Time Could Be On Hogs' Side

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - For Arkansas basketball, it's about time.

"I think it's time for us to come up out of our shell," said Razorbacks swingman Jonathon Modica during Thursday's last of two Southeastern Conference Basketball Media Days. "It's time for us to really have a breakout season. It's time for us to really be the team that everyone talks about with everybody saying, 'Hey, we better take these guys serious.'

"I think it's about time."

Surrounded by curious reporters, Arkansas coach Stan Heath eyed the media's picks in the ballroom of the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel.

Like the coaches in the earlier poll, reporters who cover the SEC ranked Arkansas fourth in the Western Division, behind Mississippi State, Alabama and LSU and ahead of only crumbling Ole Miss and Auburn.

Heath hesitated, then shot straight while scanning the list.

"I think in this setting I'm just supposed to say, 'We're terrible. We're bad and wish we could win a game,'" said Heath, smiling.

"But I am looking at this team as a team that can definitely make a leap from where we were. If I were picking, I'd look at those teams in front of us and say, 'Yeah, with what they bring back and what they've done, they should be ahead of us.'

"But that's on paper. That doesn't mean a whole lot.

"Our goal is to be a team that challenges the upper-echelon of our league and has a good chance at playing in the NCAA Tournament and definitely (will be) playing in the postseason."

Said Modica: "If you look at paper, oh, yeah, I definitely agree those teams (MSU, Alabama and LSU) will do well.

"But as we all know, the SEC is a crazy conference. Always difficult to really read and say who's No. 1.

"And we plan on making it that way again this year."

That's pretty big talk coming from Modica and Heath, who are a combined 21-35 heading into their third seasons. But Arkansas has grown lots in their tenures and the Hogs will, at some point this season, be able to back it up.

Down here this week, several SEC coaches spoke of the Hogs - who finally will sport some big-time size -having a big rebound season.

"Arkansas is really talented," said Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury. "They've got a bunch of talent. They've got all kinds of talent on that perimeter. And they've got some size coming back - (sophomore forward) Hunter, very skilled big guy. I like that kid a lot. (Senior guard/forward Mike) Jones is back, too, huh? There's two big guys that have skills like I just talked about.

"Then you've got (freshman center Steven) Hill, who's a big ol' guy and (freshman center Darian) Townes, that big guy from the East.

"I think Arkansas ... I mean I think they can be very good. They've got all the pieces in place. They've got great experience and a lot of depth on the perimeter: Five, six, seven or eight. They had a bunch of 'em last year.

"No question, they'll be much better. Much better. Absolutely."

Alabama coach Mike Gottfried did not hesitate when asked about the Hogs.

"I think they're going to be really good. I do," Gottfried said. "I like their team. I think they're a team, when you look at (guard Eric) Ferguson, Modica and (guard Ronnie) Brewer, then you add in a couple of young guys they had and new guys ... they just kind of need to figure it out.

"Which I think they will. They've kind of been quietly building, I think. When I look at our league, I look at them and Tennessee -the two teams that are putting it together. They just haven't done it yet.

"But if it all can come together for them, I think they can take a big step forward. Both of those two. Both of them have done a great job of recruiting some pretty good players.

"Just time to step up and play."

Heath spoke of the great leaps from freshman to sophomore seasons (Brewer, Hunter, Olu Famutimi) and the growth between sophomore and junior seasons (Modica, Ferguson, Rashard Sullivan). Toss in Jones, "consummate" point guard (the first in Heath's tenure) Dontell Jefferson, Hill, Townes and bullish freshman forward Charles Thomas, and the Hogs may well hit stride in time for the SEC season.

"If our big guys will really just focus in on the defense and rebounding part, give us that kind of a presence, it's going to pay dividends for our team," Heath said.

"We're still maybe learning all the different intricacies of the offense, how to rotate correctly on defense, cover down for each other.

"And when all those things really come together - and who knows when that's gonna be? - we could be a team that's very dangerous."

The Hogs were bit players even in Nolan Richardson's last two seasons. Matter of fact, they haven't even played in the NCAA Tournament since the 63-61 first-round loss against Georgetown on March 15, 2001.

But if everything breaks just about right, an alarm could go off around the SEC: "Arkansas is back."

It's just a matter of time.

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