12 Angry Men
Arkansas junior guard Eric Ferguson answered a question about guarding Auburn freshman phenom Toney Douglas by cocking his head to the side and scrunching his face up like a foam ball in a fist.
"They got to worry about us," Ferguson said, his voice rising in frustration. "We're tired of just, everybody (saying), ‘we got to worry about them.' They got to worry about us, man. They got to worry about us. It's not how we match up with them."
Ferguson pulled at his practice jersey and tapped the Arkansas logo on the front for emphasis.
"They got to worry about us," he repeated.
Ferguson's testiness is just the kind of attitude coach Stan Heath was looking for from his team after giving them Wednesday off following their 57-55 loss to the Bulldogs the night before when they scored 26 points in the first 12 minutes of the second half and five in the final eight.
Arkansas (18-10, 6-9 Southeastern Conference) closes its regular season today at Western Division doormat Auburn (12-16, 3-12) with nothing on the line now but pride and a long shot chance to make the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference tournament next week in Atlanta.
"On paper it doesn't look like it means a whole lot, but for us, 7-9 is a whole lot better than 6-10 in the league," Heath said. "Nineteen wins is not bad for a regular season."
Though Auburn has only won three SEC games all season, Arkansas has not been the most consistent road team in the last few seasons.
The Razorbacks snapped a 13-game SEC road losing streak at Ole Miss on Feb. 5 -- their second win in 21 SEC road games under Heath -- but have lost on the road since to South Carolina, Alabama and Vanderbilt by an average of 11.6 points.
"I really expect our players to be pissed off that we lost, a little bit upset about it and want to finish the season strong with a win," Heath said. "Especially on the road, because there's always been question marks about us on the road.
"There's a lot of pride factor involved in this."
Ferguson spoke about his team with a pride seldom seen this season since SEC play began.
Arkansas opened the season with a 69-46 win against Ole Miss in Fayetteville but lost four straight and saw its fullcourt pressing styledissolve into constant shifts in the starting lineup and adjustments to match up with their opponents rather than vice versa.
The Razorbacks' three losses in their last four -- and even their win against Tennessee -- have been marked by struggles to execute against a 2-3 zone defense.
Defending Auburn's five-guard lineup loaded with 3-point shooters who fire relentlessly in both halfcourt and transition situations is important, Heath said, but not as much as figuring out how to beat zone defense.
"It's no secret right now we're very effective against man and teams are going immediately into zone to slow us down," Heath said. "We have to do a better job attacking that."
The difficulties were most pronounced Tuesday against Mississippi State when Arkansas went 3 of 27 combined in the final eight minutes of each half against the zone and saw a six-point lead melt away into their fourth loss by three or fewer points this season.
Heath expects Auburn to follow the same game plan, but Ferguson has grown weary of questions about how the Hogs can handle what other teams are throwing at them.
"I'm tired of hearing about us matching up with people," he said. "They have to match up with us. That's the attitude we were supposed to have from Day One, man."
Heath suggested Thursday he may switch Ferguson for Dontell Jefferson in the starting lineup to match up with Douglas, who was 3 of 13 for 8 points under Ferguson's smothering defense in Arkansas' 95-59 win against the Tigers on Jan. 22.
He also said freshman Charles Thomas may start over Rashard Sullivan at power forward because he is quicker and can defend on the perimeter better.
Arkansas isn't the only team to slow down Douglas, who came into the first meeting leading the league in scoring after four 30-point games.
Since then, his 19.8 average has slipped to 16.8 and he's averaging 14.7 in SEC play.
Auburn is second in the league in makes (237) and attempts (688) from 3-point range but is eighth in percentage at 34.4.
The Tigers are more salty at home, where they beat Mississippi State, which was without valuable senior Winsome Frazier at the time, 90-76 on Feb. 5 and took Florida to overtime on Jan. 12 before losing 84-78.
"Don't think for one minute it's not going to be a dogfight down there," Heath said.
Ferguson believes it and he looked ready to bite on Thursday.
"We have to go play our last game hard," he said. "If we go in there shuffling around, it's going to be a real hard game."
It's been a hard season, and Ferguson and his teammates can be forgiven their frustration.
Ferguson, a hard-knock kid from Long Island, made it clear who and where his frustration was going to be directed toward.
He offered a smile and a handshake before going to shoot around, but like a hungry dog with T-bone, he wasn't letting go.
"Yo, man," he said, walking away with a backward grin and a tap on his heart, "They got to worry about us."
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