State Of The Hogs: Hoops Hogs Loaded

Football is not done. Three more games await for Arkansas and there's still a chance to turn this season around with a November winning streak. I have not given up on football.

Excuse me, but I'm going to think basketball for a few days.

Part of it is our Hawgs Illustrated production schedule. This is the week we do our 84-page Hoops Preview. Like it or not, I've got basketball on my little brain.

Hence, I decided it was time to watch one complete basketball practice to get a feel for this Arkansas basketball team. That's what I did Wednesday and it was a delight.

Ronnie Brewer, Pookie Modica, Charles Thomas, Darian Townes, Eric Ferguson, Steven Hill, Olu Famutimi and Dontell Jefferson dazzled me from start to finish. Others probably did good things, too, but it was in love with the play of those eight.

In particular, it was a delight to watch Townes and Thomas in the middle. Both made clutch free throws in the closing seconds to keep their Red squad close to the White squad (led by Brewer and Modica) which eventually escaped with a one-point victory in a short scrimmage to end the practice using the game clock.

Thomas appeared to be the real deal Wednesday, earning praise from coach Stan Heath afterwards. Heath had indicated in a press conference earlier in the day that it appeared that Thomas, the 6-foot-7 freshman nicknamed "Manimal," was really coming on of late. I can see why he would say that.

Thomas hit clutch shots from the perimeter and did damage inside where his big body seems to absorb vicious hits from defenders with the opposition looking the worse for it. Thomas, a natural righthander, can use his left hand effectively in the lane with big bodies banging against him and he did that twice in the late stages of the scrimmage when he scooped up loose balls in the lane. He put the ball on the floor and took it to the basket where he drew a foul in the final 30 seconds. He hit both free throws, hardly moving the net each time.

"We are a better team on defense," Heath said. "We understand how to get over screens and when you don't need to and that's a big difference. We understand when to apply pressure and when not to. We are going to force some dribble penetration to our big men and that's fine. Our big men will be waiting to block shots. We are in the passing lanes more.

"But the big difference is we can handle the ball better. We can handle it against pressure. We have more ball handlers. Jefferson has helped, but Modica is a different player with the ball now. He can penetrate and kick for a three. He did that in the exhibition. I don't expect him to lead us in assists every game. He's still a scorer, but if you give him that kick for a three, he can and will take it. He gets it to his teammate in good position, too. That's something he's added to his game."

The ability to handle the ball by the four players added this year is impressive. I was surprised with the way Steven Hill, Townes and Thomas could handle the ball. They were able, in several specific drills, to dribble the ball up the floor against tight man-to-man defense. They did it under control, especially Townes.

Townes is much more skilled than I had been led to believe. He hit a short turnaround shot in the lane against Hill that was out of this world. It was only 4-feet in length, but it went straight up over the 7-foot Hill and straight down into the basket for a swish, a thing of beauty.

In watching the scrimmage, I was impressed by the team's depth. That's a huge change. There is ability to score and ability to defend in those 10 players, not just offensive specialists and defensive specialists. Famutimi had a streaky shooting practice, but his ability to guard a forward was awesome. He appears to be a scorpion-like defender now.

"I think that's what Olu has done to help his game the most," Heath said. "He is a great defender now, our best on-the-ball defender among our forwards. He can cover a small forward and that is not easy. Plus, he is a great rebounder. I'm telling you, if you can defend and rebound, you will earn playing time with me. We know he can score, but now he's a very complete player. His ability to read screens is very good now. He can play through them and guard his man.

"He's more healthy now. That's part of it. But more of it, I think, is that he understands what we are trying to do on defense. Whatever it is, he can play defense now much better than he could last year."

About halfway through the workout, I asked Tommy Boyer, much more knowledgable about the game of basketball than this writer, what he saw different with this team. He didn't even hesitate.

"We've got 10 guys who can play the game and that's all phases," he said. "We are better offensively. We've got size. We've got quickness. We've got four or five guys who can handle it. And, we can REALLY guard. We'ver got more complete basketball players."

I'll agree with Boyer on those comments. I think he's correct. They are a pleasure to watch.

This team still makes mistakes, but they don't seem to repeat the mistakes, a great sign.

Having said that, the SEC has plenty of good teams. Mississsippi State and Alabama are very good in the West, better than this Arkansas team, and I expect Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Tennessee to be good in the East.

We have not passed those teams in talent, but we have caught up. The difference between Arkansas and those teams starting out this season will be experience, especially inside. Let's see if it's still a major factor in January. Suddenly, I feel better about Stan Heath's chances now that he has some bullets.


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