Modica Responds To Challenge

FAYETTEVILLE -- Jonathon Modica's season wasn't resurrected on the court.

It came to life in a room at The Downtown Inn in Oxford the Friday night before Arkansas played at Ole Miss two weeks ago.

Modica and teammate Mike Jones were chilling in their room when the injured senior suggested a team meeting to Modica, a junior captain, preseason All-Southeastern Conference selection and the Razorbacks' slumping leading returning scorer.

Modica, who averaged 16.5 points last season and 11.5 as a freshman, had scored 12 points and shot 4 of 15 in Arkansas' previous two losses to No. 3 Kentucky and South Carolina.

He played a season-low eight minutes in Arkansas' 66-63 overtime loss at LSU on Jan. 19 and after averaging nearly 30 minutes per game last season, Modica played 22 or less in the Hogs' first 15 games.

The team meeting in Oxford was fairly lighthearted as players talked about their roles and the attitude they needed, but the tone was serious when Modica was singled out by his teammates in a positive way.

The Razorbacks had just trudged through a 64-52 loss to South Carolina when only sophomore Ronnie Brewer looked ready to play with their postseason hopes dying a slow death.

"It was just a fact that for our team to be successful, we needed more guys to step up other than myself," said Brewer, one of several Razorbacks to challenge Modica to snap out of his funk.

For Arkansas to turn its season around and snap its 13-game road losing streak in the SEC, Modica had to return to his old, swaggering, self-confident self.

"We told him we needed his scoring," said fellow junior and roommate Eric  Ferguson. "We told him not to worry about nothing else. Don't worry about the coaches, don't worry about the fans.

"Just go out there and work hard."

Modica did just that against Ole Miss in his first start in 16 games.

He shot 4 of 9 from the floor, grabbed 5 rebounds, dished out a career-high 7 assists and scored four points, including the go-ahead basket with 39 seconds to play, in Arkansas' season-reviving 66-65 win against the Rebels.

He broke the 1,000-point barrier with an alley-oop dunk against Georgia and was choked up by the loving ovation he got from the fans at the next media timeout.

Modica followed his 14-point night against Georgia with season-highs in points (25) and rebounds (9) in the Hogs' payback win against LSU on Feb. 12.

He helped Arkansas win three SEC games in a row for the first time in four seasons and was rewarded with SEC Player of the Week honors.

The Smackover native known as "Pookie" scored 15 of Arkansas' first 21 points against LSU and dropped 14 in the first half at Alabama on Wednesday while fighting off a fever and cold symptoms that had him running back to the locker room after halftime.

He's hit 27 of his last 44 shots (61.3 percent) since rejoining the starting lineup and getting a boost from his teammates' faith and they have fed off his success in return.

"My teammates really expressed themselves to me and said I needed to step up and start shooting the ball and stop worrying about certain things and play basketball like I'm capable of doing," Modica said. "I took that to heart. My main focus is that I don't want to let them down.

"They wanted me to do what I do best."

All they and coach Stan Heath had to do was ask.

"I'm the kind of guy, if you tell me to go do it, I'm going to go do it," Modica said. "That's just how it is. You tell me to go out there and do it and I'll break my neck trying to do it."

That's the kind of "bad mother" toughness Heath said his team needed before the Ole Miss game and the kind Modica has provided as his minutes and confidence have gone up.

Heath took Modica out of the starting lineup after the Illinois game, Modica's third straight with more turnovers than field goals.

His benching came in the middle of a five-game stretch from Nov. 27 to Dec. 16 when he averaged 16 minutes, 5 points and 2.6 turnovers per game.

"Coming off the bench hurt his confidence," Ferguson said. "He's one of the best players in the SEC and he's not starting and that hurt him a little bit. Now that he's starting, he's more aggressive and he knows we need him."

He appeared to come out of his slump against the soft underbelly of Arkansas' nonconference schedule, including an 8 of 9 night against Louisiana-Monroe for 20 points, but his defense, rebounding and ball-handling were still suspect in Heath's eyes.

In his four games back in the starting lineup, Modica has averaged 5.25 rebounds and 2.75 assists, well above his season averages of 3.0 and 1.6.

Modica made an effort to become more of an all-around player over the summer and with new talent inside, the steady play of Brewer and the emergence of sophomore swingman Olu Famutimi from the effects of a high school knee injury, his minutes were diminished.

Heath compared Modica's struggles to Tiger Woods breaking down his golf swing and predictably having some rough outings.

"You take a couple steps backward to take steps forward," Heath said. "I think that's what you're seeing.

"I believe the last three games are the best three games he's played as a Razorback in the all-around game. You're seeing rebounds, you're seeing assists and scoring. That is what excites me.

"The way he's doing it is within what we're doing as a team, so I really like what I'm seeing."

The lesser role made Modica less comfortable in his role as team captain as he didn't feel he could lead with his voice when he wasn't leading with his play.

"A lot of times I lead by example and I knew I wasn't doing the things I was capable of," Modica said. "It was really bothering and it got me down a lot. But at the same time, I had to be strong for my teammates and be strong for these young guys."

Though he often looked downright depressed on the court and even after blowout wins in the nonconference schedule, Modica said his family and friends back home kept his head up.

"I believe the last two or three months, I became more of a man," he said. "The adversity I've been through and the situations I've been in have made me a better person. Without adversity, we can't grow as people.

"It makes you more grateful when things go your way."

Modica said his family and friends "pep talked" him and told him even if he only got one minute, to make it the best minute he could and be thankful he got it.

"I was frustrated, but I'm the type of guy who's always been real appreciative," he said. "When things start going bad, I think of the things that are good and the ways that I am blessed. When things weren't going right, I thought about going to school for free. I'm getting to do something I thought I'd never get to do by playing basketball at a big-time university.

"I was thankful for that. I had a strong family behind me and I was grateful for all the positives.

"I love basketball, but in life, basketball is minor."

Brewer has been grateful for Modica's improved play and sounded proud he predicted his former AAU teammate would come around.

"If you look at all the interviews about Pookie stepping up, I always said I knew what type of player he was and the mentality he had," Brewer said. "It might take him time, but he'll get his stroke back. He'll get his confidence back.

"I've known him for the longest. That's why I said I wasn't worried. I knew he was going to bounce back."

Modica is still turnover prone (he had 5 against LSU), but Heath is allowing him to play through more mistakes than he did in the past because Modica is rebounding and defending better, not to mention his 61-percent shooing clip.

"I think he's starting to figure me out a little bit," Modica said of Heath. "A lot of times if you let me play through a little bit of mistakes, I'm going to do something that's really going to make you happy in a minute.

"That's what he did the (LSU) game and like I said, I really appreciate him letting me play through mistakes that I was making."

His teammates appreciate him showing their faith in him wasn't a mistake, either.

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