Leap Of Faith

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Stan Heath knew what he should say Thursday at the Southeastern Conference basketball media day, but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

"I think in this setting I'm supposed to just say we're terrible, we're bad and we shouldn't win a game," joked the third-year Arkansas coach. "But I am looking at this team as one that can make a leap from where we were."

Upward, of course.

Where the Hogs were last year was 12-16 overall and last in the SEC Western Division at 4-12.

The Razorbacks were 10th in rebounding (34.5 per game), 11th in rebounding margin (minus-2.2), last in field goal percentage (41.6), ninth in scoring offense (68.9) and 10th in scoring defense (68.6).

The bright spots were:

• Home wins against top 25 teams South Carolina and Vanderbilt;

• Jonathon "Pookie" Modica's eighth-best scoring average (16.5 ppg);

• And Ronnie Brewer's selection to several All-SEC and All-American freshmen teams after leading Arkansas in rebounding (5.5), assists (3.4), steals (2.0) and field goal percentage (48.1).

Though the consensus among other coaches and regional media is that Arkansas will be vastly improved from a year ago with the maturation of its young players and a strong infusion of talent, the Razorbacks were still picked to finish fourth in the West.

Defending SEC champion Mississippi State, Elite Eight qualifier Alabama and LSU were all ranked ahead of Arkansas.

Heath is fine with the prediction.

He just doesn't plan to live up to it.

"If I were picking, I'd look at those teams ahead of us and say, 'Yeah, with what they bring back and what they've done, maybe they should be ahead of us,'" Heath said. "But that's on paper. It doesn't mean a whole lot. We're not striving to finish fourth.

"Our goal is to be a team that challenges the top echelon of the league and has a good chance of playing in the NCAA Tournament and definitely in the postseason."

On paper, Arkansas returns four starters with Modica, Brewer, junior Eric Ferguson and sophomore Olu Famutimi, but the lineup will look substantially different from a group whose tallest starter was departed Billy Pharis at 6-foot-8.

Heath brought in 6-4 junior college transfer Dontell Jefferson to man the point guard position along with Brewer, leaving Modica to round out the starting perimeter positions.

From there, Arkansas' biggest improvements -- literally -- start to take form.

Heath signed 7-footer Steven Hill of Branson, Mo., 6-10 Darian Townes and 6-7 forward Charles Thomas.

Heath said he envisions rotating Hill and Townes at the center position and playing Thomas, sophomore Vincent Hunter and junior Rashard Sullivan at the power forward spot.

Six-foot-9 Senior Mike Jones is an X-factor who is one of Arkansas' best shooters but has also developed an aggressive attitude in one-on-one games against Brewer, Modica and Famutimi that could serve him well inside.

Anchoring the Arkansas defense in the paint and forcing opposing defenses to double-down and rotate will help free up Arkansas' perimeter players.

"Our goal is not to put a lot of pressure on our freshmen to say we need 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds) out of you," Heath said. "But we need more of a presence of being able to defend and rebound first and second and then finish some plays around the rim for us.

"Eventually we hope they become dominant inside players. But they're not quite ready to do that."

Heath said Sullivan is one of the most improved players on the team and recently collected 19 boards in a full-scale scrimmage with referees.

"He's really focused in on a few things he's good at -- rebounding and defending," Heath said. "When he just does those things, he can really help us."

Although Sullivan is much improved, Heath said the most improved player overall will be Famutimi, who played last year at around 50 percent mentally and 70 percent physically after a knee injury late in his high school career.

"It's inevitable that Famutimi is going to be (improved) simply because he wasn't healthy last year," Heath said. "Where he was last year to where he is now, you'll see he's a more aggressive and confident player."

Heath said depth is the strength of his team and he plans to use a nine-man rotation at a minimum and as many as 11 players on some nights.

Fresh bodies mean intensity on defense and stamina down the stretch of close games.

Arkansas frittered away several leads in the second half last year mostly from fatigue building up and contributing to mistakes and missed shots.

Heath put his team through a tough preseason conditioning camp including runs up Cleveland Hill in Fayetteville, a mile run and a couple sessions through the brutal "22" drill of 44 sprints up and down the court.

"We can be a stronger team in the second half," Heath said. "I have a starting group of nine guys and it could change when we get about four or five games into the season. I'm not worried about that.

"I'm sure players think about that from time to time, but hopefully they realize winning and our team is more important than minutes and who's starting."

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