Starting to feel stable

FAYETTEVILLE — About two years apart, two basketball players relayed decisions to Arkansas coach Stan Heath that greatly affected his program.

The first situation worried Heath. Nearly ruined his spring of 2004. Just after Heath's second season in Fayetteville, prized recruit Al Jefferson couldn't pass up the allure of millions of dollars and reneged on his scholarship commitment to enter the NBA Draft.

But the second, and this is the telling part, didn't faze Heath. Heading into this season, his fifth at Arkansas, Heath knew his Razorbacks would open practice without Ronnie Brewer, the team's leading scorer last year.

Brewer also saw dollar signs, forgoing his senior season for the draft. The trend easily could continue as Heath's recruiting classes become more talented.

No matter. In about two years, Arkansas' program has improved enough to spare Heath the stomach aches.

"I'm happy now to the point where I see a lot of stability," Heath said. "I see where in the past when Al Jefferson doesn't come, that sets you back. But I see Ronnie Brewer leaving, and maybe it sets you back from being a top-10 team. But now we're not at that point where anything crushes us.

"We can still make great progress. We can still move on."

There's no proof to back up this talk yet.

Only days, and months, will show whether Arkansas can find other sources for the points scored last year by Brewer and graduated seniors Jonathon Modica, Eric Ferguson and Dontell Jefferson.

Only time will reveal whether five talented newcomers can blend in with the Razorbacks' returning nucleus.

But Heath and his players seemed confident Wednesday at the team's media day that the meshing has already begun.

Everywhere they turn, players say, bonding occurs. Purposely, as well as inadvertently.

They head to the bowling alley together. They watch football every weekend. They stroll down Dickson Street on Saturday nights.

"I came here because it felt like family," freshman guard Patrick Beverley said. "Everyone gets along, everyone hangs out, and, really, that's crazy when you think about how different we all are."

They even push each other during conditioning drills. Just last week, they sprinted up Cleveland Hill. Three times. And when Gary Ervin, the transfer from Mississippi State and projected starter at point guard, barked at teammates to dig deeper, to fight the pain, no one complained.

Somehow, with 46.8 in lost points to replace, no one seems bent on claiming dibs.

With just two returning starters — junior center Steven Hill and junior forward Charles Thomas — the Razorbacks will at some point need to worry about their offense.

But for now, Heath is stressing defense and teamwork. No players are arguing with that stance.

"With all the talent on this team, the offense will come," Thomas said. "I don't doubt that at all. With all the speed we've got, we just need to make sure we're playing hard all the time on defense."

So far Heath has discovered perhaps the deepest team in his tenure and possibly the most versatile. Ervin, Beverley and sophomore Sean McCurdy can all excel at the point- and shooting-guard positions.

Sonny Weems, one of the nation's top-ranked junior college players last year at Arkansas-Fort Smith, gives Arkansas an immediate athleticism boost.

"Sonny obviously is just a freak," Hill said. "I didn't know what to think when he came in. I was just wondering if he was just an athlete, but he's shot the ball extremely well. He's a competitor. He wants to win. He really is the total package for us."

Freshman Stefan Welsh should provide depth in the backcourt for the Razorbacks, who have made steady progress under Heath. The Hogs' win total has gone from 9 in 2003 to 22 in 2006.

As for playing time in the frontcourt, every practice will be an audition. Heath must find the right mix of Hill, Thomas, juniors Darian Townes and Vincent Hunter, sophomore Cyrus McGowan and freshman Michael Washington.

The team's potential, even during a lazy shoot-around, was on display Wednesday afternoon.

Beverley and Welsh engaged in an impromptu 3-point contest, answering each other shot-for-shot from as far as 25 feet. Ervin and Weems showed off their impressive ball-handling skills. Hill whipped out a new hook shot, and Thomas and Townes revealed improved outside shooting.

In early October, it all means little. But it's a start, especially for a program that's just now starting to feel stable.

