State of the Hogs: Ready for the Road

Arkansas has proven it can win a home and neutral sites and now it gets a chance to try and take its show on the road.

How many times has Arkansas played basketball on New Year's Day night? How many times have the Hog cagers played on Sunday night?

No one couldn't remember either ever happening, much less on the same day, but that's what we were left to discuss while the Hogs thumped Western Illinois, 83-54, in Bud Walton Arena.

Yes, instead of watching the Orange Bowl football game per the usual on the night of Jan. 1, it was the Hogs' last nonconference basketball game of the regular season.

All of that might not be as pertinent as trying to remember the last time the Hogs won at Starkville, Miss. That's the challenge on Saturday night when they open SEC play on the road.

The most interesting note in mind is that the Hogs have yet to play a true road game this season. Everyone else in the SEC has done that at least once.

The Hogs have played away from Bud Walton Arena four times, but not in a true away setting. There were three early-season games at Maui in a neutral setting. Their victory in Dallas over Texas Tech will read in the season summary as a road game, but wasn't really that. Arkansas had about as many fans there as the Red Raiders.

Arkansas expcts to have quite a few red-clad Hog fans in Starkville for this trip, but it will be a hostile environment, one the Hogs have failed in miserably the three times Stan Heath has taken a team there. The Bulldogs beat Heath's first team by 30 and won by 18 and 25 the last two times the Hogs have been to Humphrey Coliseum.

The Bulldogs controlled the boards and the tempo in most of those games, scoring 84, 80 and 80 points. The Hogs' transition defense was awful in all of those contests. That may be one reason Heath talked with a little more confidence ahead of this trip.

"They did beat us down the court a lot in those games," Heath said. "Our defense and especially our transition defense has been pretty good this year, except for about a five-minute stretch against UConn. That bothered me. We haven't given up much in transition this year."

That's the thing that pleases Heath the most about this team, its ability to play hard on defense from start to finish. He liked that aspect of Friday night's victory over Texas-Pan Am and thought the defense against WIU's Leathernecks, who shot just 35.8 percent from the field, was also tight.

"I know there might have been some people who didn't like that game Friday night but we played hard as heck on defense and I liked it," he said. "This team is different than our last few teams in that if they aren't making shots, it doesn't bother them. They are still going to play hard on defense and try to choke you. They'll say, ‘We may not be making anything, but you aren't getting anything either.' I like that about them.

"Last year, when we didn't make shots, it affected the way we played in other areas, especially defense."

Heath did see a couple of lapses in transition defense against Western Illinois, but they didn't show up on the scoreboard.

"I don't think they scored on either one of them, but that was one of the first time we've gotten beat up the floor," Heath said. "Our staff has talked about that a lot lately. We just aren't giving up anything in transition."

Whether or not Mississippi State can test the Hogs in that area is not clear. The Bulldogs aren't the same racehorse team with several starters gone from last year, including point guard Gary Ervin.

Ironically, Ervin may be one of the reasons the Hogs are better in transition. A blur bringing the ball upcourt, Ervin tests the Hogs every day in practice as he sits out a redshirt season after transferring to the UA.

The Bulldogs have been vulnerable at home this season, losing to Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana at Humphrey Coliseum in a 10-3 start. Still, it's a true road game and Heath knows it.

"We'll take one day off, then have three days to prepare for Mississippi State and get ready to win on the road," he said. "It's exciting to go on the road with veterans in key positions. We've done it the other way with freshmen playing key spots. The last couple of years we've had that."

Jonathon  Modica, one of the key veterans, knows the Hogs have a big challenge awaiting in Starkville, but it's one he's excited about, too.

"The last few times we've been over there, it has not been pretty," Modica said. "It's our time, though. We haven't talked about it with our coaches, going there, just yet. But among the players, this trip has been heavy on our minds for a bit. We need to step up and do well there.

"We know this is our first big road game. We also know that we have the talent here to go there and contend for a victory."

That in itself would be a change. The Hogs didn't contend for anything in any of their last three trips there. They've lost five straight and the only one of them that was close was in Nolan Richardson's last game at the helm, an 89-83 loss at Starkville.

"We just have to go in there and play together like we have been this season," Modica said. "We do that and I think we have a good chance to win anywhere this year."

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