Arkansas Mid-Season Review

February is such a bizarre month. There is one day that celebrates love, another that is devoted to the Super Bowl and who could forget today -- National Signing Day. But for college basketball fans, February means that the season is more than half way through, and that March Madness is quickly approaching on the calendar.

So to help get Razorback fans get caught up, here is a Midseason Report on what Arkansas has done over the first three months of the men's college basketball season. (Yes, we know it's a little late, but we got busy preparing for Presidents' Day.)

There is no question as to who is Arkansas' first option on offense. But there are still some doubts about who is the team's starting point guard.

Guard Ronnie Brewer has lived up to the hype so far this season, leading the SEC in scoring at 18.6 points per game -- 2.4 points more than he averaged a year ago. In addition, his ability to draw defenses has helped teammates like guard Jonathon Modica (14.1 ppg.) get open looks at the basket.

"Our offense is so much better," said Heath, whose team ranks fourth in the SEC in scoring offense with an average of 73.5 points per game. "We are getting movement. We are getting touches."

But the Razorbacks have still not settled their problems at point guard. Senior Dontell Jefferson has started all 20 games this season, but his struggles -- particularly against Kentucky -- has led Heath to say earlier this week that he is considering making a change.

Heath has said that freshman Sean McCurdy would share some time with Jefferson, but senior Eric Ferguson has earned some consideration as well after scoring 19 points off the bench at Kentucky.

Either way, Heath acknowledges that the team must cut down on its turnovers, which has grown to 14.2 per game in part because of poor decisions with the basketball and the lack of a proven leader to run the offense.

"That turnover number has got to come down," Heath said. "We should be a team around 13 or so (turnovers per game). It's getting too high up there."

The Razorbacks have gone primarily with a seven-man rotation, yet their bench has provided some much-needed scoring and energy when called upon.

Forward Charles Thomas, who has started 11 games this season, ranks eighth on the team in scoring (8.8 points per game) despite now coming off the bench. And Ferguson and McCurdy have brought a boost of energy when they are inserted into the lineup.

"It's huge, because behind every great team is the bench," Thomas said. "And if you really don't have a bench, then you're really not going to be successful in any conference that you play in."

Everything on defense seems to be based around Steven Hill, Arkansas' 7-foot center with the long hair, scruffy beard and knack for blocking shots.

Heath believes Hill is one of the SEC's most underrated big men despite ranking second in the conference with 61 blocks -- only one off the league lead. The sophomore has helped slow down such big men as LSU's Glen Davis and Ole Miss' Dwayne Curtis, and Hill gives the Razorbacks an inside presence that has helped them trail only Florida in the SEC in scoring defense (62.3 points per game).

"I just want to go out there and do what I can do, contribute in the ways that I can," Hill said. "Whether I get exposure or not, it's about winning."

But even though guard Ronnie Brewer leads the league with 54 steals -- 12 more than the next closest player -- Arkansas' defense seems to go soft whenever Hill is not in the lineup.

The Razorbacks have a tendency to give up leads down the stretch, and Kentucky proved that teams can penetrate and not have to worry as much about having their shots contested when Arkansas is without Hill.

"He is a major presence for us and kind of the pillar that we have inside defensively that cleans some things up," Heath said. "Not having him in the game (at Kentucky) did hit hurt us."

Arkansas is holding teams to just 40.1 percent shooting, the third best in the SEC. But one area that Heath keeps harping on his team to improve on is its defensive rebounding.

It has gotten to the point that Heath said earlier this week that he's considering a possible lineup change in order to get more rebounds out of his forwards, as well as help force more turnovers.

"I think the biggest area that I'm disappointed in right now is we're not getting the turnovers we were getting earlier in the season," Heath said. "And at the same time, if we're not getting that, then we've got to do a better job on the glass.

"One of those two things have got to show up for us."

As odd as it might sound, the Razorbacks might be a little too nice. That's because they have not yet shown enough of that killer instinct needed to put teams away down the stretch.

Arkansas has plenty of scorers and more than enough defenders to compete in the SEC, especially this year when there is so much parity in the league. But the Hogs have gotten "passive" -- as coach Stan Heath has put it -- at some of the most inopportune times.

