Two teams looking to turn the Tide in SEC play will hook it up Wednesday night when Arkansas travels to Alabama.
The Razorbacks (8-5, 0-2) and Crimson Tide (8-4, 0-1) will both be looking for their first league in the 7:05 matchup in Tuscaloosa.
"Our team is pretty hungry for a win right now," Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. "We started off playing a pretty decent game against LSU (in a 66-55 home loss) and then just ran into a really tough Mississippi State group down in Starkville (in an 80-62 road hammering)."
With a road game at Alabama and then a home game against Ole Miss (8-5, 0-2) on Saturday, the Razorbacks do have a chance to turn things around after facing two teams that are a combined 24-1.
"The two teams that we play (this week) are good teams, but I don't think they have the physical makeup of the two teams we've played," Heath said. "We need a win. We're going into this Wednesday's game, even though they haven't lost a home, to find a way to win."
Alabama, picked to finish at the bottom of the SEC West after major defections from last year's squad, has jumped out to a surprising 8-4 start that includes a quality 71-56 home win over then No. 15 and current No. 18 Wisconsin.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi even has them as one of seven SEC teams likely to be in the SEC Tournament in his latest version of bracketology.
The visiting Tide actually had LSU down 60-50 late in the game Saturday afternoon, but the Tigers roared back for a 70-66 win in Baton Rouge.
"Obviously we are hunting for a win in the league after losing the other night, but I am really proud of our guys," Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried said. "I loved our effort the other day and we need the same type of effort against Arkansas."
Gottfried is indeed pleased with the start of his team, who is 7-0 at home, 0-3 on the road and 1-1 at neutral sites.
"We have got a long way to go and we are not very good and we know that," Gottfried said. "We are just going to try and outplay everybody and out-compete them and play harder.
"I really believe at the end of this year we'll look back and this group of guys, they will have overachieved," Gottfried added. "I think they already have. They are going to overachieve and do a some things a lot of people don't think we can do. We have just got to play with a great deal of effort like we did in Baton Rouge."
Heath has been impressed with Alabama's start, tabbing them as one of the two surprise teams in the league.
"I think if there were two teams that were the surprise of the SEC this year it would be Vanderbilt and Alabama, as far as expectations and where people thought they would be," Heath said. "You look at that roster and they have got a lot of guys, especially at the guard position, that have had a lot of experience from the past year and are playing good basketball, playing hard and playing together."
Alabama is led in scoring by 6-3 junior guard Earnest Shelton (16.3), 6-6 sophomore forward Kennedy Winston (15.1), 6-7, 230-pound sophomore forward Chuck Davis and 6-0, 170-pound senior point guard Antoine Pettway (8.2).
While Heath had a lot of praise for the other three, Davis is the one that has really caught his eye.
"A night and day player in Chuck Davis," Heath said. "He is not the same guy that was on that roster last year. He has really emerged as a different player. He can hurt you around the basket , but step away from it and putting it on the floor. That's probably none of us even saw or had on the scouting report last year. You have got a totally different scouting report right there."
Davis is one of those players that also brings toughness to the court, a trait that Heath is searching for in his team.
"I felt last year we had some weaknesses, but one of the things that we were good at - we rebounded, we defended, especially inside, and we had some toughness around the basket," Heath said. "I think that is lacking a little bit. I think we have become a little more skilled, a little more talented, but the toughness, the rebounding, the defense - the dirty work- the things that need to be down to win games, we didn't show up and do those things in our last game. We have got to get back to those kind of basics."
Heath said some of it is a matter of his team liking each other too much and not getting after it like they should on the court during practice.
"We've showed signs of being a tough team," Heath said. "We did it at Tulsa and at times at Mississippi State. We have to have practice competition, and we do, but it needs to go up another level. We don't need them to have fights, but it almost needs to reach that point."
The UA coach plans to put his team through some toughness training in practice this week.
"This is a really important week," Heath said. "We definitely have to improve defensively and in rebounding. Those areas are matters of toughness, so we have to toughen ourselves up. When we play aggressively, we seem to have a better mentality and feeling about ourselves. We're going to get after it and get ready for Alabama."
The two teams split last season with Arkansas losing at Alabama 61-51 before winning in Fayetteville 81-70 later in the season.
While Gottfried knows the Razorbacks have struggled out of the SEC gate, he's wary of a turnaround from Heath's club.
"They are as quick as anybody we have played all year long," Gottfried said. "They are going to play a lot of players and we have got our hands full in here. Our guys understand that completely."
Arkansas is dead last in the SEC in field goal percentage at 42.3 percent while its three-point marksmanship is eighth of 12 teams at 33.5.
"They are a team that has the potential to be very good," Gottfried added. "You look at their personal, but they have played at times like a young team. Shots that haven't went in, they can start going in at any point in time."
One guy whose shots have been going in is 6-8, 230-pound senior forward Billy Pharis (9.1), who is the SEC's third-leading scorer in just league games alone at 19.5 per game.
Pharis has had back-to-back games of 21 and 18 points, been in double figures the last five games and has knocked down 54.7 percent of his shots overall from the field and over 50 percent (14-27) from the three-point line.
"It kind of surprises all of us, but we see Billy every day in practice, we know the things that he is good at," Heath said. "The thing about Billy is that he plays to his strengths. He knows what he can do out there on the court and he knows his limitations. Our players are aware of where he can be out on the floor to help us at different spots."
Gottfried remembers Arkansas holdovers Jonathon "Pookie" Modica (18.2) and Eric Ferguson (9.5) and is impressed with what he has has seen on tape from 6-7 freshman Ronnie Brewer (13.0) and Pharis.
"We all know how good Modica is and Ferguson had a great game over there on us last year in Arkansas at the point guard," Gottfried said. "Brewer is an excellent freshman, just an absolutely dynamite one. I think he is going to be a great player in our league.
"They also added this kid in from SMU, Pharis, who really stretches you out," continued Gottfried. "He's long, he's big, he can shoot the three and he is a tough matchup as well."
Heath, whose team won on the road at Vanderbilt last season at at Tulsa this season, is hoping for road win number three in his tenure.
"It's not an easy place to go down there and win," Heath said. "They are 7-0 right now (at home), but I think our team is kind of learning from some of the things we did to get ourselves beat. We are going to go into practice the next couple of days and try to shore up a couple of areas that we feel like can help us and put us in position to win a few games."
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