Whoever made out the SEC Conference schedule certainly did the University of Arkansas and head coach Stan Heath any favors.
The Razorbacks (11-3) host SEC Western Division and No. 8 Alabama (13-1) Saturday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. and then travels to Florida to play the defending national champion, SEC Eastern Division favorite and No. 3 Gators (12-2) on Tuesday night.
"I'll say this about the SEC," Heath said. "They certainly throw you into the fire. They don't let you get warmed up or ease into play. They let you lace them up and play."
Arkansas comes into its game with Alabama riding a three-game winning streak after downing ORU, Louisiana Tech and Tulsa in order and has Bama coach Mark Gottfried respecting its play.
""I think they're a tremendous team," Gottfried said of Arkansas. "I think they are as talented as anyone in the country. Their inside guys are tremendous and I think they've added some great perimeter players. I think (Patrick) Beverley is very good, (Gary) Ervin is very good, Sonny Weems is excellent, Stefan Welsh is good. They've got four new perimeter players to go with along with all that talent inside, so we've got a lot of respect for their players and how well they play."
Arkansas' non-conference losses were at Missouri, to Texas Tech in North Little Rock and at Texas while their top wins have been over No. 25 West Virginia, Southern Illinois, ORU and Tulsa.
Alabama today will be the seventh team that Arkansas has played to this point that has had either four or five starters coming back.
"I'm not disappointed at all," Heath said. "We had a very strong schedule. Tehre are teams that don't leave their arena. I know how to schedule that way. We had some bumps on the road, but we have had some good wins, too. Anytime you have 10 or 11 wins heading into conference play, you have done a good job."
In the Razorbacks ‘ current three-game win streak, they have played strongly in the second half after inconsistent first halves.
Heath knows it will take two great halves to take down Alabama, something that Arkansas did do on its home court last season right after beating Florida in Bud Walton Arena as well.
"Now that we are in the SEC, there are three things that we have to do, " Heath said. "We have to take care of the ball, we have to rebound and make free throws. Our rebounding has slipped. We need to get that back, but in two of those three, we've been solid (lately)."
Arkansas and Alabama split last season with Ronald Steele hitting two free throws that forced overtime and then hitting three free throws to beat the Razorbacks 78-75 in Tuscaloosa.
In the second game in Fayetteville, Darian Townes had a team-high 15 points as the Razorbacks rallied from a 18-point deficit in the second half to down the Crimson Tide 65-63 despite Steele's 29 points.
Alabama went 18-13 last season , finished tied with Arkansas for second place in the SEC West with a 10-6 mark and downed Marquette in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to UCLA in round two.
The Crimson Tide return four starters and have added Pine Bluff native Mykal Riley into a starting lineup where all five players are averaging in double figures.
"Alabama is better than they were last year," Heath said. "Mykal Riley is a threat and (Alonzo) Gee is improved. We're excited about playing. We have had some great games with them and we feel like we are playing better and better."
The Crimson Tide are led 6-8, 265-pound sophomore power forward Richard Hendrix (15.3 points, 9.2 rebounds) and 6-10, 220-pound senior center Jermareo Davidson (14.8, 9.5) while the 6-6, 225-pound small forward Gee (14.8, 5.6), 6-6, 185-pound Riley (12.4, 5.8) and 6-3 junior point guard Steele (10.9) round out the starting five.
The squad's only loss was a 99-85 loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 1 while it does have road wins at North Carolina State and Southern Miss this season in addition to home wins over foes such as Oklahoma.
"Our guys are excited," Gottfried said. "We've done well in the non-conference, but now we're 0-0. We know that. Guys have come to Alabama to have a chance to win the SEC, so that's what we hope to do."
Ironically, it is Steele who probably puts more fear in the hearts of Arkansas fans than the other since he was sensational with 25 points in Bama's loss in Fayetteville last season.
"Between Alabama and Florida, at every position, there is no weakness," Heath said. "With Ronald Steele – and we obviously know how good he is – Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix along with the other two, they have double figure scorers at every position."
Riley is obviously excited about playing Arkansas and being in his home state after two years of playing junior college basketball.
"I've been really looking forward to this," Riley said. "I have a lot of family coming, so I'm looking forward to this trip, to this game."
"I've followed Arkansas basketball since I was a little kid," Riley added. "When I was little they were one of my favorite teams. They have a good program and talented players. It's going to be a challenge for us. From here on out in the SEC, every game is going to be tough because every team is good."
Arkansas will counter with one of the league's best freshmen in 6-1 combo guard Patrick Beverley (13-9, 4.6) with 6-8, 235-pound junior power forward Charles Thomas (12.8, 5.4), 6-6 junior small forward Sonny Weems (11.4, 4.4), 6-1 junior guard Gary Ervin (8.9) and 7-0 center Steven Hill (5.4, 3.3) in the opening quintet.
The Razorbacks can also bring the 6-10, 250-pound junior forward Townes (7.5, 3.7) and 6-10 redshirt junior forward Vincent Hunter (4.4, 2.8) in off the bench to combat the big size of Alabama.
"I think we are one of the teams that has the size to make it difficult for them," Heath said. "We'll have to play our tails off, but I think we can and will."
Arkansas vs. Alabama
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