No Extra Motivation Needed For Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE -- At least one part of Arkansas coach Stan Heath's job will be easy today against No. 5 Illinois in North Little Rock.

"The good thing for coaches is you don't have to have the big-time motivational speech," Heath said. "You just have to get them ready to play and prepared for the team they'll face and give them the best opportunity to win the game.

"That's what we're going to do."

Arkansas (5-0) has forced itself to get up for a few of the Razorbacks' early opponents like Gardner-Webb and Troy while enjoying their best start in seven years.

No such prodding will be needed with so much at stake today when the ball goes up at 1 p.m. for a nationally televised game on ESPN against the Fighting Illini (5-0).

After five comfortable wins by an average of 20.2 points per game, the Razorbacks will measure themselves against the best team they may see all year.

A No. 1 ranking is on the line for Illinois coming off its 91-73 throttling of current-No. 1 Wake Forest on Wednesday.

In Heath's young career at Arkansas, this is surely the biggest game -- and opportunity -- his Razorbacks have seen in his first three seasons.

How Arkansas performs against Illinois will either show how far Heath has come in his rebuilding project or how far he has to go.

"It's a big statement game for Arkansas basketball to see where we are," said sophomore captain Ronnie Brewer. "I think if we can beat them, it will put us on the map."

Although the game is more of a measuring stick than a make-or-break game for Arkansas, the Hogs are going to Alltel Arena seeking a real victory -- not a moral one.

"We're going down there playing to win," Heath said. "That's the only reason you play the games. I know the players are looking forward to it because they like to be challenged."

They won't be disappointed.

Led by an all-star backcourt of Luther Head, Deron Williams and Dee Brown, Illinois returns its 10 top scorers from its Big 10 championship and Sweet 16 team last season.

The Illini have won their last two games against Gonzaga and Wake Forest by a combined 35 points but led by more than 30 in each of those two contests.

"I think they're real good," said Arkansas junior guard Eric Ferguson, who has played against Brown and Williams since they were all freshmen. "They play good team basketball. They all play together. They play hard every minute. We have to play hard every possession, too. We have to make them work as hard as they're going to make us work."

The Illini are hitting 54 percent of their shots, 46 percent of their 3-pointers and have handed out 122 assists on their 170 field goals.

Rarely has Illinois taken bad shots this year and the unselfishness has become contagious.

Second-year coach Bruce Weber, who took Southern Illinois to consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 2002-03 and reached the Sweet 16 in 2002, said he emphasizes taking good, uncontested shots in rhythm.

"If you don't have that, move the basketball," Weber said. "With some teams, if you turn down a shot, you think in your mind you might not get that shot for another three minutes.

"Our guys, I think they realize, 'I might not have my feet totally under me, I don't have my rhythm. If I pass it and move around a little, I can get a better shot in the same possession.'"

Limiting open looks from the perimeter has been a strength of Arkansas this season while holding its opponents to 37.5 percent shooting and a meager 29.6 percent on 3-pointers.

With 6-foot-7 Brewer, 6-5 sophomore Olu Famutimi and 6-4 junior transfer Dontell Jefferson in the backcourt against 6-foot Brown, 6-3 Williams and 6-3 Head, Heath believes Arkansas can present a challenge Illinois hasn't yet seen.

The Razorbacks are also much bigger inside than last season and are leading the Southeastern Conference in blocks per game (6.8) led by top swatter, 7-foot freshman Steven Hill, who is averaging 3 per contest.

Hill will make his sixth start of the season and fellow freshman Charles Thomas will make his third straight after a career-high 16 against Tulsa.

"They're a good shooting team, but if we can play with our hands up, we'll see if that changes the shots a little bit," Heath said. "If we can do a good job contesting and make them miss, a lot of times that leads to good things on offense."

Arkansas also won't back off the fullcourt pressure that forced 49 turnovers in its last two games against Gardner-Webb and Tulsa.

The Razorbacks will have to be smarter about how they apply pressure and Heath said Arkansas should be able to create more than the six turnovers Wake Forest forced Wednesday.

Weber said Thursday that Brown and Head were winded after playing heavy minutes in the first half while Williams was in foul trouble against Wake Forest.

Arkansas has prided itself on getting into its opponents' legs this year and the Razorbacks will have to hope an even slightly fatigued or uncomfortable Illinois bunch may cool off from the field in its first road game this season.

"I believe we present some problems that are different than a lot of teams," Heath said. "We have a lot of length. We have a lot of long guys. I don't know if we'll bother them or not.

"I don't think it will totally throw them off their rhythm because they have such good players and such a feel for the game. But I feel we have the ability to force a few more turnovers than what they gave up in the last game."

Brewer studied the first half of the Wake-Illinois game closely and saw how the Demon Deacons took themselves out of position and allowed easy or open shots.

"(Illinois) knocked down a lot of shots, but at the same time Wake made a lot of mistakes early in the game that set the tone," Brewer said. "They didn't step up on screens and sometimes they overstepped and they'd split them and blow by them."

Doing the little things like chasing down long rebounds, avoiding careless turnovers, missing free throws and committing silly fouls will be even more critical for Arkansas to pull the upset today.

Arkansas senior Mike Jones, who will be playing his final game in his hometown of Little Rock today, found some humor in ESPN's Dick Vitale razzing Heath about the Arkansas "cupcake" schedule and made a tongue-in-cheek joke that should in no way be taken as bulletin-board material.

"I guess this is what Dickie Vitale has been waiting for," he said with a smile. "Hopefully we can eat these guys up like the rest of the cupcakes."

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