Feisty Frosh

FAYETTEVILLE -- Eighty-two seconds into the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game, Michael Washington entered for an injured Charles Thomas and immediately matched up with Florida's Joakim Noah.

Noah, the Most Outstanding Player at last year's Final Four, didn't intimidate the 6-foot-10 Arkansas freshman one bit.

Washington drained an 18-footer. He soared for an offensive rebound and scored. He caught the ball on the left wing, blew past Noah with a few right-handed dribbles and lofted a 5-footer off glass and in.

Thomas noticed, even as he grimaced in pain from the severe sprain to his left ankle.

"I was just thinking, he has that 'I don't care' mentality," Thomas said. "He doesn't care who you are. He's going to go right at you."

That fearlessness, the type the Razorbacks have seen all season in practice, has fueled Washington's recent five-game stretch.

He is scoring in double-figures (10.6) and averaging nearly four rebounds per game during that span -- four of which Arkansas won. This all despite playing just 77 minutes in the five games.

Teammates credit Washington's desire and confidence.

"He's so competitive in practice," Arkansas center Steven Hill said. "He wants to win and wants to work hard."

For a while, all Washington knew was practice.

Seems kind of crazy since he was ranked among the top 50 prep players nationally. But some eligibility issues, triggered by a couple of high school transfers, delayed his joining the team until right before Arkansas' exhibition opener.

As far as that prep career, they don't get more decorated.

Washington was reclassified as a sophomore prior to arriving at Cleveland Heritage Christian in Houston, after two years at McGehee High. There, he concentrated on improving his academic situation and competed against top-notch competition.

Two productive basketball seasons turned him into the top-ranked junior in Texas. He then transferred again, this time to Genesis One Christian (Mendenhall, Miss.), one of the top programs in the country.

Once again, Washington needed to improve on his academics. He moved closer to home, knowing his commitment to Arkansas meant nothing if he couldn't qualify academically.

He said the experience made him stronger as a person.

"I matured a lot through all of that," Washington said. "It all helped me get even better than I was. Prep school helped a ton."

Genesis One was one of several schools whose academic standards had been under scrutiny from the NCAA. So, Washington's status for this season was unknown until early October.

He missed preseason workouts and bonding moments, such as running up Cleveland Hill.

"I know that was tough for him," Thomas said. "Michael had to just kind of jump into things."

Finally, both the NCAA and SEC cleared Washington.

The first couple of months were tough on Washington, who distinctly looked out of shape in workouts. But, that lack of energy didn't affect his effort level.

The Hogs caught glimpses of Washington's athletic ability. The flashes were, as Thomas said, "unreal."

"He'd step out and hit a 3," Thomas said. "He'd fly in for a dunk. He'd drive past you. It was unbelievable. But he just couldn't keep it up for a long time."

Soon, Washington increased his stamina.

"By December, Washington said.

Steadily, Arkansas coach Stan Heath eased Washington into the lineup. Those flashes started to make their way into games.

Lately, Washington has flourished. Heath bluntly stated Tuesday he had never coached a player like him.

"I have not. Not that has that kind of skill set to go along with that athletic ability," Heath said. "And he has no fear. It doesn't matter who we're playing against. He doesn't care. I like that in him."

So do his teammates, who likely will share more playing time with Washington in the NCAA Tournament. Washington figures to take a lot of Thomas' minutes if the junior forward is hampered by his left ankle sprain.

No matter. Washington won't be afraid of the spectacle that is the NCAA Tournament.

At Genesis One, Washington played in college arenas and usually shared the court with nine other Division I prospects.

"I'm not scared of anybody," Washington said.



THOMAS UPDATE

Arkansas forward Charles Thomas is "day-to-day," according to Razorbacks coach Stan Heath.

Thomas said he limped around campus Tuesday on his sprained left ankle and has received consistent treatment since arriving back in Fayetteville.

Freshman Michael Washington figures to take a lot of Thomas' minutes if the 6-foot-8 junior is limited by the injury.

"I'm hoping it's up to around 80 or 90 percent by (Friday)," Thomas said. "Honestly, I haven't been healthy for a long time now, with my (right) shoulder and all. I'm never 100 percent anymore. So, I'll just fight through it, like I always do."



NCAA EAST REGIONAL TICKET

NO. 12 ARKANSAS VS. NO. 5 SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

WHEN: 8:45 p.m.

TV: KFSM (Cable channel 5)

WHERE: Spokane Memorial Arena, Spokane, Wash.

RECORDS: Arkansas, 21-13; No. 23 (AP) Southern California, 23-11

RADIO: KXIO-FM 106.9; KEZA-FM 107.9; KKEG-FM 92.1; KFPW-AM 1230; KQBK-FM 104.7; KHGG-AM 1580; KHGG-FM 103.1; KDYN-AM 1540; KDYN-FM 96.7; KTTG-FM 96.3

COACHES: Arkansas, Stan Heath (82-70, 5th season; 112-75 overall, 6 seasons); Southern California, Tim Floyd (40-24, 2nd season; 283-154, 14 seasons

SERIES: Southern California leads 2-0 (Never played on a neutral site)

LAST MEETING: Arkansas lost 88-74 on Jan. 25, 1986, in Fayetteville



MICHAEL WASHINGTON

Position: Power forward

Height: 6-foot-10

Weight: 229 pounds

Hometown: McGehee

High Schools: McGehee, Cleveland Heritage Christian School (Texas) and Genesis One Christian School (Mendenhall, Miss.)

Notables: In Arkansas' past five games, averaging 10.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in only 15.4 minutes. ... Scored 31.6 points, grabbed 14.8 rebounds and blocked 9.0 shots per game as a senior at Genesis One. ... Ranked No. 46 high school player in the Class of 2006 by USA Today.



WASHINGTON'S FOULS

Arkansas freshman Michael Washington is averaging just 15.4 minutes per game in the Razorbacks' past five contests because of foul trouble.

Washington said he had a simple remedy for improving the only glaring weakness of his game.

"Moving my feet better," Washington said.

Washington's last five games

Opponent Points Rebounds Fouls Minutes

At Vanderbilt 15 6 4 19

Vs. South Carolina 9 3 1 21

Vs. Vanderbilt 4 1 4 10

Vs. Mississippi State 8 9 2 5 8

Vs. Florida 17 7 4 19


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