(Young) Big Men On Display

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas center Darian Townes has never lacked confidence.

Sure, the freshman felt an overflow of nerves when he stepped into the starting lineup for the first time in his Southeastern Conference career at LSU on Jan. 19. But it didn't stop Townes from believing he could turn in a big performance against LSU freshman Glen "Big Baby" Davis.

After 33 minutes of banging with the hefty 6-foot-9, 310-pound Davis, Townes realized he had a lot to learn about being a successful post player in the SEC.

"Honestly, I've never played anyone over 280 pounds," Townes said. "That was a big test for me. I thought I could outmuscle the dude in my head.

"It didn't work out that way."

The good news for the improving Townes is he'll get a second chance to make a first impression against LSU when he wrestles with Davis and sophomore forward Brandon Bass in Bud Walton Arena on Saturday.

There's no doubt Davis got the better of the Hogs last month, with 26 points and 18 rebounds in Baton Rouge, La. Townes, who earned his second career start against LSU, finished with 4 points and 5 rebounds.

Since then, Townes has done nothing less than state his case as one of the best young post players in the SEC along with Davis and Kentucky forward Randolph Morris.

"I was really impressed," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, who watched Townes score 16 points on 7 of 10 shooting against the Wildcats on Jan. 29. "He's right up there with all of them. Glen Davis is a unique player at that size and can do the things he does. Randolph Morris is probably playing better than any freshman post player we've ever had.

"I'm sure that (Arkansas coach) Stan Heath wants Townes to do more and he's delivering. I think he's right up there with the best freshmen in the conference."

In the six starts since the LSU game, Townes has become a vital offensive option for the Hogs next to leading scorer Ronnie Brewer. Arkansas has made a conscious effort to work the ball into the post to Townes and he has responded by scoring the Hogs' first basket in four of the past five games.

Townes is averaging 14.2 points and is shooting 54.7 percent from the field the past five games. He has led Arkansas in scoring in two straight outings, notching 19 at Ole Miss and 17 against Georgia.

But Heath said Townes' confidence started to grow before that, when he scored 18 points against Alabama on Jan. 11.

"It has been incredible improvement," Heath said. "His first experiences out there on the court, he was in such a hurry to get a shot. He was shooting air balls off the backboard. He looked lost.

"Now he looks like a very confident player that knows he can be effective inside."

As a result, Arkansas assistant coach Ronny Thompson said Townes deserves to be recognized in a similar light as freshmen like Davis and Morris. He is second among SEC freshman post players in scoring (behind Davis) and fourth in rebounds (behind Davis, Florida's Al Horford and Georgia's Dave Bliss).

In fact, Thompson believes if anyone closed their eyes and picked between the three, they "won't be upset if (they) got either one."

"Big Baby, Morris, I think that you can't help but mention (Townes) in the same breath as those guys," Thompson said. "Those guys were McDonald's All-Americans coming out of high school. But if you look at Darian's numbers, they're right there if not better than some of them. I think Big Baby's stats may be better, but Morris, I think Darian's stats are better than his.

"You would have to mention him in that same breath."

Townes has stepped ahead of freshman frontcourt teammates Charles Thomas and Steven Hill because of his offensive impact. Thompson said both players have turned in steady defensive efforts, but have struggled on the offensive end during SEC play.

Thomas and Hill have combined to average 5 points in Arkansas' 10 SEC games.

Townes has plenty of work to do on defense, which Thompson said he must pick up as the regular season winds down. He also wants to see his timing on offense improve as well as his awareness of when to pull certain moves out of his repertoire.

Thompson said the freshman diligently work to improve in every area, showing up for extra repetitions before practice begins. Townes also has made a habit of staying late, getting in more fundamental work while most of the team goes home.

"My dad, with his best teams, used to say, 'When I have a thoroughbred I whip it,'" Thompson said about former Georgetown coach John Thompson. "He said, 'When I don't have good teams, it's cruelty if you whip a horse that's not a thoroughbred.'

"Darian's in that (thoroughbred) mode. He has a lot of potential so we stay on him. We push him. We never let him get comfortable. If we were to ride some of our other guys the way we ride Darian, it would be cruelty."

Said Townes: "I thought I was going to come in and just play a role, get garbage baskets from rebounding, slip through, get an open pass. But working hard and the dedication I've put in with the extra work, it's showing right now."

Townes' progress will be gauged is his second battle with Davis, who is one of the favorites to claim the SEC Freshman of the Year award.

The Baton Rouge, La., native has been a load under the basket and ranks 17th in the SEC in scoring (13.1 points) and third in rebounds (8.9). His play has improved in nine conference games, jumping to 14.8 points (10th in SEC) and 10.9 rebounds (first in SEC). Davis leads all SEC freshman big men in both categories.

"I've got to go out here with the mindset of playing small basketball," Townes said. "I know I'm not going to win the physical battle.

"He kind of got me at Baton Rouge. Me and him, during the course of the game, we were mostly talking among each other, just going back and forth. He kind of won the battle. But I know I've got to come here and it's payback I've got to give him."

LSU coach John Brady knows Townes has proven he is capable of having a big night.

In fact, LSU was well aware of his offensive talents before the Jan. 19 game and Brady told his post players to be prepared to double team Townes, if necessary. Brady said the Tigers never did in their overtime win. But after Townes' recent string of offensive success, Brady said LSU might double team him Saturday.

It's further proof that Townes is garnering respect across the SEC.

"If they can get him to play and he has a good game, it makes them a better team obviously," Brady said. "I think outside of our guy, Glen Davis, I think he's one of the better big men in the league. He's gotten better and will continue to get better."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories