Razorbacks Took Hard Route

FAYETTEVILLE — Once talk gets heated regarding the NCAA Tournament, once Arkansas' Southeastern Conference schedule winds down, fans and prognosticators will recall the Hogs' late November trek to Orlando.

Three victories at the Old Spice Classic this past weekend produced more than just a championship trophy. The three-win string in four days supplied Arkansas with three schools to potentially list in its "key wins" section for the NCAA Tournament selection committee. So to Arkansas' fifth-year coach Stan Heath, the tournament served a dual purpose. The Razorbacks grew as a cohesive unit and navigated the most difficult draw of any team in the first-year competition. "I really felt that we played the toughest schedule out of anybody," Heath said. "We played Southern Illinois, we played Marist and then we played West Virginia. I thought those were clearly the top three teams outside of ourselves in this field. And not only was Heath excited about the results, he was thrilled about the fashion in which Arkansas executed them. "Every game I thought we got better, every game we were able to improve in different ways," Heath said. "(Sunday) was our best team performance. I thought we shared the ball very well, we were unselfish and we played unselfish on the defensive end, as well. It allowed us to play our best 40 minutes." Arkansas undoubtedly gave its most balanced effort in its 71-64 championship-game victory. Everything started with its pestering man-to-man defense. For the fifth straight time to open the season, the Hogs (5-0) held an opponent to less than 45 percent shooting from the field. Conversely, for the first time this season, the Razorbacks opened a game with immediate offensive success. Against Southern Illinois, an NCAA Tournament qualifier the past five seasons, the Hogs committed nine turnovers on their first 12 possessions. Against Marist, the preseason favorite in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the Razorbacks quickly trailed 6-0. But against West Virginia, which advanced to the Elite Eight last season, Arkansas stormed out to a 14-5 lead. Sonny Weems looked comfortable in a primary scoring role. Gary Ervin broke down West Virginia's lauded zone defense. Patrick Beverley and Stefan Welsh hit shots from the outside. Charles Thomas aggressively fought for rebounds and tough baskets. Steven Hill even pitched in with a few dunks. The mix of efficient offense and suffocating defense had Arkansas forgetting the names of the departed. "With us losing Ronnie Brewer and Jonathan Modica, for us to come win this tournament, that says a lot about our character," Thomas said. "We could've laid down since lost our star players, but instead we came together as a team." Add in a 47-for-60 (78.3 percent) output from the free-throw line, and it's not hard to see why Arkansas was able to string together three statement victories. "We're a team that has a lot of new players, and we had some major losses," Heath said. "This really boosts our confidence. So to get better in every game, that says a lot." UP NEXT ARKANSAS AT MISSOURI WHEN: 8 p.m. WHERE: Mizzou Arena RADIO: KXIO-FM 106.9; KEZA-FM 107.9; KKEG-FM 92.1; KFPW-AM 1230; KQBK-FM 104.7; KHGG-AM 1580; KHGG-FM 103.1; KDYN-AM 1540; KDYN-FM 96.7; KTTG-FM 96.3 TV: ESPN2 HEAD COACHES: Missouri, Mike Anderson (first season); Arkansas, Stan Heath (fifth season)

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