Midnight Madness Tips Off Tonight

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas coach Stan Heath had to do something about the floor in Bud Walton Arena this summer.

The hardwood surface hadn't been sanded bare and refinished since the "Basketball Palace of Mid-America" opened in 1993 and the floor was taking on an increasingly yellow hue.

In recent years the wax piled up as quickly as the home losses and at times the Razorbacks' play was as tough to watch as the dingy television appearance of Bud Walton Arena.

Heath, eyeing his third season, expects to change those perceptions this year.

He's already scored with the shiny new floor and fans will get an idea if he will with his team for the first time tonight during the Midnight Madness festivities.

Heath will field a deep mix of youth and experience and a combination of size and skills that his smile stamps as truly his team for the first time.

Gates open at 9:30 tonight for the price of a nonperishable food item and the Razorbacks will take the floor for their first practice of the season at 12:01 a.m.

Arkansas is led by returning All-Southeastern Conference performers Jonathon Modica and Ronnie Brewer and a signing class ranked No. 11 by Collegesports.com loaded with size complemented by a steady true point guard.

Razorback fans will get their first look at forward Darian Townes (6-foot-10, 253 pounds), forward Charles Thomas (6-7, 243), point guard Dontell Jefferson (6-4, 181) and center Steven Hill (7-0, 233).

They'll also see the improvements of returners like Modica, Brewer, sophomore swingman Olu Famutimi, junior guard Eric Ferguson, senior guard/forward Mike Jones, junior forward Rashard Sullivan and sophomore forward Vincent Hunter.

"I want them to see some of the things I've been looking at and I want them to see we've got a team that's on the verge and has a chance to do some damage this year," Heath said. "I want them to get excited about this year coming up."

Nobody got too excited about the 10th anniversary of Bud Walton Arena last year as that milestone was witnessed by nearly the lowest average attendance in its history -- 14,792 -- a two-persons per game uptick from 2003.

Fourteen of Arkansas' 36 home losses since 1993 have come in the last two years under Heath while he rebuilt the program after Nolan Richardson was fired following 14 home losses of his own in his final four seasons.

Attendance has been on a steady decline since 1999 and while Arkansas fans have risen to the occasion at times for some ranked opponents, there has been a mostly ho-hum mood about basketball for several years now.

The Razorbacks haven't always earned the fans' favor with games like a 37-point effort in a loss to Ole Miss in 2002 or losses to Troy State and Western Carolina.

Heath said this team will take no one lightly.

"They're not going to take anything for granted this year," he said. "Sometimes, because we were so young, we'd assume, 'Well this team looks like a cakewalk and we can take it easy.' I don't think you'll see that.

Arkansas improved from 8-8 at home in Heath's first season to 10-6 last year, but he knows it must be even better this year.

The rabid Arkansas fans were a big reason Arkansas went 64-8 in Bud Walton Arena from 1993-98. Getting fans back en masse on a consistent basis is something Heath would like to see this year.

"Our home is going to be a valuable commodity for us and we want to make sure to hold home court this year," he said.

"I want (the fans) to realize how important they are to protecting our home court. I just want them to feel a part of our program and have a good experience."

Newcomers like Townes are ready to see what Arkansas fans are all about.

"I've been waiting ever since I got here to hear the fans for my first time live instead of on TV," he said.

The festivities begin with a 3-point contest for students and a kids free-throw contest followed by the first annual 3-on-3 basketball tournament featuring former Razorbacks.

Four teams will include former Razorbacks Brandon Davis, John Engskov, Clyde Fletcher, Brandon Hudspeth, Ron Huery, Ernie Murphy, Reggie Merritt, Eugene Nash, Larry Satchell and Charles Tatum.

Former Razorbacks forward Marvin Delph of the famous "Triplets" will serve as one honorary coach and Arkansas career rebounding average leader Dean Tolson will serve as the other.

Arkansas will scrimmage for two 10-minute halves that Heath warned may look a little ragged. The Razorbacks will have a full-scale practice Saturday and have some two-a-days next week, so Heath wants his players to enjoy their last bit of freedom before knuckling down.

"It's going to be a little unorganized, but it should be fun and entertaining," he said.

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