University of Arkansas head basketball coach Stan Heath wanted to see his team play with passion and energy on Tuesday night when it took the home court against Tulsa.
That's just what he got for about 30 minutes before his undefeated team started to look ahead to Saturday's big showdown at North Little Rock's Alltel Arena with No. 3 Illinois, who is also unbeaten heading into tonight's home game with No. 1 Wake Forest.
Freshman power forward Charles Thomas had a career-high 16 points, sophomore Ronnie Brewer added 14 and Olu Famutimi and Eric Ferguson chipped in 11 each as the Razorbacks rolled to a 85-73 win over the Golden Hurricane before 16,608 fans at Bud Walton Arena.
"They responded tremendously," Heath said. "I thought they were flying around and moving. To force a team into 27 turnovers is a great reflection on that. That's what I want to see as a coach and I know our fans want to see our kids play out there with a lot of heart and a lot of passion."
Arkansas (5-0), unbeaten this far into the season for the first time since the 1997-98 campaign, forced 19 of the miscues by Tulsa (1-2) in the first half alone and ended the game with 15 steals.
It was certainly a different level of commitment in the first half of Saturday's win over Garnder-Webb, which was just 27-24 at halftime before Arkansas rolled to a 79-63 win.
"Guys were getting deflections, getting steals, creating offense off their defense and that's exactly the way we want to play," Heath said. "I didn't recognize it until I looked at the stats at halftime, but I just thought they (the Razorbacks) were reading situations real well when we had an opportunity to rotate on the trap and sometimes it was just straight man-to-man and guys just getting in the passing lane, shooting the gaps and making a play."
The UA squad ripped off an 11-0 spree midway through the first half to go up 22-12, led 43-32 at halftime and pushed that margin to as much as 19 in the second half on four occasions.
Tulsa head coach John Phillips, whose team lost to the Razorbacks by eight in Tulsa last year, is far more impressed with this season's team.
"My hat's off to them," Phillips said. "I think they definitely are a lot better team. They have got tremendous athletes and Stan's done a tremendous job getting them organized and they run their stuff really well."
That same sentiment was echoed by Tulsa senior forward Jarius Glenn, who dropped in a career-high 30 points, grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds and dished out 5 assists.
"They hit shots over here this year," Glenn said. "Last year we kind of lagged off No. 23 (Famutimi) and they weren't shooting the ball well. But they really shot the ball well tonight and you can tell all those guys been working on their game in the offseason."
Arkansas, which shot just 41 percent from the floor last season, is hitting over 50 percent from the field during this early campaign.
The Razorbacks knocked down 49.2 percent of their field goal attempts on Tuesday and 40 percent of their 3-pointers, which helped offset an off night at the free throw line (17-of-29).
"That game was the first game where I felt that maybe we didn't get the total 40 minutes, but we certainly were up in the 30s somewhere that we had great effort," Heath said. "Certainly it was a longer period of time than in the other games."
Tulsa did shoot 53.2 percent from the field and hit half of its 12 3-point attempts, but had seven of its 47 shots sent back out - including four blocks from 7-0 Arkansas freshman center Steven Hill and two by 6-10, 253-pound fellow freshman Darian Townes.
Thomas, starting the first game of his career, led the way by hitting 5 of the 8 shots he attempted along with 6-of-8 free throw attempts.
He had 8 of his team's first 11 points of the game while showing off both his outside and inside games and led the way inside with Hill (9 points, 5 rebounds) and Townes (4 points, 5 rebounds) also contributing.
"He (Thomas) really got us off to a good start," Heath said. "It was good to see him out there playing with confidence and his team going to him and getting him the ball in some good situations. He was definitely a force and I thought all the big guys played well. I thought Steven had his best game and was being more aggressive offensively and had some tremendous blocks. I thought Darian did well."
Thomas said he was just having fun out there on the court.
"A freshman coming in and starting at a big-time college is every little boy's dream," Thomas said. "I had a ball."
Ferguson, the Razorbacks' leading scorer despite coming off the bench, ripped off 11 early points after making his entrance on Tuesday at the same time as reserve guard Dontell Jefferson (8 points).
"He's a sparkplug," Heath said of Ferguson. "This isn't going to sound right, but I believe this - when we bring in him and Dontell, we get better. It's not necessarily they are better players coming into the game - it's an argument of maybe, maybe not - but it gives us a lift."
Arkansas can now turn its attention to Illinois, which bashed Gonzaga 89-72 back on Saturday and has a chance to make a big statement tonight as it hosts the Demon Deacons.
"Obviously we will figure out where we are at on the national scene when we play Illinois on Saturday," Heath said. "It's going to be something."
Ferguson thinks his team will be up to the challenge.
"They are a good team, but we are a good team, too," Ferguson said. "We haven't got anything to lose. They are one of the tops teams and we are too. We just haven't been recognized yet, but Saturday we will be."
Arkansas 85, Tulsa 73
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