State of the Hogs

Jonathon "Pookie" Modica remembers it like it was yesterday. Actually, it was 40 days ago, but the conversation is still crystal clear in his mind.

"Coach pulled me aside before practice the day before we played Auburn," Modica said. "We were in Auburn. He just told me a few things that helped my confidence. I'll always remember them."

Basically, Arkansas basketball coach Stan Heath told his senior captain to quit worrying about messing up and be the offensive force everyone expects from Modica.

Whatever Heath told Modica, it's paid dividends over the last 11 games. The Hogs have gone 8-3 in that stretch with Modica leading the way. The Smackover product has averaged a team best 19.4 points, just slightly better than Ronnie Brewer's 18.3 in the same 11 games.

"Coach told me he wanted me to play hard and feel comfortable with both my shooting and my ball handling the rest of the way that day," Modica said. "He said he wouldn't say a word to me as long as I did two things: talk on defense and don't shoot after the first pass in the halfcourt offense.

"That was the turning point in my season. It's been all good since then."

As he looks back, Modica also thinks it was the turning point in his relationship with his head coach. The two hadn't always been on the same page in his first three years at Arkansas.

"It did change our relationship," Modica said. "I can see that now. It told me that my coach believed in me. I appreciated him telling me those things. I am glad we are on the same page now."

Heath hadn't thought much about that talk until told of Modica's comments Thursday afternoon after the coaches' weekly media briefing.

"I remember that talk and now that you mention it, you can see what happened after that," Heath said. "I'm telling you, it's not always been easy with Jonathon. I've tried to get a handle on him and what makes him go and how to push the right buttons and it hasn't always worked. I can see that what I said that day did work.

"I can see he's different now and he's really playing well. He was solid before that game, but he's more aggressive, more confident, more relaxed. His game -- all of it -- has picked up. He's scoring, sure. But he's not making turnovers. He's played very well for us of late.

"From a scoring standpoint, what he's done of late has really lifted our basketball team."

Heath knows his relationship with Modica hasn't always been great. But he also understood that it would probably change over time.

"I can look back at my college career and I didn't see eye-to-eye with my coach," he said of current Cal coach Ben Braun. "I tried to do what he said because he was the coach. He was on me all the time, but it was probably for the right things looking back.

"Funny thing, that same coach was probably responsible for me getting my first coaching job. Over time, our relationship really has changed. It does happen that way. I'm telling you, Pookie's relationship with me has changed and it's going to continue to change and get better. It's the way it works."

All of that has been fun to watch as an outsider watching Heath and Modica become closer. It's also nice to see a player blossom as a senior and the team begin to pile up winning streaks. But it's not all about stats. Heath talked about the other things that are important to a coach.

"I've seen him grown up as a person, too," Heath said. "He's matured. All kids grow up. But I've seen both Jonathon and Eric Ferguson really grow up.

"It's been hard on those two. They came here when we were really down and it's been a hard, hard rebuilding process. It's been especially hard on those two. It's a tough situation.

"What is fun now as a coach is to watch them have fun and enjoy the winning. It makes me really smile."

It was a hoot watching both Modica and Heath smile as the player interviewed the coach as part of a broadcast journalism class project Thursday afternoon after most of the media had left the arena Thursday. Modica has only a few hours to complete after this semester. He'll intern at a local TV station this summer and will then get his final hours in the fall.

Modica interviewed his teammates and coach on a story he's putting together on tattoos in college athletics. He got long, articulate answers from Heath, but didn't ask the best question: what he'd say if one of his sons wanted a tattoo. Off camera, Heath said he'd let their mom take care of it because he knew what she'd say. Just before the camera came on, Heath said, "But don't ask me that one. Don't ask me."

Modica didn't. It's obvious he's comfortable with where his relationship stands with Heath and didn't want to step across that player-coach line.

After all, he's got what he wants now. He has the green light. That's all he's ever wanted at Arkansas, for his coach to tell him he needs his offense and to fire away.

It's what this team needed, too. Give Stan Heath credit for figuring that out and getting this team from 1-3 to 9-6 in SEC play. It may be the reason Arkansas fans are wondering about possible NCAA seeds for the first time in many seasons.

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