Hogs Get Defensive To Snap SEC Skid

FAYETTEVILLE -- Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings, in assessing Arkansas after his team's 78-66 loss to the Razorbacks on Saturday, said, "They have great athletes and great defensive presence inside. "And they have enough shooting."

It appears that defense is what Arkansas must hang its hat on if it is to contend in the Southeastern Conference this season.

Until the Hogs shot 53.2 percent against Vandy, they had not bettered 50 percent against a strong team this season.

On the other hand, only No. 4 Connecticut (.509) has managed to shoot 50 percent or higher against Arkansas.

Part of Arkansas' problem in losing SEC games to Mississippi State and LSU was that it shot just 38.2 percent and 41.8 percent in those games, even though LSU had a percentage of .397.

Against Vanderbilt, with freshman guard Sean McCurdy playing 11 energetic first-half minutes and Dontell Jefferson playing one of his better second halves of the season, Arkansas shot 50 percent in the first 20 minutes and 56.5 percent in the second half.

"Sean gave us a nice boost," said Hogs coach Stan Heath. "He's coming along very well and I think there are games where he'll make two, three or four 3-pointers. Dontell plays very good defense. I can see those two playing 25 and 15 minutes, or 20 and 20, as time goes by. Every game has a different personality."

Look for Jefferson, a 6-foot-5 senior, to start against Alabama on Wednesday in Tuscaloosa, and the 6-1 McCurdy to continue getting significant minutes.

Heath calls Jefferson a stabilizer. Don't forget that he made the go-ahead shot against Kansas and then blocked a shot in the final seconds of Arkansas' 65-64 win over the Jayhawks in Maui.

McCurdy has flashes of brilliance, including the under-appreciated ability to make the right pass at the right time on the fast break.

He got a standing ovation Saturday just for diving on the floor to chase a ball that was almost out of bounds already. McCurdy's intensity makes him particularly valuable in home games, where 18,000-plus fans are finding their way back to Bud Walton Arena and rediscovering their 1990s voices.

Vanderbilt had hoped to "out-energize" Arkansas, as Stallings put it, but instead Vandy guard Derrick Byars said, "We did not match Arkansas' intensity and that was the difference."

Thirteen more times in this SEC season-within-a-season -- a league race so distinct from what comes before and after it -- Arkansas must muster similar intensity or risk getting run over as it did at the finish last season.

Wednesday's game against Alabama is potentially the biggest.

Knock the road lid off at Tuscaloosa, and you're right back in the thick of things. Lose the game and you might scuffle around the .500 mark in SEC play all season.

Alabama, which started league play 0-1 with a home loss to Ole Miss in which it lost senior forward Chuck Davis for the season with a knee injury, has impressed by coming back to beat Auburn and Kentucky on the road.

Jermareo Davidson, a 6-10 Tide junior forward who averaged just 7.6 points last season, stepped up with a 28-point game against Kentucky on Saturday.

Sophomore Ronald Steele, now playing at both point guard and shooting guard, scored 14 against the Wildcats while 5-11 freshman point guard Brandon Hollinger had 10.

Tide coach Mark Gottfried wisely played possum during his brief SEC teleconference call last week, saying, "We have limited options now."

Auburn coach Jeff Lebo knew better, after his team's 56-52 loss to Alabama.

"Alonzo Gee (6-6 freshman forward) is playing very well for Alabama, and Davidson is a 6-10 who plays like 7-1," Lebo said. "Alabama is playing Steele more at the '2' now, where he can score."

The Tide, 24-8 last season, was a preseason pick to contend for the SEC West title along with LSU.

Darian Townes, a 6-10 sophomore, continues to be a key player for Arkansas.

"I think he's one of the best offensive post players in the league," Stallings said. "I thought that last year, too. He's very, very talented."

Townes, who kept dribbling the ball into turnovers early in Saturday's game, explained, "I was too excited to go at them, coming off our loss in Nashville last year. I did some bad dribbling. I had to change my game, take good dribbles and be more patient."

Heath would often rather Townes not dribble at all.

After the game, Townes was already looking to Alabama.

"We need to have the same fight we did today," he said.

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