Razorbacks Not Giving Anything Away

FAYETTEVILLE -- Stan Heath is looking forward to Christmas, but he doesn't want it to come early for Hartford.

The Razorbacks (9-1) play their final game before Christmas at 7:05 tonight against the Hawks (2-4).

Arkansas' coach isn't in the giving mood just yet and he hopes his players aren't either.

"I'm 40, and I look forward to Christmas, too, so I don't expect anything less from 18- or 19-year-olds," Heath said. "The main thing for us to know is that Christmas is on the 25th, not the 23rd.

"On the 23rd, we have an important basketball game and we want to play well and improve our basketball team."

Arkansas has gotten everything Heath has wanted out of its last three games since returning from a nine-day break for final exams.

The Razorbacks have defeated Tennessee State, Prairie View A&M and Lipscomb by a combined 109 points with focused effort on defense and sudden offensive contributions from 6-foot-10 freshman center Darian Townes and 6-4 junior captain Jonathon Modica, who had been mired in a slump through Arkansas' first seven games.

Arkansas also reversed its assist-turnover ratio with 62 assists to 40 turnovers in its last three games.

Townes averaged 17 points in the last three with a career-high 20 against Tennessee State and has hit 23 of 34 shots.

He's shown a good range of shots from 15 feet and closer, including a turnaround baseline jumper Heath called an old school move conjuring up memories of Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.

Heath has been counting on an offensive post presence to command double teams and free up his guards for open jump shots. He said Townes will have to prepare for that and make good decisions with the ball when that time comes.

Townes has become more aggressive in the last three games by getting firm position and absorbing contact while going up for shots.

He sank a 15-foot jumper and was fouled against Lipscomb, converting a three-point play when his attempt bounced off the top of the backboard twice and fell in.

Townes has improved his free throw shooting in his last two games after starting the year 4 of 15. He's hit 3 of 5 in his last two games after working with former Razorback and free throw guru Tommy Boyer.

"He posts up really big," Heath said. "He's a big target. He's calling for it and he has a presence to get it. He really wants it. The players are smart. They realize when a guy is open and they realize what's going to happen.

"They're comfortable throwing it in there because they like the results, too."

After starting the year 1 of 7 from 3-point range and having more turnovers than points against Illinois and Missouri, Modica has hit 6 of 8 3-pointers in his last three games and scored a season-high 16 against Lipscomb with no turnovers in 18 minutes.

Modica led the team in scoring for the first time this season against Lipscomb and is averaging 11.3 points in his last three games.

"The ball feels good coming off my hand," Modica said. "I didn't have that early in the year. I didn't feel like it was going in. Now it feels like it's going in when I let go."

Arkansas has forced 57 turnovers in its last three games, scoring 83 points off the takeaways with inspired efforts against teams with little to get inspired about.

Heath hopes the intensity Arkansas has shown against lesser teams will carry over into the beginning of Southeastern Conference play Jan. 5 against Ole Miss.

"The guys are having fun and the coaches are enjoying what we're doing right now," Heath said. "But not for one minute can we get satisfied or relaxed. There's a grind right in front of us.

"We have to use our game against Hartford as another opportunity to play good basketball and not get caught up in records or the size on the roster."

Arkansas is off to its best start in 10 years, matching the 9-1 start of the 1994-95 team.

The nine wins are the same number Arkansas had in Heath's first season and if the Razorbacks do what they're expected against Hartford, Jacksonville State (Dec. 29) and Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 31), they'll match last season's 12 heading into conference play.

Heath believes his team -- ranked No. 1 in the SEC in field goal defense (35.7), blocked shots (7.4) and fifth in scoring at 80.8 per game -- is ahead of schedule.

"I'm sure we're not playing the same schedule the (1994-95) team did, but we're real happy with our start," Heath said. "If you were looking before the season started, a lot of people would probably have us 8-2 or maybe losing a game down in the (Virgin) Islands and being 7-3.

"We're probably further ahead than what they thought we'd be."

The Razorbacks' nonconference schedule this season and in 1994-95 actually have a few things in common.

Both teams won at Missouri and beat Tulsa at home. The '95 team lost to No. 3 Massachusetts, this team lost to then-No. 5 and current No. 1 Illinois.

Both teams also won tournaments at island sites. The Razorbacks swept three games in the U.S. Virgin Islands at the Paradise Jam Nov. 19-22 and the '95 team won the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The schedules diverge at the competition in the island tourneys. The '95 team beat Oklahoma, No. 20 Cincinnati and Iowa while the Razorbacks defeated Winthrop, Troy and Eastern Michigan in St. Thomas.

The defending NCAA champions also played lightweights like Jackson State, Centenary, Southern Methodist, Murray State and Florida A&M.

The '95 team didn't need to build its confidence, but Heath sees that quality growing in this young group with each convincing victory.

"Winning breeds confidence," Heath said. "That's something we want to continue to do."

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