It All Starts With Chemistry

FAYETTEVILLE — Four words of encouragement, shouted during a mostly meaningless practice drill Thursday, revealed substantial meaning for this year's Arkansas basketball team.

Status meant nothing, egos meant zilch, when Gary Ervin yelled, "There you go, ‘Drew!"

Ervin, one of the Razorbacks' undisputed leaders, doesn't treat Andrew Boyd like a freshman walk-on. Arkansas' starting point guard sees him as an equal, exactly as any of his other 12 teammates.

Stan Heath thinks that mutual respect undoubtedly will help Arkansas follow through on its slogan of "22 plus," which hints that any win total less than last year's 22 will signify failure.

"We're all just real comfortable with each other this year," said Heath, Arkansas' fifth-year coach. "A lot of the players feel like they can speak up and be leaders if they feel they need to, so that's just a tribute to our chemistry."

That togetherness, exhibited by not just Ervin on a daily basis, is the one certainty Arkansas brings into the 2006-07 season. Everything else, as followers of the Razorbacks will notice beginning with tonight's 7 p.m. Red-White Game, is a work in progress.

Arkansas lost Ronnie Brewer, Jonathon Modica, Eric Ferguson and Dontell Jefferson from its team that went 22-10 last season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.

That's 96 combined starts and 45.8 combined points per game. All needing to be replaced.

The Razorbacks' players and coaches collectively agreed the process of moving on began with an intangible that had nothing to do with statistics — chemistry.

Sonny Weems, one of the nation's top junior college players last year at Arkansas-Fort Smith, saw the signs of a cohesive team as early as this summer. While Weems nailed down his eligibility in Fort Smith, Ervin would round up guys to make the trek down Interstate 540 for pickup games.

"That just showed how much (Gary) wanted us to become a team, a true team," Weems said.

But chemistry can only go so far. These Razorbacks must learn to defend, at a Southeastern Conference intensity, for 40 minutes. Early indications point toward this squad being Heath's most successful on the defensive end.

Ervin, a transfer from Mississippi State who played in two NCAA Tournaments, and freshman guards Patrick Beverley and Stefan Welsh provide quickness that should hamper the ability of opposing point guards to trigger their offenses.

"I think we're starting to realize how much potential we have to defend," Welsh said. "I mean, we can get after it. We're going to scare some teams with our pressure defense."

Heath believes in the Razorbacks' defensive potential so much that he has dedicated 70 percent of their first-week practices to defensive drills.

With shot blockers like juniors Steven Hill and Darian Townes, Arkansas will exhibit a risk-taking, always-intense style of defense.

"They can take their chances out front, that's for sure," said Hill, who set the school's sophomore record for blocked shots. "They're so fast. They'll be getting all kinds of steals."

For a team that could struggle to score points while it acclimates, Arkansas' defense could serve as its best offense. In fact, Heath said he wishes to play at a higher tempo this season, the result he hopes of a turnover-creating defense.

"We'll run whenever we can force a mistake," said sophomore Sean McCurdy, who will get minutes at both guard positions.

When they must slow down offensively, Arkansas' guards will look to find their post players far more than last season. Size is a strength this year, a rarity in Heath's tenure, and Ervin said the forwards and centers could expect a heavy workload.

Townes, Hill, juniors Charles Thomas and Vincent Hunter and freshman Michael Washington all bring different qualities. Thomas, after a summer spent at various camps, is versatile with toughness and ball-handling skills. Hill has improved offensively. Townes and Hunter are athletic for their height. Washington might be the most athletic of them all, at 6-foot-10 with 3-point range.

Whereas the Razorbacks relied mostly on Brewer and Modica for offense last season, any number of players could lead Arkansas in scoring. One game, it could be Ervin. The next game, it could be Weems. Or Thomas. Or Townes. Or even Beverley, Welsh or Washington.

"The great thing about our offense is that it's a motion offense, and everyone is capable of scoring," Weems said. "We just have to get comfortable with everything."

That just takes time. And, as Heath gleefully realizes, some trust and chemistry.

"This year, you have players teaching players," Heath said. "I can't tell you how valuable that is."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories