Getting The Point

FAYETTEVILLE - Most of the preseason chatter about bigger expectations for Arkansas basketball centered on the sudden infusion of size.

Clearly 7-footer Steven Hill, 6-10 Darian Townes and 6-7 Charles Thomas have made huge impacts - larger even than Arkansas coaches anticipated - as the Hogs have surged to 13-1 and 1-0 in the Southeastern Conference following Wednesday night's 69-46 fast break past Ole Miss.

But third-year Arkansas coach Stan Heath, whose first two teams were a combined 21-35, figured getting a point guard would be just as crucial, if not more so, for the Hogs to make an NCAA Tournament run.

"We still haven't had the type of success I'd like to see at point guard -yet," Heath said a couple of months back.

Heading into Saturday's game at Florida, Arkansas seems to have gotten the point.

Two seasons ago, freshman Eric Ferguson, who -despite being just 6-1 - is described by Heath as more of a natural shooting guard, was allowed only brief gasps of pine time while playing point guard.

Last season, Heath mostly manned the point with freshman Ronnie Brewer. Brewer showed he was plenty skilled to play the point, but his 6-7 stature, Stretch Armstrong wingspan and zing-ding moves seem to make him more suited to be a scoring guard.

In fact, Arkansas hasn't had a true point guard since little Kareem Reid, a dazzling dribbler and passer from the Bronx, last held the spot in 1999.

Again this season, Arkansas does not have a point guard.

The Hogs have three.

Brewer generally starts at the point, but often is spelled by Ferguson. And 6-4 junior transfer Dontell Jefferson, a skilled shooter and solid handler, also picks up the position. The Hogs generally have two of those on the floor at all times, and who plays the point, particularly with Brewer and Jefferson in together, often is decided by who gets the defensive rebound or outlet pass.

It's almost like a boxer changing paws mid-round, and a point-guard shift helped deck the Rebels after Wednesday's 27-23 Arkansas halftime lead.

This season we've seen Brewer and Jefferson work long-armed fast breaks in perfect synch. We've watched Ferguson and Brewer blend more naturally and marveled at a fresher Ferguson's vastly improved shooting.

"I think it's working out tremendously," Heath said. "What it does is it puts a lot of pressure on the other team because they've got to figure out (who's playing the point). We switched it (against Ole Miss). We put Eric at the point and moved Ronnie to the 2(-guard) in the second half, and that allowed Ronnie to be a little more free, a little more aggressive offensively.

"So I actually like it. It's a little bit old-school where you've got two guards out there that can do everything - they can shoot, pass, dribble, defend. I like that."

You have to like this: Brewer leads the Razorbacks with 16.2 points per game in 28.4 minutes. Ferguson, who averages 24.6 minutes, is second with 11.4 points. And despite this being his first season of Division I ball, Jefferson has contributed 20.1 minutes while scoring 5.9 points.

With this new triple option, Arkansas leads the SEC in assists (17.29), steals (10.71), field-goal defense (.363), ranks second in turnover margin (+5.21) and field-goal percentage (.502), and even with its fast-paced style, is fifth in assists to turnovers ratio (1.14).

Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes shook his head late Wednesday night at Arkansas' three-headed point.

"All of 'em are good ballhandlers and that causes teams maybe some problems," he said. "I just know they're good basketball players."

Sweat beading on his forehead after playing an unusually long 35 minutes (because he had a hot hand), Ferguson beamed as he assessed the situation Wednesday night.

"Oh, it's working real well," Ferguson said. "Me and Dontell and Ronnie bring up the ball or whatever, and one of us gets hot and plays on the wing. But it's working real well, you know.

"All of our guys are real comfortable at it. No one is selfish, so it's real good playing with these guys."

Heath's dark eyes light up when talking about it.

"It's working out terrifically," he said. "You look at numbers, these guys are the only team in the conference with two guys in the top-10 in assists."