"Our goals are to win the SEC Tournament, win the SEC West and win our home games here at Bud Walton Arena — where we went 15-1 last year," Heath said. "We not only want to get to the NCAA Tournament, but we want to advance."

Arkansas Razorbacks Roster

Juniors (7) — Preston Cranford (6-7, 214), G; Gary Ervin (6-0, 176), G; Steven Hill (7-0, 250), F-C; Vincent Hunter (6-10, 225), F; Charles Thomas (6-8, 235), F; Darian Townes (6-10, 254), F-C; Sonny Weems (6-6, 201), G-F.

Sophomores (2) — Sean McCurdy (6-1, 186), G; Cyrus McGowan (6-9, 236), F-C.

Freshmen (3) — Patrick Beverley (6-1, 172), G; Michael Washington (6-10, 229), F; Stefan Welsh (6-2, 180), G.

Arkansas Razorbacks Newcomer Profiles

Patrick Beverley — Led the state of Illinois by averaging 37.3 points for Marshall High School in Chicago. ... Had 13 points, six assists and three steals in the Roundball Classic all-star game.

Gary Ervin — Practiced with the team last year after transferring from Mississippi State, where he served as a two-year starter at point guard and played in the NCAA Tournament. ... Arkansas coach Stan Heath already calls Ervin the Razorbacks' leader.

Michael Washington — Heath touts this inside-outside, 6-foot-10 threat as having the highest upside of any of the three freshmen. ... Ranked the No. 23 prospect in the country last year by coming out of Genesis One Christian School in Mendenhall, Miss.

Stefan Welsh — Spent a season at a prep school, Hargrave Military Academy, and averaged 17 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals. ... Also a standout football player at Woodside High School in Newport News, Va.

Sonny Weems — Heath says all will be "fascinated" by watching this athletic 6-6 swingman who "runs like a gazelle." ... Ranked the No. 3 junior college player in the nation after leading Arkansas-Fort Smith to the National Junior College Athletic Association national championship.

Arkansas Razorbacks Schedule

Date Opponent Time

Oct. 20 Red-White Game 7:05 p.m.

Oct. 31 Xavier (Exh.) 7:05 p.m.

Nov. 6 California Univ. (Pa.) (Exh.) 7:05 p.m.

Nov. 10 Southeast Missouri St. 7:05 p.m.

Nov. 18 Stephen F. Austin 2:05 p.m.

Nov. 23 x Southern Illinois 11 a.m.

Nov. 24 x Minnesota or Marist TBA

Nov. 26 x TBA

Nov. 30 at Missouri 8 p.m.

Dec. 2 Missouri-KC TBA

Dec. 5 Central Michigan 7:05 p.m.

Dec. 14 Oakland 7:05 p.m.

Dec. 16 # Texas Tech TBA

Dec. 20 at Texas 8 p.m.

Dec. 22 Oral Roberts 7:05 p.m.

Dec. 30 Louisiana Tech TBA

Jan. 2 Tulsa 7:05 p.m.

Jan. 6 *Alabama 1:05 p.m.

Jan. 9 *at Florida 6:05 p.m.

Jan. 13 *at Ole Miss 4 p.m.

Jan. 17 *Georgia 7:05 p.m.

Jan. 20 *LSU 2:45 p.m.

Jan. 24 *at South Carolina 6:30 p.m.

Jan. 27 *at Alabama 2:05 p.m.

Feb. 3 *Kentucky 12:05 p.m.

Feb. 7 *Auburn 7:05 p.m.

Feb. 10 *at LSU 12:05 p.m.

Feb. 14 *at Mississippi St. 7 p.m.

Feb. 17 *Ole Miss 4 p.m.

Feb. 21 *at Auburn 7 p.m.

Feb. 24 *Tennessee 12:05 p.m.

Feb. 28 *Mississippi St. 7:05 p.m.

March 3 *at Vanderbilt TBA

March 8-11 SEC Tournament TBA

x — Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla.

# — Game played in Alltel Arena, Little Rock

* — Southeastern Conference Game

All times central and subject to change

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