Razorbacks' Defense Setting Pace In SEC

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' season is only 10 games old, but the Razorbacks currently own the best defense in the Southeastern Conference.

The Razorbacks (9-1) are holding their opponents to 35.9 percent from the field, better than No. 21 Mississippi State (37.9) and No. 8 Kentucky (38.2), two of the league's perennially best defensive teams.

Before jumping to conclusions about the strength of Arkansas' opponents relative to its defensive success, take another look at Kentucky and Mississippi State.

According to collegerpi.com, Arkansas' strength of schedule is rated No. 96. Kentucky's is ranked 95 and Mississippi State is 127.

ESPN basketball commentator Dick Vitale has tried to bash coach Stan Heath's schedule, but consider how many "cupcakes" Mississippi State has played to lower its SOS ranking despite also facing (and losing to) No. 7 Syracuse and No. 14 Arizona.

Kentucky has played No. 4 North Carolina (lost 91-78 at UNC) and No. 18 Louisville (won at UL, 60-58), but has also played lesser teams like Coppin State, Ball State, Morehead State and Tennessee Tech.

Arkansas has lost to No. 1 Illinois (72-60 in North Little Rock) and won at Missouri (62-52 on Dec. 7).

In short, the Razorbacks have played a similar schedule to Kentucky and Mississippi State and have posted better defensive numbers than either the Wildcats or the Bulldogs.

"I put a lot of stock in it," Heath said of the Razorbacks' early ranking. "I want that to be our identity. Our players are sensing how important it is to play with defense as a priority. For us, at this point after 10 games to be the No. 1 field goal team in our league, I'm proud of that.

"I'm really pleased."

Not only is Arkansas leading the SEC, the Razorbacks are also 10th in the nation in field goal percentage defense.

Arkansas was 11th in the SEC last year in field goal defense (43.4) and big part of the turnaround is Arkansas' shot blocking.

The Razorbacks are sixth in the nation in blocks (7.4 per game) and 7-foot freshman center Steven Hill is eighth in the NCAA with his 3.4 blocks per game average.

Arkansas has 74 blocks this year, 25 more than Alabama, which has 49 in 10 games.

Darian Townes (21), Hill (34) and Rashard Sullivan (9) have combined to block 64 shots.

With 6-foot-7 Ronnie Brewer, 6-5 Olu Famutimi, 6-4 Dontell Jefferson and the tenacious 6-1 Eric Ferguson guarding the perimeter, Arkansas is allowing teams to hit just 28.4 percent of their 3-point attempts and disrupting offenses with their fullcourt press.

Arkansas also brings Hill and the 6-10 freshman Townes to the top of the key on defense to deny the high post entry pass many teams use to start their offense.

Between the fullcourt pressure, halfcourt traps and interior shot blocking, Arkansas' opponents haven't been able to consistently run any kind of offense on a sustained basis.

Famutimi said the long-armed perimeter players can be even more aggressive on defense knowing there is a good chance the shot will be altered or blocked by one of Arkansas' post players.

"All we do is stick to our guns," Famutimi said. "If something happens, we always have help with Darian and Steven and Rashard protecting our basket."

Heath knows it's nice for Arkansas to be leading the SEC in field goal percentage defense to this point, but he'd rather be there in three months.

"It's more important to be there at the end of the year," he said. "Because I know we'll win a ton of games if we are."

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