Razorbacks Mid-Season Report

Maybe the weather has something to do with it. Or perhaps it's because of the seemingly nonstop soap opera that has been going on with Arkansas' football team.

Either way, it's hard to believe that it's already February -- which means that college basketball's regular season is more than halfway done. Where has the time gone?

So for those Razorback fans who might have been spending more time worrying about Mitch Mustain than Sonny Weems, here is a Midseason Report on what Arkansas has done over the first three months of the men's college basketball season.

(OK, so technically it's not the halfway point of the season. But it was hard to tell since we got stuck in the snow.)



OFFENSE

At this time a year ago, forward Sonny Weems was playing at a community college, and guard Patrick Beverley was still in high school.

Meanwhile, center Steven Hill was known primarily for his shot-blocking, and point guard Gary Ervin was ineligible to play after transferring to Arkansas.

But with his top two scorers from last season gone, Arkansas coach Stan Heath has needed the three newcomers and Hill to bring some much-needed balance to the offense.

It's not like last season when there was no doubt that guards Ronnie Brewer and Jonathan Modica were the Razorbacks' first and second options, respectively, on offense.

"It makes us hard to guard," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "We have a lot of different guys who can hurt you out there, and that makes things difficult for the defense."

Six different players have led Arkansas in scoring this season, though Beverley has made perhaps the biggest impression with his ability to both attack the basket and knock down the outside shot.

The 6-foot-1, 172-pound guard leads the Razorbacks in scoring (13.6 points per game), and his versatility and energy makes it tough for Heath to take Beverley off the floor.

"He's exceeded (my expectations)," Heath said. "He's so hard-working, he loves to learn and he has a deep passion for the game. And he can really score."

But the Razorbacks have been inconsistent, at times committing too many turnovers, not getting enough rebounds and playing too timid down the stretch to pull out close games.

Arkansas has as many turnovers (333) as assists. Weems was benched in a loss at South Carolina for turning the ball over too much in the first half, and the Razorbacks nearly squandered a 25-point lead at Alabama because of 14 second-half turnovers.

Ervin leads the team with 66 turnovers, and the offense runs much smoother when the Mississippi State transfer is playing under control.

At the same time, Heath has tried several different players at power forward to try to generate a spark. Junior Darian Townes has shown an aggressiveness since returning from his sideline incident with Heath earlier this season.

And with forward Charles Thomas in the midst of a recent slump, Hill has surprisingly emerged as an offensive force around the basket.

"I've worked on my offense for a long time,'" Hill said. "I need to get a lot better still. I need to get more aggressive. But there are a lot of moves I've worked on that I haven't been able to show yet."

-- ALEX ABRAMS



DEFENSE

Steven Hill has become an easy target for opposing fans to heckle, but he should take it as a sign that he has arrived -- ponytail and all.

There is no doubt that the 7-foot, 250-pound center is Arkansas' most intimidating defensive player. He leads the SEC with an average of three blocked shots per game, good enough for 12th in the nation in that category.

And with his surprising athleticism for a man of his size, opposing players must take notice of Hill when they try to drive to the basket.

"He's such a factor," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "When he's not blocking shots, he's affecting them."

Overall, the Hogs have blocked 143 shots, more than any other SEC team.

But when Hill is not in the lineup, Arkansas' defense tends to go soft. Forward Charles Thomas has mastered the art of taking charges, and junior Darian Townes can hold his own around the basket.

But without Hill -- and sometimes with him -- the Razorbacks have a hard time stopping other big men. Ole Miss, in particular, was able to take advantage of this weakness.

But for the most part, Arkansas' strength is with its defense. The Razorbacks rank third in the SEC in scoring defense -- allowing just 63.2 points per game -- and they have held teams to a combined 40.3 percent shooting through the first half of the season.

Guard Patrick Beverley ranks third in the SEC in steals per game (2.0), and Arkansas has an ability to make other teams pay for their turnovers by converting them into fast-break opportunities.

"We need to hang our hat on our defense," Arkansas forward Sonny Weems said. "We're at our best offensively when we're at our best defensively, because we get fast breaks off steals and turnovers."

Arkansas has held each of its last four opponents to under 70 points, including LSU and No. 19 Alabama.

If the Razorbacks could improve on their defensive rebounding, not allow teams to get easy second-chance opportunities and do a better job of identifying shooters, things could go even smoother.

