, Scotty Thurman and Ron Brewer, Sr., engaged in conversation. I would later mention that to Mike Anderson as he stepped off the podium from a weekly visit with media to preview the weekend's game with Southeast Missouri.

It's a good thing to have the legends of Arkansas basketball back in the building so often. It's not an accident they are around. I give credit to Anderson for creating a great environment.

“It is fun,” Anderson said. “We are expecting Derek Hood around practice next week. He should be here Monday.”

It seemed fitting to be talking about Hood. I see some of his qualities in this Arkansas basketball team, especially in regards to toughness.

“He was as tough as they come,” Anderson said of one of the Hogs' best ever rebounders.

I called him a warrior to Anderson and the coach nodded his head in agreement after he finished talking about Saturday night's game at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

I see toughness in several of the young Arkansas players, most notably the three that Anderson brought to the interview room Thursday. Anton Beard, Manny Watkins and Jacorey Williams have the right kind of fight in them to play Anderson's clawing style of defense.

I listened intently when Anderson said Williams led all of their preseason conditioning drills. When a 6-8 forward does that, he's decided to make a commitment. Generally, it's the little guys who win the conditioning runs. It was not a surprise that Watkins was his chief challenger. A walk-on, Watkins is going to earn his time by outworking everyone else and he does.

Over and over when someone mentions North Little Rock product Beard, toughness is one of the traits that comes up first. Yes, he's talented. He was the high school player of the year in Arkansas last year. No one questions whether or not Beard is a player. But when everyone speaks about a freshmen's toughness, it's worth noting. It's the intangible that Anderson probably wants to build his team around.

“Anton doesn't predicate his game with offense,” Anderson said. “He's got a defensive mindset. He's in the right places on defense. He brings a blue collar toughness to the floor. Toughness, toughness is what he's about.”

That's toughness times three from the head coach and something that didn't just pop out of his mouth by accident. Teammates notice it, too.

“Anton is one of our best defenders, along with Manny,” Williams said. “Anton is willing to get down and dirty. You see the ball inside with the big man, Anton is going to be in there with them.

“Manny, he doesn't know he's not 7-foot tall. If Lebron James walks onto the court, Manny is going to say, let's go.”

I asked Anderson for his definition of toughness.

“It's when things aren't going your way, does your team standup and impose their will on the other team,” Anderson said. “They are trying to make a run on you and you won't let it happen.

“I saw a situation in the Dayton game where they had two big men in position to get an offensive rebound, maybe 6-8 guys. Anton went and got the rebound. He came out of there with it.

“I see guys on our team take a charge. That's toughness. Anton will take a charge. Anthlon Bell will take a charge. That's what I'm talking about.

“I think Bell is tough. I think Alandise Harris is tough. They have adopted a defensive mindset, that I want to take a good player on the other team and hold him down.

“I think it's about not backing down. It's heart. I think we have more guys like that.”

Those defensive guys can play on offense, too. Williams has developed a mid-range game and the ability to finish that has earned a spot in the starting lineup.

“He's a tough matchup,” Anderson said. “The game is slowing down for him.”

But that's happening while he speeds up. It's the same for Beard.

“I think the adjustment for me from high school is that the game is so much faster,” Beard said. “When something is open, you have to take it right then. It's going to close in a second. That's what I've started to see, take that shot or take that drive as soon as it opens.”

That's toughness, Anderson said.

“I see a tough player, a player who is willing to take a big shot,” Anderson said.

Brewer, Mayberry and Thurman were willing to take the big shot. They were as tough as any Razorbacks. It's that toughness that stands tall when the Hogs will try to win SEC road games in the next two months. Anderson's got a chance because he's got some toughness on the bus now.

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