Arkansas has held late leads against Maryland, Mississippi State, Alabama and Kentucky, but for whatever reason, the team failed to hold on to them. The Razorbacks have lost four games in the SEC by a total of 12 points, including ones in which they led Alabama by 13 and Kentucky by 16 in the second half.

"When things don't go your way and you hit a little adversity, people start to get tentative a little bit," guard Ronnie Brewer said. "You've just got to keep on being aggressive throughout the whole game, and that's what we need to do as a team overall."

Heath was particularly annoyed that his players failed to convert on several fast-break opportunities early in the second half against Kentucky that would have extended their lead to 20. As it turns out, the Wildcats slowly chipped away at the lead and pulled out the victory.

"I am very much pleased with the way we played," Heath said. "Unfortunately, the bottom line in this business is winning and winning those games. That's what we've got to get to."Arkansas found a way to beat Kansas 65-64 in late November, and the Hogs withstood a late run to beat Vanderbilt earlier this month. But Heath still wants to see more of that killer instinct that seems to separate good teams from mediocre ones.

No matter what Arkansas coach Stan Heath does -- whether it's a lineup change or a defensive adjustment -- he's bound to be second-guessed.

Fans will fill the message boards with either compliments or complaints, and reporters will want to get explanations on even the smallest adjustments. It comes with the territory.

Through 20 games, Heath has shuffled his starting lineup and tried to get players to take on different roles. But coaches are judged by wins and losses, and so far the Razorbacks have looked impressive at times and in need of help at others.

Heath has shown an ability to get his team prepared, evident by the fact that the Razorbacks have kept it close in every game this season. Only one of their six losses has been by a double-digit margin, a 75-62 defeat to Maryland at the Maui Invitational.

"I'm not sure that anybody has played as consistent as we've played in terms of sometimes you have like a 15-point loss or a 10-point loss," Heath said. "Ours are 12 points in four (SEC) games, which is an average of three. So I'm very much pleased with the way we've played."

The Razorbacks continue to be one of the SEC's better defensive teams, and they have increased their scoring nearly two points a game from a year ago.

But whether it's fair or not, Heath takes the blame for his team's late collapses and inability to close out games. The Hogs have blown second-half leads to Maryland, Mississippi State, Alabama and Kentucky, and the team can't seem to get over the hump on the road.

Heath has also been slow to make changes to his lineup, but that might change with his announcement this week that he's re-evaluating the point guard position, as well as his front line.

But being that it's only Feb. 1, it's still maybe a little too early to judge Heath's job performance. That is what March is for.

SchedulingRather than opening the season with a slew of easy noncoference games, Arkansas decided to take a tougher road -- one which led to Hawaii.

The Razorbacks prepared for the start of SEC play by taking on such perennial powers as Connecticut, Kansas and Maryland at the Maui Invitational in late November. Arkansas beat Kansas, but the Hogs missed out on chances to steal victories from UConn -- now the nation's top-ranked team -- and Maryland.

"I've been really pleased with actually how we've played as a whole on the road," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said earlier this week. "Now, it's just that fine line of getting that big road victory."

Wins over Missouri and Texas Tech don't look as impressive in February as they might have seemed in December. Both teams have struggled, and the Razorbacks have yet to beat a ranked opponent this season. -- a Web site that tracks college basketball -- has Arkansas' schedule ranked as only the 70th toughest in the nation.

For the most part, Arkansas has won the games it was expected to in the SEC. The Razorbacks had no trouble getting past Auburn or Ole Miss, but at the same time, they have failed to beat some of the league's better teams like LSU, Alabama and Kentucky.

"I feel like our team can play with anybody. I feel like our team can beat anybody," Heath said. "And we've just got to put those things together and get it done."

The road continues to give the Hogs fits. Only one of their six losses has been in Bud Walton Arena -- a 63-58 loss to LSU -- and the team must pick up a few victories away from Fayetteville in order to impress the NCAA Selection Committee.

Fortunately, Arkansas still has games at LSU and Tennessee coming up in the next few weeks.

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