The Big Deal

FAYETTEVILLE -- A prime example of the long and short of it:

Early on in Arkansas' 64-61 home loss against No. 23 Alabama on Tuesday night, Hogs freshman forward Charles Thomas had his shot spiked by Jermareo Davidson. Arkansas freshman Steven Hill followed the bouncing ball, grabbed it, then missed from point-blank range.
A couple of possessions later, Thomas netted a dandy hook over Chuck Davis.

With about 15 minutes left in the first half, Arkansas freshman center/forward Darian Townes replaced Hill, drawing a foul just seconds afterward.

Two minutes later, Townes hit a polished turnaround jumper over Davis, cutting the Alabama lead to 14-12.

About the time Townes quit pumping his fists, Davis easily drove past him.

That pretty much illustrates the up-and-down life of a freshman paint player while taking on big-time Southeastern Conference competition.

"Sometimes you don't know what you're going to get," said Florida coach Billy Donovan. "That's the hardest part, the level of consistency. I think we as coaches always have a level of peace of mind and comfort when you put someone in the game and think, 'You know what, I know what I'm going to get from this guy.'

"Whereas, sometimes with young guys, you put 'em in there and one night they're terrific.

"The next time not."

Rick Stansbury smiled, then shook his head.

It's hard to put a finger on it. The Mississippi State coach hesitated, searching for the right words to describe why it takes young frontline players so long to rise to SEC occasions.

"Big kids come up later," said Stansbury, whose No. 11 Bulldogs (14-3) host the Razorbacks (13-3) on Saturday. "That's just the way it is. I guess you can blame it on their height. But they're just late developers.

"Some develop quicker than others, based on, I think, their mentality. You know, some kids growing up big are not very comfortable players because they've been made fun of and those kind of things. There's a lot of things they have to go through."

Asked if he agreed that it takes longer for post players to step up, Arkansas coach Stan Heath nodded emphatically.

"It does," he said. "Big guys just progress at a different rate. The light -bulb comes on at different times. In this day and age in college basketball, guys you get that are 7-foot or 6-10, they've got some work to do, because if they didn't, they don't come to college anymore (opting instead, like Arkansas commitment Al Jefferson, to dribble straight to the NBA).

"So they've got a little bit of work to do. You've got to fine-tune it where they get confident and comfortable with it. Then they've got to get used to playing, not only with other guys out there on the court, but they've got to get used to the speed of the game because the game is so different than what they're used to in high school.

"And some guys, that light-bulb comes on fairly quickly. And some guys, it's their sophomore or junior year before it comes."

News flash: Sixteen games into the season and it's obvious Arkansas' three freshman post players are well ahead of schedule.

Looking Up
Against Alabama's experienced frontline of All-SEC junior forward Kennedy Winston, Davis and Davidson -- maybe as good as any the Hogs will see this season -- Hill, Thomas and Townes were outscored 37-19 and outrebounded 20-7.

But just three days after Florida's All-SEC senior forward David Lee (17 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks) taught them a hands-on lesson during the 82-74 Gators win, it was obvious the trio had seriously rebounded.

It's not a stretch to say the Hogs' green frontline has the potential -- albeit of the hit and miss inconsistent variety -- to make opponents see red.

And, clearly, even bigger and better things are just around the corner for Hill, Thomas and Townes.

"I love 'em," said Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, who played at Oral Roberts with Hill's dad, Troy, and regrets "not recruiting him harder."

"Townes is really good," Gottfried said. "Thomas is great. All three of 'em. Townes (14 points) was killin' us (Tuesday night). And I thought there was a point in the game where they were going to him and going at Jermareo. And we challenged Jermareo there, told him, 'They're coming at you for a reason. It's time to step up.'

"But they're doing that because those kids are good and they're just freshmen."

Heath, almost giddy at the speedy progression, had no complaints when assessing their performances against the Crimson Tide.

"I thought Townes played very strong in the paint on offense," Heath said. "And Hill (5 blocks) was a terrific presence for us on defense.

"(Winston, Davis and Davidson are) as good as anybody's frontline. They really are. I thought we did well. I thought we held our own.

