Things Are Looking Up

FAYETTEVILLE -- Stan Heath hasn't gotten to play with a full deck since he took over Arkansas' basketball program in 2002.

Heath has done more shuffling than a blackjack dealer, picking up and moving around the pieces from Nolan Richardson's abrupt departure more than two years ago.

Last season, his best point guard wasn't a point guard and his best post player was 6-foot-6 Razorbacks quarterback Matt Jones.

So forgive Heath if he was bubbling over with enthusiasm Tuesday at Arkansas' media day previewing the official start of practice Friday during Midnight Madness in Bud Walton Arena.

A second straight highly-ranked recruiting class loaded with size and skill combined with returning All-Southeastern Conference performers Ronnie Brewer and Jonathon Modica have Heath thinking big things.

"Our goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament," Heath said.

That would be a good place to start for a program that hasn't made the postseason since 2001 and was just hoping to finish above .500 to secure an NIT bid toward the end of a 12-16 campaign last season.

Heath is happy about the potential of his incoming class and confident his veterans will provide valuable experience and leadership, but he's not getting carried away with expectations.

"I don't want you to leave here thinking, 'Man, Coach thinks they're getting ready to win the national championship,'" Heath said. "We've got a lot of work to do.

"But it's just exciting to know you have guys in place who can get the job done."

Just having guys in place has been half the battle for Heath.

Basketball positions are commonly labeled in coachspeak from 1 to 5 from the point guard (1) to the center (5).

Counting from 1 to 5 is impossible without the one or the five and Heath's lineups the last two seasons would have flunked a Sesame Street class on that test alone.

Arkansas has had plenty of 2s and 3s and a couple 4s, but lacked consistent point guard play and suffered immensely with little to no defensive or rebounding presence, especially in 2003-04.

Heath's main priority in this recruiting class was finding a true No. 1 and a true No. 5 and he succeeded by signing 6-foot-4, 181-pound junior college transfer Dontell Jefferson and a pair of impact players in the post - 7-footer Steven Hill of Branson, Mo., and 6-10, 250-pound Darian Townes of Alexandria, Va.

Heath also landed bruising forward Charles Thomas of Jackson, Miss., a 6-7, 243-pounder who has handed out and taken his share of stitches in pickup games.

Townes and Hill have impressive shot-blocking stats on their rsums and Townes broke Alonzo Mourning's single-season record for blocks as a sophomore with 183.

Jefferson averaged nearly 10 assists per game for Atlanta Metropolitan College and Thomas averaged close to 28 points per game for Jackson Callaway High.

Combined with the depth returning on the perimeter with Brewer and Modica, the top two scorers from last season, and with new and improved sophomore swingman Olu Famutimi fully recovered mentally and physically from a knee injury his senior year at Flint (Mich.) Northwestern High, Heath has the nice headache of finding a way to distribute minutes.

Arkansas' size figures to create matchup problems for opponents and Heath expects to lead a more up-tempo game created by defensive stops and rebounds by his post players. An increased post presence will also draw attention from his jump shooters, who rarely got open looks last season with no one respecting the Razorbacks' inside game.

Junior point guard Eric Ferguson, the team's top returning 3-point shooter, may see his role shift to more of a scorer at the shooting guard spot but remains, in Heath's words, "the best defender at the point guard position."

"I don't think we have a team where one guy will ever play 40 minutes or 35," he said. "I see at the most 30 minutes and keeping guys somewhere between 15-30 minutes depending on how effective they are and how much they earn it in practice."

A year ago, when 6-10 forward Vincent Hunter was sidelined with a shoulder injury, Jones was often the tallest Razorback on the court.

Arkansas will look like a different team in 2004-05.

Now the shortest player on the court at any time could be the 6-4 Jefferson.

Arkansas could even field a lineup with Brewer, who led Arkansas in assists last season with 94 (3.4 per game), at point guard and 6-9 senior Mike Jones at shooting guard where the shortest player would be Brewer at 6-7.

Hunter has gained nearly 25 pounds to reach 214 and 6-8 junior forward Rashard Sullivan has been one of Arkansas' most aggressive post presences in pickup games.

Jefferson sees that kind of size as one of Arkansas' biggest strengths, especially defensively.

"I feel we're long and athletic," Jefferson said. "With everyone combining our talent, we should be a pretty good team."

And a hungry one, judging by off-season workouts.

Veterans like Modica, Ferguson and Mike Jones have been through the hard times with a total of 21 wins in the last two seasons.

The newcomers aren't accustomed to losing and Heath doesn't believe they'll need to.

"They want to be a hunter," he said, "a team constantly looking to hunt someone down. I don't think they're going to show up at any game and be intimidated. Someone is going to have to beat us.

"It's not going to be a mental thing where they think they don't belong."

Heath said six teams in the Southeastern Conference may look better than Arkansas on paper, but he doesn't see much separation between the top eight teams in the conference.

"I think the difference is, whether it's one or eight, the gap is really small," he said. "Even the teams that have major talent coming back lost some key parts, whether it's a point guard or a great defender.

"I look at our team and I see a lot of additions. I don't see a lot of subtractions."

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