Hogs Must Repeat Finish

All the same complaints, all the same whispers, existed 365 days ago.

A narrow defeat at Ole Miss had dropped Arkansas to 5-6 in the Southeastern Conference. The NCAA Tournament seemed like an improbability. Stan Heath's future as Arkansas' coach was in serious question. Simply put, Arkansas' collective back was about as far up against the proverbial wall as it could get.

And, out of anger, the Razorbacks decided to change course.

"We were so mad," Arkansas center Steven Hill said. "Mad and embarrassed. That's what got us going."

Arkansas must react similarly to its recent embarrassment. The Razorbacks were blown out by 24 points Wednesday night at Mississippi State, and their season is now as close to lost as last year's was at this time.

Spurred by Ronnie Brewer and Jonathon Modica, the Hogs ripped off five straight victories to end last year's regular season. The streak resulted in an NCAA Tournament berth.

To ensure another invitation to March Madness, Arkansas (15-10, 4-7) must reel off another five-game spurt of wins. The quest starts today with a 4 p.m. game in Bud Walton Arena against Ole Miss (17-8, 6-5), the SEC Western Division's slim leader and winners of four straight.

The unpredictability of the wild SEC West race has given the Razorbacks hope for another hot streak.

"Obviously we're having our struggles, but the SEC West is still wide open," Arkansas forward Charles Thomas said. "We have to win out right now. We've got to take care of our home-court advantage first. We see the Rebels as a threat."

Arkansas should, considering the Rebels now possess postseason aspirations under first-year coach Andy Kennedy. Plus, the Razorbacks no longer wield the persona of an invincible foe at home. Losses in Bud Walton Arena to Georgia and Kentucky took care of that.

At home, however, is where Arkansas' late-season stretch of victories began last season.

First, the Hogs outlasted No. 10 Florida by four points in overtime. They then rallied to squeak past Alabama by two points. Four days later, the Razorbacks shocked No. 10 Tennessee in Knoxville. Victories over Mississippi State and at Georgia capped the five-game flurry.

In analyzing that turnaround, Heath did identify a crucial difference between that team and this year's.

"To be honest, I think Ronnie (Brewer) and Pookie (Modica) had a lot to do with it," Heath said. "A couple of guys (on this team) need to raise their level like that."

There are plenty of candidates. Freshman guard Patrick Beverley has shown the ability to take over a game at any time. So has junior small forward Sonny Weems. But they both have been erratic. They combined for nine turnovers Wednesday night in Starkville.

Thomas and junior point guard Gary Ervin also own the type of leadership skills necessary to be "the guy," Heath said the Hogs needed. But each, like Beverley and Weems, has endured struggles.

A favorable schedule helps the Razorbacks, a finish far more favorable than last year's final five. Arkansas' last five opponents combine for a 28-27 mark in SEC play.

"I believe we're very capable of doing it," Thomas said. "We have extremely good talent."

At this point, though, talent isn't what matters. Wins are.

And the Hogs need five of them.

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