"And Townes looked as impressive as anybody they had in the paint, and Hill looked as impressive as any of their big guys. And I thought Thomas played a good, solid game, too.

"There was no intimidation. They weren't starry-eyed or anything like that. They went at 'em."

Growing Pains
Florida's Lee put on a clinic in the O'Connell Center, freezing the Hogs in their high-tops, bulling to the basket, zipping past grasps, kicking out for open jumpers, knocking down midrange shots, positioning and rebounding with passion, blocking and altering shots and getting Thomas (fouled out), Hill (4 fouls) and Townes (3) in serious foul trouble.

The trio combined for just 14 points, making just 3 of only 7 field-goal attempts.

"(The Gators) executed real good and got the ball inside to David Lee," said Arkansas guard Eric Ferguson, about the closest thing the Hogs have to a veteran. "He's a more experienced player. Our big men are freshmen, so it's new to those guys."

The big impression also was a lasting one.

After the loss against Alabama, Thomas brought up the Florida experience.

"Going against David Lee, you know, David Lee likes to bang you around," Thomas said. "You kind of want to step your game up. That's what we did (Tuesday night)."

Lee remembers well when he was in their position. As a freshman, he hadn't faced them yet, but he knew all about the big-name post players at Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama. In fact, he had dreamed of playing against them.

But before that, a rude awakening.

"Then you come in and play against a team like Ole Miss, where I'd never heard of any of the players, and I'm saying, 'This is going to be easy,'" Lee said. "And then I go up against a guy like Justin Reed. The guy absolutely murdered me. The guy was just so physical and played so hard."

Coincidentally, Ole Miss was the first SEC team Arkansas' freshmen faced. And although the Rebels' best frontline player - Tommie Eddie - was out for academic reasons, Hill, Thomas and Townes quickly learned conference play is a whole new ballgame.

During the Hogs' first possession of that 69-46 win on Jan. 6, Thomas was pummeled by Ole Miss center Jeremy Parnell.

"Damn! Coach wasn't lying," Thomas thought.

Coaches and teammates can tell young players all about how tough life in the SEC paint is, but they're still going to have to take their lumps after being taken by surprise.

"These days, they've got to learn on their own," said Alabama's Winston. "They listen to you and all that, but they think they're stronger. The guys told me, but I really didn't listen to 'em. Came in one ear and out the other.

"Telling them and letting them go out there and experience it is two different things. They're not going to know the situation until they're in it. That's when they can really tell what's going on."

Said Thomas of SEC play after banging with Winston and company for 18 minutes: "It's real physical. Even Ole Miss was a real physical game. It's tough.

"It really is."

Picking On Bodies Your Own Size
He laughed loudly at the absurdity of the difference.

Heck, as a sophomore at Chaminade College Prep up in St. Louis, Lee broke his left --shooting -- arm and played the last month of that season as a righty.

"High school was so easy," Lee said.

No contest, agreed Winston.

"(SEC) guys are a lot more physical, and they're a lot bigger and stronger than guys you played against in high school," Winston said.

It's not as easy as rolling out of bed when it comes to rising and shining in the SEC as a freshman.

"(In high school) you're used to being the biggest guy on the court, and your biggest challenge was just keeping the ball up high, shooting over the top and not worrying about getting blocked," Heath said.

"Now you're battling against somebody your own size who has a little bit more experience. Now you're battling against teams that are going to double-team and try to knock the ball away when you dribble."

Or try knock your head off.

"Offensive-wise, guys that were stronger than me, when I'd go to the hole, guys would knock me off-balance and things like that," said Winston of his freshman season.

"It was really a tough adjustment."

Not-So-Great Expectations
Size does matter, but maybe not as much as you think.

Mississippi State's Stansbury, for instance, has coached his share of giants (too many of them gentle), but believes most tall freshmen come into the SEC way over-rated.

Shoot, if they were that good, they wouldn't be here.

"Fans think because you've got a 7-footer, you're going to have a good basketball team," Stansbury said. "That's not the way it is.

"Half your 7-footers last year down the stretch, they weren't playing. This game's not about height anymore. It's about skill level and athleticism.

"Now, if you've got a guy with good skill level and athleticism, you've got the best of both worlds. You wouldn't have him -- that's the problem. If he was big and has athletic skills, you wouldn't have him anymore. He goes to the NBA.

