What One UA Opponent Really Thinks

FAYETTEVILLE - After going 21-35 the last two seasons, can Arkansas really be one of the surprise teams in the Southeastern Conference this season?

During last week's two SEC Basketball Media Days in the fancy Sheraton Birmingham (Ala.) Hotel, opposing coaches and most of their players sounded almost too polished while saying so many nice things about Arkansas.

Perhaps they were trying to rub the Hogs the right way?

Florida coach Billy Donovan referred to Arkansas as a dangerous darkhorse pick. Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said third-year Arkansas coach Stan Heath is definitely on the right track.

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury also seemed high on the Hogs, although they were 12-16 last season and they're picked fourth this time around in the six-team SEC Western Division.

"I think Arkansas, I mean I think they can be very good," Stansbury said. "They've got all the pieces in place."

Said Alabama coach Mike Gottfried: "I think they're going to be really good. I do. I like their team. They've kind of been quietly building, I think."

That all sounded nice, and seemed sincere, if maybe a bit rehearsed.

Then we bumped into candid Alabama junior forward Kennedy Winston, a preseason All-SEC first-teamer, and pressed him for his true feelings (note to Heath: You might want to get out some scissors and push-pins).

"That team they have, they've got a lot of talented guys," Winston said. "They just ... they run around kind of wild usually. They're just missing something. They've got guys that can play, there's just something small that they're missing.

"They're going to be a real good team. They've got a lot of young guys, you know, but once they get it together, they're going to be good.

"It just depends on how they come out and play this year. You know, they've got some guys that can shoot, it's just the shots that they take. It will probably be one pass, then they shoot. They don't really run offensive sets. They're kind of playing pickup ball out there, you know. They don't have a lot of structure in their offense. You can really just let them take their shots, box out and get the rebound."

That's a bit of a harsh assessment, but we agree to some degree as Heath struggled to convey lots of messages to a freshman/sophomore-oriented team that lacked size, forcing green players into unfamiliar territories out of sheer necessity.

Told of Winston's comments, Arkansas sophomore guard Ronnie Brewer nodded agreement. But in the past-tense.

"Definitely," Brewer said. "We were really young last year. We had guys playing out of position, not really their natural position, and I think with the addition of the players we've got, the players on our team can play their position and it makes us more comfortable."

Brewer will be augmented up top this season by junior transfer Dontell Jefferson, a genuine point guard. Junior Eric Ferguson will more often play his natural position of shooting guard, as will Brewer. Sophomore Rashard Sullivan will be at power forward more than center as will sophomore Vincent Hunter (if he's not sidelined with the shoulder injury). Senior sharp-shooter Mike Jones can float around the 3-point line more often without incurring the wrath of Heath and junior swingman Jonathon Modica and sophomore counterpart Olu Famutimi should have more screened shot selections and driving room.

That's possible largely because of impact-freshmen frontcourt players Steven Hill (7-foot), Darian Townes (6-10) and Charles Thomas (6-7).

"We've got the size like everybody's been saying," Brewer said. "And I think everybody playing where they're comfortable will make things a lot smoother. And rushing shots and making good decisions is something we're working on this year."

You could see it coming together in the Red-White game. Brewer and Jefferson worked in sync, setting each other up for dunks and other teammates for open jumpers, lay-ins and slams. Ferguson ran the opposing team deftly and was a defensive hawk. Hill, Townes and Thomas all showed defensive presence, rebounding hustle and flashes of offense to come.

The rest looked loads more comfortable as they pressed almost the entire game (something unheard of last season), played help defense inside (ditto), whipped the halfcourt with purpose and sprinted downcourt in concerted harmony after every defensive rebound.

So what does Winston expect from the Hogs this season?

"It just depends on if they're going to change how they did things in the past," he said.

Change doesn't begin to cover it.

And if SEC opponents are depending on spanking young, skittish, smallish, out of place Hogs this season, they will, indeed, be in for quite a surprise.

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