"We just need to be tough, all the time," Hill said. "We need to deny passes better, get our hands up more on shooters and be tough on rebounding. Then, we'll have the kind of defense nobody will want to mess with."

-- ALEX ABRAMS



INTANGIBLES

At this time last season, the knock on Arkansas was that the team lacked the killer instinct needed to put away teams. That appears to still be an issue.

Through the first half of the season, the Razorbacks have shown that they have the outside shooting and inside presence needed to compete with any team in the SEC -- especially in a Western Division filled with parity.

But for whatever reason, the Hogs have a tendency to struggle down the stretch, and the problem seems to get worse when they're on the road.

Arkansas has held leads at top-ranked Florida, at No. 23 Texas and against Georgia, only to squander them over the final minutes.

After taking a 54-53 advantage at Florida, the Razorbacks went four minutes without scoring to miss out on a chance to knock off the defending national champions.

Eight days later, Georgia outscored Arkansas 12-2 over the final two minutes, including making a long 3-pointer at the buzzer, to pull off the comeback victory.

And after a 66-60 loss at South Carolina on Jan. 24, in which Arkansas failed to convert on some late opportunities, coach Stan Heath referred to his team as "immature," adding that his players needed to "grow up."

"I think we're ready for those situations now," Arkansas point guard Gary Ervin said. "The more you're in them, the better you do. And I think we've learned from some of our losses -- like Ole Miss and Georgia and South Carolina."

After each of the road losses, Arkansas' players have said that they either took their opponent lightly, or that the other team simply wanted the win more. Sometimes, the players have used both excuses.

But what is most perplexing about the Razorbacks is how dominating they can look one game and then look lackadaisical the next.

Arkansas has beaten Alabama by 27 points and LSU by 20, then turned around and looked lackadaisical in losses to Ole Miss and South Carolina.

"It doesn't matter what team we're playing," Ervin said. "We need to act like it's our biggest game of the year. I think we get that now."

-- ALEX ABRAMS



COACHING

Now in his fifth season at Arkansas, Stan Heath finally has a roster comprised of players who all were recruited by him.

More than any of his previous squads, this group of Razorbacks represents the type of athletes and characters Heath prefers. So, finally, a true determination can be formed this season on the quality of Heath's coaching performance.

At nearly the midway point of Southeastern Conference play, the jury is still out as Arkansas stands with records of 14-7 overall and 3-4 in the SEC.

The Hogs look like a Final Four team at times. They dominated Alabama twice. They blew out LSU. They hung with No. 1 Florida in Gainesville.

Other times, though, the Razorbacks appear like they don't even belong in the NIT, much less the NCAA Tournament. They lost at Ole Miss and South Carolina. They failed to close out a home game with Georgia and lost at the buzzer on a 25-footer.

The inconsistency and lack of intensity has befuddled Hogs fans. Most importantly, it has baffled Heath himself.

"We're just immature, and we need to grow up," Heath said. "I know we've been inconsistent at times. Hopefully, now we're at the point where we turn freshmen into sophomores and transfers into full-year players."

Not that immature, though.

True, Arkansas' roster doesn't contain one senior. But many of the Hogs' contributors are juniors. Gary Ervin, Charles Thomas, Steven Hill, Darian Townes and Vincent Hunter all have logged many minutes in the SEC. Even they, though, have shown up with no fire in several games this season.

Arkansas' players refuse to let Heath get slapped with the fault for that.

"It's not the coaches fault," Arkansas forward Sonny Weems said. "They motivate us. They prepare us. We just have to listen to them. They always have a great game plan ready for us."

Weems' comment rings true -- partially. In the Hogs' big wins, they have suffocated their opponents with aggressive defense and burned them with fast-break points.

But the true mark of a well-coached team is how it shows up against opponents of inferior talent, not just equal or superior. Another mark is a team's ability to produce on the road, and the Hogs are 1-5 this season away from Bud Walton Arena -- making Heath 6-35 overall on the road at Arkansas.

Heath still hasn't proved his teams can go on the road and consistently bring the right mindset.

"We're working on it," Razorbacks point guard Gary Ervin said. "That's all I can say. We've seen what happens when we don't show up, and we won't let that happen again. Our coaches are going to make sure it won't happen again."



-- RYAN MALASHOCK

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