State of the Hogs: Hoops

Basketball referees are human. They like to give out opinions just like everyone else. Most times it's just with their whistles, but not always. Some of the old-time referees actually smile at the guys on press row when they stroll out for pre-game warm-ups. They also like to turn to the media during the game, especially this time of year when the games might be runaways.

John Clougherty, the ageless wonder of college basketball refs – the one you seem to notice on every single ESPN game -- might talk the most to media guys on press row. I've even heard him wonder aloud what one of his younger counterparts was thinking on a particular call, one that everyone in the stands knew was wrong.

"I'll ask him after the game what he THOUGHT he saw on that one," Clougherty said to me last December as a rookie ref was stumbling his way through an Arkansas blowout victory. "I know he didn't see what I saw. The guy he gave that foul to – well, I didn't see the player involved in that play from where I stood."

It's funny stuff sometimes. I've had people ask me what I was laughing at during a certain game and it was usually something said by a referee as he set up shop directly in front of my spot on media row.

I remember what Clougherty said last year the first time he saw the Hogs' inside duo of Darian Townes and Steven Hill, then raw freshmen.

"Those two are going to be good ones, but they don't understand inside defense just yet," Clougherty said. "Takes time for the young ones to figure it out. But I like them and I like the team Stan is assembling here. When those two young ones figure out defense, this is going to be a good team."

Clougherty's calls aren't always right. I disagree with some of them. I especially dislike it when he makes a call from the opposite end of the court when another official is on top of the play. I'll give him this; usually, it was the right call.

I'll give him this one, too. He was dead right about Townes and Hill, and Arkansas coach Stan Heath's ability to mold a team. It's getting more and more obvious that this is going to be a good team.

Heath smiled Thursday when that conversation was repeated to him. He hears stuff from referees, too. He's heard more than a few compliments from some SEC refs who have called Arkansas games this year. Several have pointed to the improvement made by Hill in all areas and some have talked about Ronnie Brewer's improved outside shooting.

"One guy told me he thinks Ronnie's form is a lot better," Heath said. "Ronnie has worked hard. This particular referee mentioned that he sees a big difference in Ronnie's shot."

It's obvious that Heath is proud of the progress Hill and Townes have made inside. And, he's not surprised.

"Part of it is toughness," Heath said. "Both of those guys are tougher and that makes our team much tougher. Toughness usually shows up on the interior. Steven Hill gives us some inside toughness and I think some of that is rubbing off on other guys.

"Our defense is getting better, inside and on the perimeter. I think our inside defense has been better for the most part this year. Our perimeter defense against Southern Miss was the best it's been.

"I know Southern Miss isn't a great team. But our guys did what we have been working on and did it for 40 minutes. They stuck with it and didn't gamble on the perimeter as much. They took the chances we wanted them to take when they should take them."

Hill and Townes have been pretty good on defense throughout the early season games.

"They are much better on defense than they were last year," Heath said. "The tendency for young post players is to just play behind their man and try to block their shot. When the ball is away, they ball watch. Then, they aren't paying attention and their man flashes or ducks or cuts. They get beat to the spot. They let their man step in for the pass.

"Maryland hurt us some with some duck-ins. But we are pretty good there for the most part.

"Those are things that 90 percent of young post players do wrong. It's difficult to get them corrected, too. It takes a lot of repetitions and a lot of film study. It is easier if you have some experienced players who know it and can show them. And, it's good if they show them in practice how to flash, and duck-in and then how to stop it. We didn't have that last year with those two.

"We still don't do it perfect, but we are better. Darian does not give up post position as much this year. You have to work hard early in the possession. He does that now. Steven has emerged as someone that has a great presence inside and a tough mindset. He's very tough inside."

Vincent Hunter's return also helps the Hogs' inside toughness. He's a third year player who has been on the mend quite a bit of late. The 6-0 forward missed last year with shoulder surgery to fix a problem that seemed to hold him back his first year, too. This year, Hunter has missed all but the last two games after bruising a knee.

"He's giving us something we've lacked, a forward who can step out and shoot it and also someone who can defend in the post and rebound," Heath said. "Mike Jones could shoot it, but he couldn't defend and we didn't even have him at the end last year because of his ankle injury."

Hunter still isn't full speed, but he's getting closer, said trainer David England.

"I thought he was about 95 percent in the last game," England said. "He's worked hard to rehab and he's doing very well. He is tough. He's not afraid of work and he knows how to push himself to come back. He worked hard and was there everytime I asked him to be there for his rehab. He wants to play."

England said Hunter was disappointed he couldn't play in Maui. He went on that trip thinking he was close to being ready.

"We put him through a performance test on Sunday over there and he couldn't run and cut well enough," England said. "He was trying and he would have played, but if you can't run and cut, you can't play this game. That was the test. He was really hopeful of getting to play and that was tough on him."

Hunter looked great Thursday night against Southern Miss. He displayed a nice 3-point touch and also uncorked a jump stop move into the lane late in the game that brought a smile to Heath's face.

"I've been working on that move for the last year," Hunter said. "I've worked hard on the jump stop. It was good to do it in a game."

That's a move that you'll see guards work on drives into the lane. It's a weapon both Brewer and Jonathon  Modica trot out at least once a game. You just don't see many 6-10 players wheel into the lane with a jump stop finish.

"I'm comfortable with it now," Hunter said. "You work on something hard, you can use it in a game and I'm to that point. I've had the 3-point shot, but you guys just haven't seen me play enough here to know it. I've been hurt most of the time since I came to college. I could shoot a 3-pointer in high school, too."

Hunter's toughness should not be questioned after the way he rehabbed the last three weeks from the knee injury. He'll come in handy as the Hogs roll into the heart of their schedule. He played 19 minutes against Southern Miss and said he was not winded.

It's obvious that Hunter is an improved player and a key to the Hogs' success hopes this season. As Heath said, the Hogs didn't have anything like him last season. Still, he doesn't claim to be the most improved player on the roster. That honor goes to Hill.

"It's Steven Hill, hands down," Hunter said. "He does so many things well. He's really come a long way. He's worked hard. He's made us better."

And, tougher.

That inside toughness is what Clougherty was talking about, the maturation of the UA inside game. That inside toughness will be on display tonight against Missouri in one of the highlight games of the Bud Walton Arena preseason schedule. Mizzou is decent inside and won't back down from the Hogs. It will be interesting to see how Show Me State product Hill fares against the Tigers.

Don't know if my buddy Clougherty is scheduled to work the game, but he'll show up at Bud Walton sooner or later this December. I'm interested to hear what he thinks. I bet he comes to the conclusion that the Hogs have what he said they lacked last year. Either way, he'll be the one with the whistle and the stripes on his shirt and he'll be right.

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