Heath Want Hogs At 'Magic Level'

Eddie Sutton calls it the "magic level." Not too high, not too low. Arkansas coach Stan Heath knows exactly what he means and hopes that is where the Arkansas basketball team is Saturday morning when it faces Florida in its first conference road game.

"Basketball is unique in that, as a coach, you want to create an energetic, fast-paced and aggressive atmosphere, but you still have to be in a mindset that you can make good decisions," Heath said. "Then, you are asked to calm down and relax when it's time to go make a free throw. Those are contrasting things."

It could be a problem when the Hogs visit the O'Connell Center, one of the true "pits" of the Southeastern Conference. Capacity there is around 12,000 and that will include around 3,000 UF students sitting directly across from the UA bench.

Arkansas junior Jonathon "Pookie" Modica remembers the O'Connell Center. It was the site of a coming out party of sorts for the Smackover guard. Midway through his freshman season, Modica had back-to-back games of 26 points, the first of them at Gainesville. It was the first time in 14 years a UA freshman had topped 25 in back-to-back games. The last to do it was Todd Day.

"I loved the place," Modica said. "The crowd is right on top of you. And, there is no greater feeling in basketball than quieting a big crowd like that. I loved it."

That doesn't mean Modica thinks he'll "go off" again Saturday. He promises only great effort and intensity.

"Hopefully, I can provide a spark sometime during the game," he said. "I want to be part of a team victory.

It's good to be going back to a place that you had some success. That gives you a little bit of confidence, but I also know that I must play inside the team concept. It's an exciting place to play because their fans are into it. I look forward to seeing the O'Connell Center again."

Modica is one of the Hogs' most intense and emotional players. Heath sees that as both an asset and a liability. The UA coach also cited Eric Ferguson, Ronnie Brewer and Darian Townes for their emotional demeanor.

"Pookie and those guys do have a lot of emotion in the way they go about things," Heath said. "It's a fine line, though. You want your team jacked up, but you want to be balanced, too. Hopefully, we channel it the right way and use it to play great defense and keep it out of our shooting and our decision-making.

"I think you saw the emotions come into play in the first half of the Ole Miss game Wednesday night. We had guys who were really charged up to the point they were rushing things. Darian was like that. He'll get a speeding ticket some times. He just does things too fast at times. But I'd rather have a guy like that than maybe one you have to speed up a little. Steven Hill is a guy we try to speed up (emotionally) at times. So the emotion is what you want."

Modica knows he was too hyped for the Ole Miss game. His emotions probably had a definite impact on his poor foul shooting. Usually money at the line, he made only three of nine foul shots against the Rebels.

"It was a big game to me," he said. "Our last two years, we didn't come out of the chute too well in the SEC. I just wanted a good start this year in our first SEC game. It's the first time we've won our first SEC game since I've been here. We were excited to prove ourselves. We'll be excited at Florida, too. We want to prove ourselves on the road in the SEC and show we have a good team."

One of the keys to playing on the road is the first five minutes. A good start by the visitor can take the crowd out of the game and douse some of the emotions of the home team. It could be a bigger key at Florida. The Gators are among the league's hottest teams out of the gate.

"Typically, Florida is very good at the start," Heath said. "We have to match them at the start. That is a big thing. You don't want to let them get out on you.

"At the same time, you don't want to burn up too much energy at the start. Emotions can fall and then you hit the wall. I thought that happened to Oklahoma in the national championship game. I'm no football coach, but they were jacked up and then they fell right to the bottom."

Did the Hogs run out of emotions last year in SEC play when they performed well in the first half of several road games only to fall flat in the second half? They led at halftime in several road games, but still were thumped in the second half.

"I think if you look at last year, it was more fatigue than anything," Heath said. "We didn't have the inside presence to defend. We ran out of bodies. I don't think it was the crowd or nervousness on the road. I think we handled that part fine. We didn't play bad in the second half. We just got worn down and got fatigued, not rattled."

The inside presence was just as evident against Mississippi as the intensity. After the game, Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes pointed to Arkansas' inside strength as the difference in the game. Heath was the man sitting in that seat all too often last year.

"That's music to my ears," Heath said Thursday. "I hope when others talk about our team, they refer to our balance both inside and outside and our defense. Those are the traits we hope others see. What (Barnes said) are compliments and I hope we continue to play that way."

If the Hogs continue to find the magic level, the compliments should be plentiful.

CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET

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