"So to even have big guys tells you probably they've got some flaws, they've got some weaknesses, or they wouldn't be there."

Heath agreed with Stansbury to a great degree, but he may have struck the closest thing to a perfect balance by netting Hill, Thomas and Townes, who weren't yet up to NBA standards but have turned out to be better than most thought possible at this point.

Hill (a 7-footer) was viewed as a project of sorts, solid on defense (he leads the SEC with 47 blocks) but hesitant offensively, which Heath still is working on. Thomas (6-7) was so bullish in high school that he earned the nickname Manimal. Arkansas coaches were surprised at his consistent soft touch around the basket and from midrange that has led to an 8.7-point average. Townes (6-10) was thought to have the best chance for a major impact this season. After a somewhat shaky start, he has settled to average 8.9 points per game.

A key selling point during the recruiting process was the fact that Arkansas needed an immediate boost.

"They knew they came in for a reason: That we needed some help inside," Heath said.

But Heath has been careful to not shove them too quickly.

"We're not putting the pressure that, 'Hey, you've got to be the focal point of our team or 20(-point) and 10(-rebound) guys every night. But we need you to help. And we need you to give us some defense, give us some rebounding and be as effective as you can on offense. But play your strength, you know. Take it easy on yourself, don't try to force things, don't try to overdo things,'" Heath said.

"And that's where young players sometimes struggle -- they try to do a little bit too much.

"I don't want our young big guys to feel the pressure of, 'Boy, I've got to carry the load.' Because they don't. You know, we've got some other guys that can do that. They just need to do what they're good at. If it's rebounding, if it's defense inside, if it's finishing."

Tricks Of The Trade
Almost every veteran post player brings up "intensity" when asked about the most eye-widening factor of first-season SEC play.

"I think coming in as a freshman, just the level of intensity you have to have each and every night (is the biggest adjustment)," Lee said. "Just realizing that each game, whether you are familiar with the players on a national level or not, each team is so stacked from top to bottom and well-coached that you've got to bring your 'A' game every night."

Said Winston: "As far as intensity, it's very different than high school."

Then there's the intense attention to detail.

"I can tell SEC teams do a lot of scouting, so I have to mix up my moves a little more," Townes said.

Just don't over-think it, Lee advised.

"The biggest thing is having a simple way where you can score," Lee said.

"There are a lot of specific things, such as defensive positioning and knowing the scouting reports and things like that," Lee said. "It's no longer like high school where you can go into games not knowing much about the competition. Guys know what your moves are. They're filming all that stuff."

Heath said progress for most players has to do with going fast forward.

"Getting used to playing every possession," Heath said. "You know, a lot of young kids, they have a hard time of, hey, they just got this great rebound and offensive rebound they put in and then they forgot to sprint down the court and guard their man. They forgot the second part of playing every possession.

"Getting 'em used to doing that -- and used to doing that every time. You know, they're going to break down after three or four minutes -- sometimes after two or one --but getting the play over a period of time.

"And that's the big challenge a coach faces for a big guy that's young, not taking plays off. Because they could do that in high school."

Florida's Donovan agreed that the transition of getting away from what you could get away with in high school plays a major part in freshman frontline development and that the wear and tear takes a huge toll.

"(One) challenge, I think, with freshmen playing a lot of minutes is the balance between going nine weeks of an SEC schedule game-in and game-out," Donovan said. "Having to be ready mentally, physically and emotionally to play ... the balance of those things, because they'll get mentally fatigued and exhausted before they get physically fatigued and exhausted. Sometimes I think the mental fatigue is worse than the physical fatigue."

Winston, who now often dominates head games, grinned mischievously while thinking back to how hard it was to keep up with crafty veterans.

"Guys (in the SEC) are really scorers," Winston said. "Running around screens and stuff like that, I had to get adjusted on defense --how to guard those guys. And they know how to read things. Guys that have been around know how to read things and they're real players."

Now Winston is one of those guys.

"Yeah, I'll have to use my experience to my advantage," he said. "I've learned a lot since I've been in college, and it's kind of the tricks of the trade, you know.

"I'll use that against the young guys."

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