No Comparison Between This Season And Last

FAYETTEVILLE – After Arkansas survived, 62-52, at Missouri on Tuesday night, Razorbacks junior guard Eric Ferguson smiled.

"That was a good win," Ferguson said. "It builds our confidence."

The game was largely marred by horrible shooting and several unforced blunders, but the Hogs hung on, winning ugly on the Big 12 road in the type of matchup third-year Arkansas coach Stan Heath said should matter when NCAA Tournament brackets are contemplated.

"It was critical," said Arkansas sophomore guard Ronnie Brewer.

Now the Hogs' main opponents are final exams. They're out of action until hosting Tennessee State on Thursday.

"We wanted to go into finals with a good taste in our mouths," Brewer said. "This is a quality team, Missouri, in a good conference, and we didn't win a lot of games on the road last year.

"It helps our confidence."

Good time to take a timeout.

"Now we get some rest," Ferguson said. "Some guys are tired. Now we've got a week and a couple of days to get some rest.

"I'm feeling real good."

Just like last season, Arkansas is 6-1.

The comparison ends there.

"Really different," Ferguson said. "We've got some big wins. We're feeling good right now."

Last season at this point, Fayetteville had indeed been Cupcake City. Arkansas had beaten Nicholls State, Grambling State, Jacksonville University (in North Little Rock), Oral Roberts, Southeast Missouri State and Louisiana Tech.

The Hogs had been blown away, 84-61, against Illinois in Chicago.

This season, the Hogs netted the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands (on neutral sand), beating Troy State, Winthrop (a bigger team than the name suggests) and Eastern Michigan.

The Hogs followed that up by whipping Gardner-Webb, then started an important, and plenty respectable, three-game stretch: Against Tulsa, vs. now-No. 1 Illinois in Little Rock and at Missouri.

This is not Tulsa's time. The Golden Hurricane isn't as dangerous as the full-court, frantic folks of the past. Still, it was impressive how easily Arkansas players blew Tulsa's away in the 79-63 win on Nov. 30.

Four days later, the Hogs faced Illinois, fresh off the Fighting Illini's dismantling of then-No. 1 Wake Forest.

Against the hottest – and perhaps best – team in the country, and in front of an ESPN audience, the arm-waving, deep and pressing Hogs gave Illinois fits, hanging within 4 to 8 points until Fighting Illini free throws made the final 72-60.

At Mizzou, Arkansas overcame cold shooting, the lingering effects of the Illinois effort, the inevitable letdown after such (win or lose), a foreign gym and the Tigers' s-l-o-w pace.

More differences in this season and last?

Arkansas sports increasingly serious size.

The freshman big guys – centers Steven Hill (destined to be the best shot-blocker in school history) and Darian Townes and starting power forward Charles Thomas – get better each game.

Ferguson has been dynamite off the bench, relishing his new sixth-man spark-plug role. No longer exhausted from playing too many minutes, Ferguson has become Arkansas' best outside shooter, and the instant energy (when running the point or crushing that of the opposition) has been obvious.

Closing in on Ferguson for most improved Hog is junior forward Rashard Sullivan, a beast on the boards who in the past had to play with his back to the basket. Facing it, Sullivan has become a realistic offensive option. Against guys his own size, Sullivan's defense is much better. He's been a steady free-throw maker who also gives the Hogs a big adrenaline boost.

Sophomore swingman Olu Famutimi has improved greatly, although he should call off some of those 3-point, hands-in-face shots of late. His rebounding is up there and he looks lots more in the flow.

One of the biggest deals has been the play of junior transfer point guard Dontell Jefferson, who got his first start at Missouri. Jefferson can shoot the 3 and his size (6-foot-4) is problematic for opponents. Main thing, though, is Jefferson running the point gives the multi-faceted and dominating Brewer more opportunities to score and catch his breath.

Somewhat lost in this new shuffle has been swingman Jonathon Modica, who led Arkansas in scoring the last two seasons. His minutes have dwindled largely for two reasons: 1) At 6-4, he's sort of a ‘tweener (between a guard and small forward) on a team now filled with those who can play more defined roles and, 2) For some reason, he's been hesitant to take midrange jumpers.

Though his role could be reversed any day now, the fact that Modica has had trouble getting on the floor might be the biggest testament to the transition the Hogs are making.

After passing the Missouri test, it's a perfect time for all the Hogs to get a breather.

"Mentally, (the Missouri win) really gives us some confidence and makes us feel good about ourselves," Heath said.

For the first time in years (at least four), the Hogs and their fans have something to smile about.

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