Arkansas Must Avoid Bad Spells At Alabama

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas coach Stan Heath knows what his team has to do to beat No. 16 Alabama tonight in Tuscaloosa.

"Don't have a bad five minutes," he said with a smile. "That's being sarcastic, but it's true."

Heath was referring to the Razorbacks' scoring drought the first time against the Crimson Tide on Jan. 11 in Fayetteville after Arkansas built a 33-24 lead with 4:21 to play in the first half.

It was actually more like nine bad minutes while Alabama (19-4, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) outscored Arkansas 15-0 to take a lead it wouldn't give back in its 64-61 victory.

Eric  Ferguson's game-tying 3-point attempt came up short and Arkansas (17-7, 5-6) lost the first of three SEC games decided by three points or less including its Jan. 19 loss at LSU (66-63, overtime) and on Jan. 29 to No. 3 Kentucky (68-67).

Now buoyed by three straight wins and two close calls in their favor at Ole Miss (66-65) on Feb. 5 and against LSU (65-62) on Saturday, the Razorbacks' last regular-season game against a ranked team is actually coming at the perfect moment.

"This game came at a good time for us," Heath said. "We've got some good momentum. We need to have a feather-in-the-cap game. It's a hard challenge, but it's something we need desperately."

Evening their won-loss record at 8-8 is the minimum requirement for making the NCAA Tournament, but with their 0-4 record against Top 25 teams this season and the conference's sixth-ranked RPI, the Razorbacks will likely need at least one victory against a ranked opponent to impress the selection committee.

Arkansas can earn such a win and reach .500 tonight with games remaining at Vanderbilt, at home against Mississippi State and Tennessee and at Auburn.

"It would be a great win for our program," said junior and SEC Player of the Week Jonathon  Modica, who averaged 19.5 points last week and 17.3 in his last three since rejoining the starting lineup at Ole Miss.

"They're a ranked team and a well-respected team. A win in this game would play a major role in us getting to the NCAA Tournament."

Heath praised Alabama's trio of Davis (14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds), Earnest Shelton (16.8 ppg) and Kennedy Winston (17.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg) while Alabama was equally complimentary of Modica, Ronnie Brewer and freshman center Darian Townes, who have combined for nearly 78 percent of Arkansas' points in its three-game win streak.

"Arkansas is really playing well right now," Shelton said. "The nine or so guys they are playing are playing really smart. They're playing together. They've kind of grown up as a team. I think right now they are playing really good basketball."

Two factors played a major role in Arkansas' loss Jan. 11.

Ferguson picked up his third foul with seven minutes to go in the first half and the Hogs' best defensive stopper wasn't available to check Shelton, who shot 7 of 11 (4 of 9 from 3) for 18 points and was instrumental in the Tide's comeback.

Arkansas had also yet to find an appreciation for Townes' offensive skills inside and while his touches produced 14 points against Alabama, they didn't come frequently enough.

Townes has averaged 14 points in his last six games to earn his teammates' trust and has expanded his repertoire of moves beyond the turnaround jumper he favors.

He went right at LSU's 310-pound freshman Glen Davis, scoring off short-range looks and a baby hook as well as his jumper. Townes also outrebounded Davis 9-7 after the "Big Baby" snared 18 boards in Baton Rouge.

Townes said he's learned more about how to use his body to wear down his defenders since the Alabama game.

"I have to mix my game up," Townes said. "I can't rely on that fadeaway jumper. I'm seeing my strength. I can go at them and get them in foul trouble. Make them use their depth."

Alabama, who plays its starting five of Davis, Jermareo Davidson, Shelton, Winston and freshman point guard Ronald Steele for most of the game, will have its depth curtailed a bit tonight.

Davis was sick with the flu on Monday, as was redshirt freshman forward Justin Jonus, who was averaging only 6.6 minutes in SEC games, and freshman backup point guard Albert Weber recently left the team.

Alabama has dominated SEC foes at Coleman Coliseum with an average winning margin of 29.5 points against LSU, Mississippi State, Georgia and Ole Miss.

Arkansas led Alabama 35-34 in Tuscaloosa last season before getting blown out in the second half and losing 81-65.

"They're a team that gets hot, that gets streaks going," Heath said. "They'll feed off the crowd and momentum and we have to make sure that their streaks, we're able to put out. We have to avoid any kind of a drought.

"We have to have a constant flow where we're finishing plays and getting good shots and playing good defense and not giving them a lot of cheapies."

Arkansas has shorn up its rebounding since losing the battle of the boards 42-29 at LSU. Since then, the Hogs have won the rebounding in five of their last six games, including 34-29 in the rematch with LSU.

Heath sees that as a sign of toughness emerging from his still-young in spots team. His freshman post players aren't backing down from their more experienced counterparts and guards like Brewer and Modica are cleaning up the rest.

With Ferguson out of the starting lineup and freshman forward Charles Thomas in alongside Olu Famutimi and Townes, Brewer is the de facto point guard for the Razorbacks.

Ferguson was always meant to play more shooting guard this season, but junior transfer point guard Dontell Jefferson's struggles forced more minutes and responsibility onto Brewer and Ferguson.

Jefferson's midrange scoring ability has kept him in the rotation, but teams have figured out how to make runs against Arkansas and slow down the halfcourt offense by attacking Ferguson and Jefferson with aggressive defense.

Brewer presents a matchup problem at the point guard most teams can't deal with and Heath said Brewer has the most point guard instincts of anyone on the team.

Heath said he wouldn't be surprised to see more fullcourt pressure from Alabama in an attempt to "unravel" the Hogs' ball-handling.

He mentioned Modica, Famutimi and Thomas as players who will have to be able to confidently help the ball upcourt.

Arkansas had three backcourt turnovers to help Ole Miss come back from down 11 and committed 10 second-half turnovers to allow LSU back from down 15.

"Us staying focused and very hungry is very important," Heath said. "We can't relax and let up. We have ground to make up and we have to play with a sense of urgency.

"To make a jump from where we are to where we want to be, this is a pivotal game."

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