Arkansas vs. Oakland

FAYETTEVILLE -- Final exams provided Arkansas' basketball players with a valid excuse.

Essays, multiple choice questions, short answer queries -- all of those tasks were high on the minds of each Razorback player throughout the past eight days. After all, the Hogs took a break from games for a reason.

But a hiatus from official action didn't translate to a vacation from intense instruction, and Arkansas forward Charles Thomas said the Hogs' educational obligations didn't distract them.

"We needed the break, but it's not like we were just taking it easy," Thomas said. "We got after it. We worked so hard on our defense. We tried to get back to the mentality that we had earlier this year. That we could win games with our defense."

Just how productive Arkansas' extended practice time was will be on display at 7 tonight in Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks (7-1) take on Oakland (Mich.) to start a crucial four-game, nine-day stretch that should give an early read on Arkansas' NCAA Tournament aspirations.

Texas Tech, Texas and Oral Roberts await the Hogs after tonight's contest with the Golden Grizzlies (6-5). But Arkansas coach Stan Heath said he wanted no one looking ahead. In Heath's mind, the identity of his team's opponent matters little. The identity of his own team, which he may have thought was solidified earlier this season, is far more important.

And, Heath said, it all begins with defense.

"I wanted to make sure our attention (in these practices) was on the defensive end," Heath said. "Because even if we miss some shots here and there, we can score from our defense and we can stop people from our defense. It's going to give us a chance to have success."

If nothing else, because of the defensive emphasis, Heath and his assistants hoped the Hogs would regain the type of pride they exhibited early in the season. Then, they never took a possession off while defending. Then, they acted like they owned the area around their basket.

But then, they traveled to Columbia, Mo. Allowing 86 points that snowy Thursday night at Missouri quickly humbled the Razorbacks. They exhibited progress against Missouri-Kansas City and Central Michigan by allowing an average of 60 points in two home victories.

But the schedule gets more difficult in coming weeks, and the Hogs realize they need a return to the early season intensity they showed.

"I loved what we looked like with our defense in all of these practices," point guard Gary Ervin said. "We were back to having fun with it. That was the best thing about it. We were having fun with defense. Once we're doing that, we're hard to score on."

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