Gary Ervin will be in uniform Friday night for Arkansas' first official basketball practice. The transfer from Mississippi State won't play in any games for the Hogs thi season, but his presence might be a huge key anyway.
At just 5-11 by 169 pounds, Ervin will be the shortest and lightest player on the floor. But he's already stepped forward as a big leader even while he waits one full season to be eligible for the Hogs.
"If we have someone complain or say some thing like, 'What about this?' then he's going to be the one who says, 'That's silly or childish stuff,'" said Arkansas coach Stan Heath. "He's played in the NCAA tournament. He knows."
None of the other Arkansas players have NCAA tournament experience. Ervin has gone to the Big Dance the past two seasons with the Bulldogs. You'll remember him as the MSU guard who buried a 3-point dagger to beat the Hogs last year in Bud Walton Arena.
Ability to run the show from the point or bury clutch 3-pointers aside, it will be Ervin's defense that helps the Hogs the most this season. He'll be the man hounding the Hogs' point guards in practice this season whether it is Sean McCurdy or Dontell Jefferson. How McCurdy and Jefferson develop as floor generals this season may go a long way in deciding whether this is an NCAA tournament team.
"Every day, he's going to go after Sean and Dontell," Heath said. "They won't go up against tougher defenders than Gary."
Ervin can help in other ways, too.
"You see him constantly talking to those guys trying to show them what they can do better," Heath said. "Our players can benefit a lot from Gary."
Ervin smiled at that thought.
"That's my job this entire year," he said. "I look forward to it.
"Sean is a freshman and he doesn't know what he is getting into with the SEC. I will try to help him whether it is playing him hard in practice or passing along notes. It may be that he needs a physical practice. It may be that he needs encouragement. It may be that our point guard needs to be knocked around that day in practice. I'll try to put more pressure on them than they see in games."
The Hogs want to run more this year, but they can't if they don't get solid play from the point guard spot. Ideally, Ronnie Brewer and Eric Ferguson can concentrate on playing the two and three spots on offense and not point guard.
Ervin has already been involved in a practice situation that has helped the Hogs improve. Jonathan "Pookie" Modica drew Ervin on the final play of a one-on-one fullcourt defensive drill in a preseason workout a couple of weeks back.
"We call it our alley drill," Heath said. "We match players going from point A to point B. You go the length of the floor. We divide the squad into teams and keep score. It was a tie game and it came down to Modica against Ervin. Modica stayed with him step for step and stopped him from scoring to decide the game."
Heath didn't actually see the drill. He was gone on a recruiting trip but got a full report from assistants. It was topic one the next day at practice.
"That was a big mistake by Modica," Heath said."Now we know what kind of defense he can play. We told him we expect that from him every day. Actually, that's the area Modica has really improved. He's worked hard on his defense and what he did that day against Ervin tells you what he's accomplished in that area to be a complete player."
Assistant coach Oronde Taliaferro said, "Modica is better than most people think as far as defense and he is a better defender than he thinks. He's dedicated himself to being in the best shape of his life and you could see it that day on defense against Ervin."
Ervin is a believer.
"I thought the drill that day was fun," he said. "I had a chance to score and win that drill and Modica stepped up to stop me. He played great defense and that's the way he's been all fall. Coach wasn't that day, but that was what he was talking about the next day.
"Modica is a tough competitor. I wasn't here last year and don't know what he was like then, but he's tough right now. You know he's coming after you to shut you down on defense."
Heath is happy about those kinds of competitive situations in practice. He knows Ervin will win his share of battles, too. He has seen enough of Ervin in pre-season individual drills to know that the shot he hit to beat the Hogs last year is a part of his makeup.
"That was no fluke," Heath said. "Hitting the clutch shot is something he is going to do for your team. If it's a competitive situation in practice and it's game point, he's going to nail it. We've seen enough to know it as the truth."
Ervin has been asked about making the game winner against the Hogs plenty since moving to the Ozarks.
"That was a night I was pretty sick," he said. "Felt awful. I had taken one shot all night. But during a free throw late in the game, Shane Power told me that I was going to be left open at that spot and to be ready to take it. It happened just like that."
For now, practices will have to be Gary Ervin's games. If you want a treat Friday night, find him during the scrimmage part of the workout. I'll give you a tip. He'll be the one grinding on defense against one of the Hogs' point guards.
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