Razorbacks See Room For Improvement

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas is off to its best start since the 1997-98 season, but the Razorbacks don't sound like it.

Arkansas (5-0) is undefeated at the latest point in the season since the 97-98 team started 8-0, reached as high as No. 12 in the top 25 and finished 24-9 after losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to eventual runner-up Utah.

If the current team wants to match that start, it has a major hurdle in its path Saturday against No. 5 Illinois (4-0 before playing No. 1 Wake Forest on Wednesday night).

The 1997-98 team won 14 of its first 16 games and didn't play a team this highly ranked until it lost 80-77 in overtime to No. 6 Kentucky in Lexington on Jan. 17.

For that reason, Arkansas isn't "fat and sassy" as coach Stan Heath put it before the Razorbacks defeated Tulsa 85-73 on Tuesday in Bud Walton Arena.

Asked if Arkansas had played its "best game" against Tulsa, sophomore Olu Famutimi shrugged.

"We could play a lot better, but we got the win," he said.

The Razorbacks forced 27 turnovers and while junior transfer point guard Dontell Jefferson said it was Arkansas' best game in terms of anticipating on defense, he knows the Hogs don't want to look back in February and say they played their best game against Tulsa in November.

"We have a lot more games and I'm sure we'll get better at that," he said. "I think we have to use these few days of practice to get better focused defensively and do what we have to do on offense and everything will take care of itself."

Arkansas scored 32 points off Tulsa's 27 turnovers, but it left points on the floor several times by turning it over in transition, failing to finish easy baskets and making only 17 of 29 free throws.

"We can do a lot better than that," Famutimi said. "We have to have better spacing and go harder to the basket."

Though Arkansas is dominating its opponents with its press, shooting better than 50 percent from the field and averaging 81.4 points per game, the Razorbacks have much to improve before facing the Fighting Illini.

Arkansas has given up far too many layups in its last two games against Tulsa and Gardner-Webb (a 79-63 win last Saturday).

The Golden Hurricane shot a steady 25 of 47 from the field, mostly on high-percentage shots off breakdowns in Arkansas' press and halfcourt lapses on defense.

The reassuring part of Arkansas' mistakes this year has been how the Razorbacks have corrected them.

After 10 first-half turnovers against Eastern Michigan on Nov. 22 in the Paradise Jam title game, Arkansas didn't commit another until 12:18 remained in the second half.

The Razorbacks reversed first-half rebounding deficits against Troy, Gardner-Webb and Tulsa to win the battle on the glass in the second.

Arkansas started slow in wins against lightly regarded Winthrop, Troy and Gardner-Webb, but the Razorbacks have outscored their opponents 96-68 in the first half of two games against Eastern Michigan and Tulsa.

"I know the guys in that locker room have the ability to be very good players and we have the ability to be a very good team," Heath said. "It's a process. It doesn't happen right away. We're going through it and trying to keep getting better and better.

"We took another step in a positive direction (Tuesday)."

Arkansas didn't have a good day shooting free throws Monday in practice and it showed Tuesday with a 17 of 29 night from the foul line.

Some of the struggles can be traced to freshmen centers Steven Hill (1 of 5) and Darian Townes (2 of 4), but guards Ronnie Brewer, Jonathon Modica and Famutimi combined to shoot 4 of 8.

In its last two games against Gardner-Webb and Tulsa, Arkansas is shooting 60.7 percent (34 of 56) from the foul line.

The Razorbacks shot 72 percent (48 of 66) for three games at the Paradise Jam.

"Between the coaches and the players, there has to be a concerted effort to improve our free throw shooting," Heath said. "That's got to come up. You're not going to win big games against anybody if you're not shooting well from the free throw line."

Through five games, Arkansas is leading the Southeastern Conference in blocks per game with 6.8 and in steals with 11.4. Hill is leading the conference in blocks per game with 3.0 and Townes is fifth at 1.6.

Arkansas is third in field goal percentage (50.5), third in assists (15.4) and third in scoring margin (plus-20.8).

In 2003-04, Arkansas was last in field goal percentage (41.6), 10th in assists (12.9), 10th in scoring margin (plus-0.2), fifth in blocks (3.8) and fifth in steals (7.8).

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