That does, indeed, add up. Ferguson is fifth with 4.57 assists per game and Brewer ranks 10th with 3.57. And here's one better: The Hogs, led by Ferguson, who sits atop the SEC with a 2.91 assists to turnovers ratio, also are the only team with two in that top-10 as Jefferson (1.72) rates sixth.

Point Of Concerns
A reporter at SEC Media Days pointed out to Alabama coach Mark Gottfried that the only serious player the Crimson Tide lost was point guard Antoine Pettway.

"Well, that's a lot!" said an animated Gottfried. "I know a lot of teams lost players in this league. I don't know if anybody lost a guy as important to a team as Antoine Pettway was to our team. I think he was that valuable."

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, whose 26-4 team won the SEC West last season and went to the second round of the NCAA tourney, would argue that point.

"One thing I don't have right now that I've had the last three years on those (SEC West) championship teams -I've had a very mature point guard," Stansbury said. "I had Derrick Zimmerman (2000-2003), I had Timmy Bowers (the last two seasons).

"This is the first time in the last three years, I've got a young guy (Gary Ervin) now, going into his sophomore year that's having to step up and do all those little things that we like done."

A season after the hot-shot Pettway helped lead now-No. 19 Alabama to a surprising Elite Eight run, Bowers triggered the Bulldogs' surge and Kentucky seniors Cliff Hawkins and Gerald Fitch drove opponents mad as the Wildcats scratched out yet another overall SEC title, there are loads of fresh faces manning SEC points.

No. 18 Mississippi State relies almost solely on Ervin, and the Crimson Tide is led by baby-faced first-year player Ronald Steele.

First-year transfer Patrick Sparks has - quite effectively -mostly taken over the reins (spelled some by freshman Rajon Rondo) at Kentucky and Georgia largely depends on freshman Sundiata Gaines.

Florida sprinkles in large doses of freshman Tauren Green with junior Anthony Roberson, more of a scorer than assister. Vanderbilt is in good shape with junior Mario Moore, but LSU goes with sophomore Tack Minor and South Carolina starts sophomore Tre Kelley.

Tennessee junior C.J. Watson is, by far, the most experienced of SEC prototypical point guards.

In fact, the only senior point guards in the SEC are Auburn's Ian Young and Ole Miss' Cavadas Nunnery, who as a bit player last season averaged just 14.2 minutes and 1.2 points.

"I was shocked at (how young SEC points are)," said Heath during the preseason.

Heath, of course, knows all about the rigors of trying to stay sharp at the point with youth.

"(Point guard) is the hardest job, and it is very difficult as a freshman to try to come in to do that," Heath said. "The thing you hope for as a freshman is to have some guys around you to make it easier for you. Really, you could be a guy that plays off the players on your team: You're either feeding those guys for shots or you're being a guy that spots up when the defense collapses, and that's when you take your (scoring) opportunities.

"They'll come at you defensively, throw things at you you've never seen in high school. Boy, it's not easy.

"We faced that. We've gotten stronger on that."

Asked if misery loves company, Gottfried sighed.

"Yeah, somewhat," he said. "It's a tough position to learn as a freshman. It's a lot on your shoulders.

"The tough thing for our team is that last year we went from a senior starting and his backup was a senior. This year, we've got a freshman starting and his backup is a freshman.

"Antoine would get in foul trouble, get two fouls in the first half -I'm gonna play a senior for the rest of the first half. That's a nice luxury.

"That's why I'm real cautious with all this hype about how great we're gonna be. We've got a lot of questions there."

Loading Young Guns
What's the best way to handle young point guards in the SEC?


And not so much.

Given a second chance, Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson would've played things differently with Watson during his freshman season and last year's campaign.

"You've got to live with some of the mistakes they're going to make," Peterson said. "They're going to make some and you've got to deal with it. You've got to be patient with him.

"If I had to do it all over again, I'd say, 'Be aggressive. Take that challenge. Go out there and try to get 10-12 assists. Don't worry about your turnovers right now.'

"I would want him to be aggressive more than anything else."

Did the close scrutiny sometimes freeze Watson in place?

"It probably did," Peterson said. "And knowing C.J., his personality is not going for the end of that tree limb and try to hang on."

