Heath Sees Bright Future For Hogs

FAYETTEVILLE -- With or without Ronnie Brewer, Arkansas basketball coach Stan Heath believes the Razorbacks can return to the NCAA Tournament next season and advance in the tournament.

Yes, Arkansas is losing guards Jonathon Modica, Eric Ferguson, Dontell Jefferson and, probably, Brewer from a 22-10 team. But Heath talked optimistically about his newcomers and holdover players on Monday.

"It will be hard to keep (UA-Fort Smith guard) Sonny Weems off the floor right now," Heath said. "I'll be shocked if he's not ready right away. He's phenomenal in transition and on defense, he rebounds well and he's relentless at moving without the ball -- coach (Dan) Hipsher will be similing."

Heath, who will watch Weems play in the national junior college tournament this week in Hutchison, Kansas, also spoke highly of 6-foot-3 guard Stefan Welsh of Hargrave (Va.) Academy, another Hogs signee.

"Stefan can shoot, handle the ball and play both guard positions," Heath said. "He's very explosive."

Heath said it might take 6-9 forward signee Michael Washington a little longer to fit into the college game, but he said Arkansas sophomore-to-be Cyrus McGowan "is the guy who will really surprise you next season."

Heath still has two scholarships he can award for next season, even if Brewer stays for his senior year.

"I've had one brief conversation with Ronnie since our season ended," Heath said. "He said, 'Coach, I don't know -- I just need some time.' We need to let him have that time to think through some things. He's not going to string anybody along. When he's ready, I think he'll let everyone know."

Brewer has until the end of May to declare his NBA intentions and, if he doesn't hire an agent, he'll have until June 19 to stay in the draft pool or pull his name back out.

If Brewer does go pro, Heath said, "I'll still feel good about our chances next year. Our players will work through the summer. Gary Ervin will give us a point guard who can penetrate and kick, and he and Sean McCurdy could possibly play together (in the backcourt). Or one might win the point guard job and the other plays significant minutes behind him."

Heath believes McCurdy can shoot better at off guard than he did this past season, when he shot just 32.1 percent overall and 34.4 percent from 3-point range.

Heath hopes to recruit at least one more guard and maybe two.

"I definitely want 3-point shooting," Heath said. "That's high on my list of needs. I hope Sean can be that guy."

Heath said he'd heard a lot of talk about how Arkansas should have pressed Bucknell earlier than it did in last Friday's 59-55 loss to the Bison.

"I think that's been overblown," Heath said. "I haven't seen anyone press for 40 minutes in this tournament. Your press isn't going to be as effective early, when the other team is attacking it, as it is toward the end when the other team is holding the ball."

Heath said that while Modica had improved tremendously on defense this season, he still would not be mistaken for Gary Payton. Plus, Modica's sprained ankle bothered him some against Bucknell and would have hurt his ability to press effectively.

"I don't want to give up layups," Heath said. "Next year, with Ervin and Weems, we'll be able to press any time we want to."

To those who wanted Heath to put Brewer on Bison guard Kevin Bettencourt, Heath reminded, "Ronnie doesn't like to fight through a lot of screens."

For Heath, the Bucknell-Arkansas game swung on the fact that Arkansas missed nine second-half free throws and made just 2 of 12 3-pointers.

Citing statistics which showed Arkansas in the top echelon in the Southeastern Conference in field goal percentage defense (.425) and points allowed (67.4 per game), Heath said, "I thought our defense this year was awesome. Ronnie cut down on his steals in order to be in better position to guard, and Steven Hill was there inside to clean up our messes."

Heath said Hogs forward Darian Townes (nine minutes vs. Bucknell) did not play his best basketball toward the end of the season. For example, he took seven shots against Bucknell but had no rebounds.

On the positive side, Heath said Arkansas tied for third in the SEC overall and showed "a lot of grit" to make the NCAA Tournament.

"All in all, I'm really proud of this team," he said.

With Ervin next season, Heath said, "We'll have no worries about presses or pushing the tempo. He can be a leader with the ball in his hands. This year we were 6-6 in games decided by four (or fewer) points. We want to do better, and with a pure point guard maybe we can."

Heath said Townes would work hard to improve his lower-body strength and add power to his post game in the off season.

Heath had expected forwards Charles Thomas and Vincent Hunter to be more productive than they were against Bucknell.

"I thought they could have had more touches, more numbers," he said. "But big guys need easy baskets, and maybe we'll get that done from our point guard spot next year."

Heath said Weems is a good passer, to the point of being "almost too unselfish."

Hill attended two big-man camps last summer, while Townes played with former Georgetown players. Both will look for more such opportunities, Heath said.

"We did a good job on (Bucknell center) Chris McNaughton," Heath said. "The guy who really hurt us was Charles Lee. He had 24 points, including nine in the first four minutes. Film didn't do him justice on how athletic and strong he was."

Brewer, one of 22 Wooden Award finalists, still has an outside shot at the SEC scoring title with his 18.4 average, depending on how Glen Davis of LSU finishes his season.

Interestingly, on the UA career scoring list Brewer stands 16th with 1,416 points, right behind his dad, Ron Brewer, who is No. 15 with 1,440 points. Both took three seasons to amass their totals.

Heath, asked about possible staff changes, said, "That's always a possibility. There are going to be a lot of opportunities and options, and there could be some movement. But right now, there's nothing there."

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