Hogs Ready For SEC Play

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas coach Stan Heath got a nice surprise when he checked the last set of statistics before Southeastern Conference play starts this Wednesday.

The Razorbacks are leading the SEC in assists.

"I was really impressed looking at all the numbers," Heath said. "We're doing a lot of things well. The one that stuck out to me was we're No. 1 in assists. We've been doing a great job sharing the basketball.

"We're buying into how that makes you better."

The Razorbacks (12-1) aren't just tops in assists (17.4 per game), either.

Arkansas is leading the SEC in blocks (92), steals (137), field goal defense (37 percent), free throw attempts (320) and 3-point percentage (43.8).

The Razorbacks are second in the SEC in scoring margin (plus-22.4), field goal percentage (50.4) and scoring defense (58.8 points per game).

Heading into Heath's third SEC season, Arkansas is better off than at any point in his career in Fayetteville.

Arkansas has already matched last season's win total and won 10 games before Christmas for the first time in school history.

The Razorbacks have played No. 1 Illinois tough and won 62-52 at Missouri, a place Gonzaga went and lost fresh off its win against Oklahoma State last week.

Arkansas won the Paradise Jam to open the season in the U.S. Virgin Islands and has pretty much pounded a series of lesser teams with the exception of a hard-fought 73-67 win against Jacksonville State last Wednesday.

Now comes the hard part, but Heath believes his team is well-equipped to compete and win in the SEC.

"We know what we can do," Heath said. "We haven't been in as many dogfights. That's what we have coming up. We've handled it before. We've grown since (the 72-60 loss to Illinois).

"These guys have it. They should be successful at home and go on the road and steal some."

Arkansas' newcomers have all provided valuable contributions so far and its veterans have played up to billing.

Freshman Steven Hill is leading the SEC in blocks (2.9 per game) and is on a record-setting pace at Arkansas.

Freshman Darian Townes found his offensive game after finals and is averaging 13.6 points in his last six games.

Freshman Charles Thomas is fifth on the team in scoring with 9.0 per game and junior transfer Dontell Jefferson is third on the team with 43 assists.

The games against Illinois and Missouri were good preparations for SEC play, said leading scorer Ronnie Brewer (16.5 per game).

"It's a lot more physical," Brewer said. "It's one of the toughest conferences in the country. We have quality players who can step their games up. The freshmen and Dontell can step up and everyone is looking forward to playing in the SEC."

Junior forward Rashard Sullivan started banging on Townes and Hill early in August pickup games to prepare the youngsters for the reality of SEC post play.

"Every day in practice, I try to bring it to them just so they know what to expect in the SEC," he said. "Every team you play is going to have a 6-10 guy who weighs 250 and likes to bang and rebound. I try to match that intensity every day as much as I can."

Sullivan said it took him a year to get accustomed to SEC play and there's no way to describe it to guys like Hill and Townes.

Getting a taste of Ole Miss' 6-foot-7, 245-pound banger Tommie Eddie on Wednesday will be a good breaking in, Sullivan said.

"You really can't tell them anything," he said. "You have to experience it yourself. They have to experience SEC play. Once they play this game, they'll know. Tommy Eddie is going to be down there being aggressive and once they get that experience, they'll be all right."

Arkansas has defined itself as a defensive team that creates easy offense from steals and turnovers.

Missouri and Illinois forced Arkansas to play more halfcourt basketball and the Razorbacks had their struggles in those situations, but Heath believes his team has improved since finals by making more of a commitment to getting inside-outside balance against their final six nonconference opponents.

He'd like to still dictate tempo, but knows it will be tougher against the better competition in the SEC.

"It becomes a meat-grinder where you have to execute better in the halfcourt," Heath said. "We've shown we're capable of doing that. We've become better in the last four or five games.

"We've tried when we get ahead to work on halfcourt situations. We'd love for it to be up and down, but there are some games we'll have to grind it out."

Arkansas has been steadily picking up votes in the Associated Press poll since its lost to Illinois, but Heath isn't worried about cracking the Top 25 and neither are his players.

Junior captain Jonathon Modica, who is averaging 13.6 points in his last five games after a slow start to the season, said winning games will take care of earning any national respect.

"As long as we put 'W's up, good will come from that," he said.

Heath likes opening SEC action at home, but Arkansas will travel to Florida on Saturday before hosting No. 19 Alabama on Tuesday followed by a two game road trip to defending SEC champion No. 18 Mississippi State and LSU.

"Now it's time to step up," Heath said. "It's tough, we play against some tough ball clubs, but we feel we've prepared ourselves real well."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories