State of the Hogs: Hoops

We don't have quite the front-row seat to Arkansas basketball practices that ESPN was granted to do tape its All Access series at Michigan State and North Carolina. We don't get inside a practice with Stan Heath like ESPN did with Tom Izzo and Roy Williams this week.

But it's not a bad situation. At least some of Heath's basketball practices are open these days. And, he's been more than gracious with his time.

The UA coach will answer about any of your questions and I did watch about one and a half workouts this week in Bud Walton Arena.

Never mind that the media has to sit 30 rows up in the stands. I saw what I needed and I'm appreciative of Heath's policies. I saw enough to know that this Arkansas team is light years ahead of Heath's first three.

First, there is plenty of talent on the court. Second, they know what to do and that's a huge difference from Heath's first three teams. They were short on either talent and/or experience.

The main thing I learned from watching almost all of Tuesday's open workout: Practices have a flow that was missing from Heath's first three seasons. Why? This team knows how to practice. The players understand what is being asked of them from the coaches.

"Our practices are much shorter," Heath said. "We get more done in a shorter period of time."

That point was hammered home to both this writer and Heath when they watched ESPN's visit to North Carolina. Williams, the UNC head coach, was exhausted after three hours of non-stop teaching and screaming during the practice ESPN taped this week.

"I saw that," Heath said. "It reminded me of the first two years here. The workouts were three hours and it seemed like we were doing the same things over and over and I was saying the same things over and over. I would go home exhausted. I was talking the entire practice and I'd leave mad.

"When you are young, that's the way it is. You explain something to a player and then a few minutes later, you explain it again to someone else. You'd think that wouldn't be the case, but it was and it is."

North Carolina's national title team was depleted by graduation and the NBA draft. The Tar Heels lost their seven top scorers from last year. All but one point of the scoring from the title game is gone. Never has a North Carolina team lost so much in so short a time.

"That's not anyone's fault when you have practices like that," Heath said. "But when Roy said he'd leave practice mad and exhausted, I've been there. A three-hour practice is tough on everyone."

I remember watching some of those three-hour Heath workouts over the past three seasons. Actually, I watched two that were over three hours. There was too much standing. I thought to myself, "This team is not going to be in shape because of all of this standing."

And, just after that, I remember watching the Kentucky game in Bud Walton when all five of Heath's starters raised their hands to come out just four minutes into the second half. I came to the conclusion that there had been too much standing in practice and not enough movement to produce the desired conditioning.

I wondered to myself if it was Heath or inexperience that caused those three-hour practices. After watching his workouts this week, I'm glad to report that it was inexperience.

"I remember those workouts, too," said Jonathon "Pookie" Modica, one of three seniors in his fourth year in Heath's system. "Now the older guys can help the younger guys when they don't know a drill or a play. We don't have to stop practice for the coaches to tell them every little thing.

"I think you can see that we get more out of our practices, too. Our practices are tougher now because there is less standing. We get through each drill faster and get on to the next one."

Heath is having more fun these days.

"I go home with a bounce in my step," Heath said. "Instead of being mad, I'm refreshed when a practice ends."

It's obvious as to why. This team comes to work and has talent. They looked well coached. The practice I watched Tuesday made me think this will be an NCAA tournament team. It's not just the talent and the experience, but the addition of assistant coach Dan Hipsher that provides confidence in this writer that this team will be back in the Big Dance.

I listened as Hipsher chided one of the team's stars for not screening on a particular series. That man set screens that freed cutters for layups on the next two trips. I saw the offensive movement that was missing the previous three seasons.

The area this team is improved the most is in rebounding. Of Heath's first three teams, only the first was solid on the boards. That's because it was full of senior post players. They had the physical strength and maturity to handle the rugged block-out duties Heath demands. It's one thing to try to block out an SEC power forward. It's another to get it done.

Steven Hill, Darian Townes, Charles Thomas, Vincent Hunter and Ronnie Brewer are all much stronger rebounders than they were last year. But the Razorback who may improve the most in that category is Modica. He grabbed 10 rebounds in each of the exhibition games.

"Pookie is rebounding better," Heath said. "He's better in all fundamental areas, not just rebounding. He just is a more complete player. His first year, he was a very good rebounder. Right now, he's getting to the glass and then getting the ball to a guard and then filling a lane on the fast break. He's playing very well."

Modica seems lighter and quicker. His vertical jump seems to be better and he also seems able to execute back-to-back helicopter jumps, something I didn't see last year. He may be getting to more loose balls and he may be a quicker jumper this year, too. And, if his teammates are blocking off the best of the opposition rebounders, Modica may have more chances on the boards.

"I don't know about all of that, but I'm just trying to fill up the box score," Modica said. "I want more rebounds, more assists -- just things to try to help my team win. Those are the things that mean the difference in winning and losing, rebounds and assists."

I got enough access this week to see those thoughts in action and know this team is headed the right direction.

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