Arkansas Sticking Together Despite Struggles

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' No. 4 seed and first-round matchup against Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference Tournament next week has been set.

The Razorbacks' postseason fate requires them to win the SEC Tournament to make the NCAA field with the alternative being to host games in the NIT.

Their 57-55 loss to Mississippi State on Tuesday assured the Razorbacks (18-10, 6-9) a losing record in SEC play and the game at Western Division cellar-dweller Auburn this Saturday is meaningless on paper.

Teams more talented and experienced than Arkansas have fallen apart in similar circumstances and Razorbacks senior Mike Jones said Thursday some players have to get on the same page.

Arkansas junior guard Eric  Ferguson said the team is sticking together and Razorbacks coach Stan Heath welcomed comments from players that show an active ownership over the team even in tough times.

"You're a family," Ferguson said. "You got to be together. You can't have one or two people who aren't in the circle. It messes a lot of things up as a team. As a family, we have to be together and have the same mindset.

"We had a couple people frustrated during the season, but that's going to happen. Even I've been frustrated. But that's what happens.

"Nobody's gone their own way, but a lot of people have been frustrated. That's all over the world. People be frustrated, you know?"

Arkansas' continued struggles to score against a zone defense helped result in a fourth one-possession loss for the Razorbacks this season against Mississippi State.

Arkansas went six minutes without scoring down the stretch as the shot clock repeatedly wound down with little movement or penetration against the Bulldogs' zone.

Sophomore and captain Ronnie Brewer said the tendency is to assign blame after such a loss, but the day off has allowed the team to cool off.

"I feel we get along pretty well," Brewer said. "Whenever you lose, everyone is always down. You might tend to point fingers, but we had a day off to clear our heads and get ready to bounce back."

Heath praised his team's chemistry after its 70-68 win against Tennessee on Saturday when they had more assists than turnovers for the first time in four games.

He said "bad energy" can creep in when players go one-on-one and teammates believe they are being "froze out."

Heath said he preaches teamwork and the team concept constantly and most of his players have caught on but dealing with chemistry issues is something "all teams fight with."

"It's something I know 90 percent of the guys have bought into and agree with," Heath said. "There's 10 percent that fight a little bit because they have some tendencies that aren't in line of teamwork.

"Peer pressure is very necessary. I think when players take ownership, police the team, call guys out in a good way in the team setting is healthy."

Heath said he believes the chemistry on his team is "very good," but that doesn't mean he hasn't had to make decisions based on players buying in this season.

"There's always going to be a guy or two that's a little bit tougher and you try to pull those guys in," Heath said. "At some point in time, it becomes the coaches' job to change the playing time, change the lineup, and we've done that this year.

"We're never going to be a coaching staff that is going to allow guys to not work hard or not play team basketball. If guys aren't buying into the team concept, we'll make changes."

Heath has shuffled his lineup often this season based on performance in games, practice and attitude.

Brewer and Olu Famutimi are the leaders in starts with 27 in 28 games.

No other player has more than Steven Hill's 18 starts.

The other player who has been nearly a full-time starter is Ferguson, who came off the bench for the first seven games and led the team in scoring before starting 16 straight games.

"The players who have been most consistent with their effort, attitude of team play -- we haven't changed them hardly at all," Heath said. "The one guy I wrestle with is Ferguson because he's more comfortable at the (off guard) than at the (point guard).

"Sometimes we don't have the options I'd like to have."

The player whose time has fluctuated most is leading returning scorer, junior and captain Jonathon  Modica.

Modica started the first six games of the season but was averaging just 7.8 points and nearly 3 turnovers per game. Modica averaged nearly 30 minutes a game last season but had played 20 or fewer in 12 games.

He started five straight from Feb. 5 to Feb. 19 and averaged 15.3 points per game but went back to the bench after the Vanderbilt loss and played just 13 minutes the next week against Tennessee because Heath said he needed more defense and ball-handling than Modica could provide.

"It's been real tough," Modica said. "It's been very tough. It's been one of the toughest situations of my life. I feel good about it. I've became more of a man this year. Every day is not going to be sunny. You just have to look forward to the next day and wish everybody else well."

Though he said he hadn't talked to any of his teammates since Tuesday night, Modica isn't worried about the chemistry.

"We're still together," he said. "We're still wanting to win. I'm not worried about the team falling apart or not being like it should be."

Brewer sympathized with Heath's juggling act with the lineup.

"I think it's been really tough for Coach," Brewer said. "There's a lot of egos flying around and sometimes people let the coach get them down instead of letting their play control what they do.

"We have to be bigger men and get through that. I think (Heath) has done a really good job. He teaches a lot of stuff and we've gotten better. But we have to get it together ourselves because we're the ones playing."

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