Starting With Toughest Two

FAYETTEVILLE -- Rotten luck. That's all Stan Heath could think when he first saw Arkansas' schedule for 2006-07.

His eyes surely stared for some time at today's Southeastern Conference opener in Bud Walton Arena. Heath's team opened with one of the Mississippi schools in each of the last two seasons.

But in four days time, beginning today, Arkansas (11-3) will play likely the most difficult home game and most difficult road game of its Southeastern Conference schedule.

Test No. 1 is at 1:05 p.m. today against No. 8 Alabama (13-1).

"I'll say this about the SEC," Heath said.

"They throw you right into the fire. They don't let you get warmed up or ease you into play."

About 75 hours after this one wraps up, Arkansas' game at No. 3 Florida will tip off. Not the ideal way to launch a return-to-the-NCAA Tournament campaign.

But no gripes have come from Heath or Arkansas' players.

Sure, they wish these games could come later in the season. Who wouldn't? But they've embraced the situation, spinning it positively.

Assigned with duties to shadow Alabama preseason all-American guard Ronald Steele, junior Gary Ervin said he liked the early matchup that should stir fan interest.

Arkansas hasn't played in front of even a three-fourths-full crowd this season. That changes today.

Some of the older Razorbacks, such as Ervin, have tried to prepare Arkansas' key newcomers for the environment. Two starters for Arkansas, freshman Patrick Beverley and junior college transfer Sonny Weems, have never played in an SEC game.

"The upperclassmen know what playing in the SEC is all about," Ervin said. "The big crowds, the intensity ... We know that it's best to just stay level-headed out there, and we've tried to let the new guys know that."

Alabama presents the type of problems that could unravel the Razorbacks' demeanor.

All five starters average double figures in scoring for the Crimson Tide, who have lost only at Notre Dame.

Steele, who is near full strength after knee and ankle injuries, has three inches on Ervin. Beverley loses five inches to 6-foot-6 Mykal Riley. Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix each average more than nine rebounds. Alonzo Gee is every bit as athletic as Weems.

Heath said there was no difference between Alabama and the defending national champion Arkansas will see a few days later.

"Between Alabama and Florida, at every position, there is no weakness," Heath said. "I do think we are one of the few teams that at least has the size to make things difficult for them."

Heath's right.

The Hogs can hang with Alabama's size.

Steven Hill, a 7-0 center, leads the SEC in blocks. Charles Thomas, a 6-8, 235-pound forward, possesses the size and quickness to contain Davidson. Darian Townes, a 6-10 junior, posted 17 points and six rebounds last year in Tuscaloosa.

But ultimately, this could be too much talent to encounter too soon.

"They've got great big men, and we've got great big men," Thomas said. "They might have the toughest big men we'll play."

And the Hogs see them right at the start of their SEC schedule.

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