FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas junior power forward Rashard Sullivan may be the only player who isn't eager to face Ole Miss tonight in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
"I'm not looking forward to it at all," Sullivan said with a chuckle. "I get beat up enough in practice. This is what it prepares us for."
Off to their best start since the 1994 national championship season, Arkansas (12-1) will host perennially physical Ole Miss (9-4) at 7:05 tonight.
Both teams are on seven-game winning streaks and bring a defensive mindset with an emphasis on balanced team play.
Arkansas and Ole Miss will go 11-deep on their benches and the Razorbacks will try to start reversing their 3-13 record against the Rebels since 1997.
"It's a good rivalry," said sophomore Ronnie Brewer, who is leading the team in scoring (16.5) and steals (2.9). "They're going to come in and play tough, defend hard and play uptempo, a lot like our style.
"The fans are in for a good game."
The Razorbacks and the Rebels are in different stages of rebuilding projects.
Ole Miss lost seniors Justin Reed and Aaron Harper, who combined for 35 points and 12 rebounds last season, and Arkansas brought in a group of three freshmen post players and junior college point guard Dontell Jefferson to fill coach Stan Heath's needs.
Ole Miss had a bumpy beginning to its season with losses to Air Force, Illinois State, Florida State and Arkansas State but has turned its 2-4 start around, surprising coach Rod Barnes with how quickly his team of former role players has meshed.
"They've improved greatly from where they started," Heath said. "It's a scrappy, aggressive team. They expanded offensively. They're a more balanced team. They're shooting a good percentage. They're having success on the offensive end. They've always been aggressive on defense. They're going to compete hard."
The Razorbacks' class of newcomers has provided instant credibility in the paint and Jefferson has nearly a 2-1 assist-turnover ratio (43-24).
Seven-foot center Steven Hill is leading the SEC in blocks (2.9 per game) and with 38 through 13 games is on pace to shatter Oliver Miller's freshman record of 60.
Six-foot-10 center Darian Townes has averaged 13.6 points in his last six games and is third in the SEC in blocks with 2.1 per game.
Townes sprained his right knee in practice on Monday but returned to the court Tuesday and is expected to play tonight.
Charles Thomas, a 6-7, 240-pound forward, is fifth on the team in scoring with 9.0 per game.
The post newcomers have blended seamlessly with Arkansas veterans Brewer, juniors Jonathon Modica (9.7 ppg), Eric Ferguson (11.2 ppg, 4.5 assists/game), Sullivan (4.0 rpg) and sophomore Olu Famutimi (10.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg).
Six players are averaging between 8.7 and 16.5 points per game.
The size inside has allowed Arkansas to open up its fullcourt pressure and become more aggressive defensively on the perimeter in the halfcourt.
"We do a lot of things differently that we have in the last couple years," Heath said. "Teams will watch that, they'll study us more and it will be a little adjustment."
Arkansas is leading the league in steals, blocks and field goal defense.
"We expected (Heath) to turn the program around and he has," Barnes said. "Experience and having kids that have been together is big in our league. That's why they've been playing really good."
The same can be said for Ole Miss, which has nine seniors and juniors on the roster.
Six-foot-6 junior transfer forward and leading scorer Londrick Nolen (12.3 per game) is the lone upperclassman who hasn't been in Barnes' system for at least three years and players like seniors Kendrick Fox (7.1 ppg), Justin Johnson (5.2 ppg) and Tommie Eddie (12.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg) have jumped at the chance to fill the void left by Harper and Reed.
The 6-7, 250-pound bruiser Eddie is the center and the 6-7 Fox a forward, but he often roams the perimeter (21 of 44, 47.7 percent on 3s) and will force Arkansas forwards like Thomas, Sullivan and Townes to extend their defense.
"The other guys have stepped up their games," Heath said. "They go to Eddie quite a bit, Nolan has been consistent, (Todd) Abernathy has been playing well. Fox is more like a small forward. Charles will be capable of defending that. Different guys are going to have to match up with (Fox) on the perimeter."
Abernathy is averaging 9.2 points, shooting 38.5 percent from the 3-point line and leads the Rebels with 36 assists.
Ole Miss has six players with 20 or more assists and is shooting a solid 48.7 percent from the field.
"They're the kind of team we can't take lightly at all," Heath said. "I don't think it matters how much talent or what. Rod does a great job getting his team to buy in."
Arkansas has been accumulating points in the Associated Press poll since its 72-60 loss to No. 1 Illinois on Dec. 4 in North Little Rock and have 30 in the latest poll to rank 31st, but Brewer said the Razorbacks aren't playing for respect.
"We're going to play within ourselves and if we play our style of play, we're going to get some wins," he said. "We don't have to prove ourselves to anybody. We're a good college team and we're improved.
"If they take us lightly, we can definitely sneak up on a lot of teams."
Razorbacks vs. Rebels
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