Hanging on - to their tempers -is a strategy several SEC coaches must employ from sheer necessity.

Listen to Stansbury on Ervin: "Last year we had to teach him, 'There's defenders between you and that goal.' He didn't know that last year as a freshman. It was just wide-open.

"Now I think he's making a few adjustments. He's changing gears. Is he better than he was? Yes. Is he where he needs to be? Absolutely not. But he's making progress.

"And I've got to keep in mind he's a young player that's on a pretty good basketball team and you're putting a lot of expectations on your point guard now.

"We don't have anybody else. He's that guy.

"What will help his development is he has some experienced, talented players around him. If he was the only guy and we're asking him to do a whole lot more, it would be a lot more difficult. We need him to do the basic things: Defend, play with great energy and be consistent with that energy every day and every possession.

"The game itself will evolve around him. It is a lot to ask, but I think he's on a team that will help him make that adjustment."

Said Heath: "Having a young point guard, especially in this league and going up against some good players is a real challenge, because that guy's got to make so many decisions because the ball's in his hands so many times.

"'Reading what defensive team is in, move the hot man, make sure I get it to him - boy, I can't remember the play Coach called! What play was that we just worked on?'"

Several SEC coaches and point guards talked about the difficulties of playing the position in front of loud road crowds and the surprising fast-forward pace of the Division I game.

But for Brewer, who took plenty of lumps last season, the toughest part of the transition from Fayetteville High to the SEC was the physical style.

"It was different," Brewer said. "The intensity level. Going on the road, a lot of teams pressed and try to get to you mentally. You've just got to stay focused and play your style of play and don't get sidetracked.

"From high school, it's a lot different. More physical play, that's the first thing you have to adapt to."

Bucking the trend of concern of sporting first-year SEC point guards is Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, whose Wildcats are ranked No. 8.

"I don't see (Sparks) as a first-year player having played two years at Western (Kentucky) and sitting out a year at our place," Smith said.

"It's tough out there. But we've got very, very talented guys coming to school now who are well-prepared. I know the players we've recruited from their respective colleges and high schools, they've had excellent high school coaching."

Playing The Point
When it comes to SEC point-guard play, there are vastly different strokes for different folks.

Tennessee's Peterson prefers Watson to be more of a quarterback than scorer, and he'll rely on him darned near exclusively.

"C.J.'s started a lot of ballgames for us, so I expect a little bit more of a high assist to turnover ratio from this club," Peterson said. "And I'll take those guys that go 12/4 over 5/0, because I know that 12/4 guy's going to be more aggressive than 5/0. And C.J. and I have talked a lot about that.

"(Last season and the one prior) was a challenge for him, I can tell you that. Really a challenge. He'll tell you that there were some tough moments. He'll tell you some of the toughest times weren't early, they were late in February, where game after game, 35 minutes ... he played more minutes than anybody in this league his freshman year. I had no choice. That's what I had."

Same thing this time around.

"Luckily, he's got three lungs," Peterson said. "He just goes and goes and goes."

Florida's Billy Donovan wants a more aggressive scoring approach from his point, yet he has more and more been juggling Roberson and Green at the position.

"I think from a coaching standpoint, you've got to look at what you've got," Donovan said. "I think with a guy like Roberson, who can score, you don't want to make him a traffic cop, where all he's doing is initiating the offense because he's too good of a scorer.

"I think it's hard because sometimes when you play that spot it can take away (from scoring). Roberson last year probably could've scored 25 points a game if I told him to just focus on scoring. But that wouldn't have been the best thing for our team.

"And I think that's the biggest challenge for point guards when they go in: 'How do my strengths and talents mix in with the rest of the team'?

"I like having scoring point guards. I think coming out of transition, it's another threat to shoot the basketball. I think having a point guard that can shoot just gives you another dimension, in my opinion."

So does having three options to run with.

"We're not doing anything extra complicated and they've got a good feel for playing different spots and being interchangeable," Heath said. "I always want to have interchangeable players at spots and this team has it."

Get the point?

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