Happy Hogs Welcome Alabama

FAYETTEVILLE -- Sean McCurdy hit fellow Arkansas freshman Cyrus McGowan in the back with a playful snowball on their way into Bud Walton Arena on Monday.

Hogs senior Jonathon Modica cracked junior guard Ronnie Brewer up during a Brewer television interview by chirping, "He's lying!"

Stan Heath's father, also named Stan, beamed with pride while watching the Razorbacks warm up Monday. The elder Heath was on hand for Arkansas' 85-81 overtime win over Florida on Saturday, and will attend the Alabama-Arkansas game at 8:05 p.m. today before returning home to Michigan.

Coach Heath will take all the positive vibes he can get.

"This is a big game we need and want," Heath said. "We definitely want to build on this momentum."

Heath can perhaps take hope from the fact that Alabama is 0-5 in games televised by ESPN or ESPN2 this season. Tonight's game is on ESPN, where 'Bama is 0-3.

"Oh, that's bad," said Tide coach Mark Gottfried. "I wasn't aware of that. I'll go get some Pepto Bismol about right now."

Alabama (15-9, 8-4 in the Southeastern Conference) nicked the Razorbacks 78-75 in overtime at Tuscaloosa last month, however, and Modica has been plotting his own antidote ever since.

"I've been thinking about this since before that game was over," said Modica, who scored just six points against the Crimson Tide the first time. "That motivated me. I got more aggressive and stopped letting little things hold me back."

Modica, sixth in the SEC in scoring with a 15.7 average, added, "Alabama has a lot of respect around the league. We definitely want to take them down."

Brewer, the SEC's leading scorer with an 18.8 average, also gave Alabama its due.

"Alabama is a tough team," Brewer said. "They have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things."

Sophomore point guard Ronald Steele, for example, averages 13.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists. He's also shooting 95 percent from the free-thow line in league play.

Jermareo Davidson, Alabama's 6-10 junior center, averages almost a double-double, with 14 points and 9 rebounds per game. And 6-8 freshman forward Richard Hendrix, whom Heath calls "a 270-pound man-child," averages 9.9 points and 7.7 rebounds.

Jean Felix, a 6-7 senior forward who averages 9.2 points in SEC play, "has no conscience," Heath said. "He shoots them and makes them."

The Crimson Tide, with just seven active scholarship players, rely on zone defense, and look to Steele to run the offense.

"Steele beat us in the game down there," Heath said. "He made play after play down the stretch. The guy is one of the most underrated players nationally. His motor doesn't turn off. Look up 'point guard' in the dictionary and you'll see his picture."

Arkansas (17-8, 6-6 SEC) relies on a point guard by committee, with starter Eric Ferguson, McCurdy, Dontell Jefferson and, at times, Brewer.

"That's probably our best strategy," Heath said. "It all depends on the game; I just go by who's playing good. In this game Dontell could be valuable because of his defensive ability."

Ferguson was pleased to learn Monday that SEC coaches Rick Stansbury of Mississippi State and Rod Barnes of Ole Miss had mentioned him as one of the most underrated players in the SEC.

"I feel I could've done more this year, but the coaches in the league know I can play," Ferguson said. "The point guard just sets up the play and then everyone gets in the flow of the offense. As a senior, I'm trying to step up."

So is Brewer, who said, "Coach Heath came to me and asked me to take on more (point-guard) responsibilities. I told him I'd do anything to relieve pressure and help the team. If he needs me to, I can do it."

Both Brewer and Heath said they looked for an enthusiastic home crowd tonight.

"The way we've been playing at home, that helps a lot," Brewer said.

Bad weather limited Saturday's crowd to 10,702, although Heath said all the tickets had been sold.

Gottfried shuddered at the thought of all that noise in Walton Arena.

"We know we're walking into a hornet's nest," he said. "It's like the movie 'Gladiator.' They're going to be leading the charge and going for the kill."

Some UA students ran onto the court to celebrate Saturday, but Heath said Monday, "I want to thank the ones who stayed in their seats, too."

Hogs center Steven Hill energized Arkansas fans early against Florida with his all-court hustle, and reserve forward Vincent Hunter fueled the Hogs with 11 points on a perfect 4-of-4 from the field (including a 3-pointer) and 2-of-2 from the line.

"We could use that again from those two," Heath said. "Hunter played his best game. Against Alabama, we've got to do a great job on the glass."

The Tide's win over Arkansas on Jan. 18 "set us back," Heath said. "But it wasn't disastrous. We've played through it."

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