Coming Out Of His Shell

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Sonny Weems didn't ask for them, but everyone seemed to voice their opinions.

Arkansas coach Stan Heath pleaded with the 6-foot-6 junior, asking him to shed his shy exterior and speak up during practices and games. His Razorback teammates urged him to take a more proactive leadership role. Weems' mother adamantly told him, "Be the leader I know you are."

Students begged for Weems to spark his fellow players and even Heath's wife, Ramona, mentioned he needed to step up as a vocal leader.

At first, "I just brushed it off," Weems said. But recently, Weems gave in.

After Arkansas' home loss to Tennessee on Feb. 24, Weems decided to give this leadership thing a try. And since then, the Hogs won five of six games and made an improbable run to the NCAA Tournament. The timing was no coincidence, Arkansas point guard Gary Ervin said.

"He gets us fired up," Ervin said. "I think he was a little worried at first to talk like that. You can tell it makes him a little uneasy. But now, he doesn't hold back. He's just another leader for us. A team can never have too many."

Weems' ascension to vocal leader was no easy feat. All his life, Weems did his talking off the court.

But when Arkansas takes on Southern California tonight in an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup in Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, look for Weems to talk constantly.

"In the last few games or so, he's vocally challenged his teammates," Heath said. "He's stepped up and shown that he doesn't want to lose and that he's willing to take those extra steps to get the job done and help the team."

Earlier in the season, Weems never would've acted like that. He went about his business on the court like he always did.

In silence.

"It just was never my personality to be one of those guys who gets in people's faces and stuff like that," Weems said. "Even in junior college (at Arkansas-Fort Smith). I was captain of the team. But I didn't say anything."

Now, off the court, that's another story altogether. Off the court, Weems is one of the most talkative players around. He jokes with teammates. He plays pranks. Really, he rarely shuts up. He was always one of the most likable players on his previous teams, where he won a state championship with West Memphis High and claimed a junior college national championship in Fort Smith.

But once practice commenced or once a referee tossed the basketball up into the air, Weems used to clam up. He just didn't feel comfortable as a rah-rah guy.

That is, until the mountain of advice flooded in. Weems knew his teammates trusted him. After all, he had emerged as the Hogs' second-leading scorer -- he now averages 11.7 per game. But Weems didn't fully embrace his role as a leader until Arkansas' established leaders such as Ervin, Steven Hill and Charles Thomas approached him.

"Once they tried to get me to do it, I knew I could," Weems said.

His vocal emergence exploded in Atlanta, during Arkansas' quarterfinal victory over Vanderbilt. The Razorbacks trailed by eight points with just less than seven minutes left. Arkansas' season, and perhaps the future of its coach, was in jeopardy.

Weems marched into the huddle and went off, vehemently challenging his teammates and encouraging a comeback. The Hogs responded. Since that moment, the Razorbacks have looked at Weems a little differently.

They seek out his opinions. They fuel off his energy. Most importantly, they expect words to fly out of his mouth at all times. Not just when they're away from basketball.

"He's been a big part of why we're on the run we're on," Thomas said. "Without his leadership, we may have lost a couple of those games in the SEC Tournament. We're looking to him for a lot more than just what he can do athletically."

His athleticism used to be what defined Weems. In fact, USC coach Tim Floyd praised Weems on Thursday, reliving the recruiting process in which he was "too late getting in on him."

But now, improbably in Weems' mind, much more defines the 201-pound forward.

"It feels good now that I've started to speak up," Weems said. "It feels good, even though it feels a little weird. You know what, though. Hopefully, I won't have to hear from anybody about that anymore."



SONNY WEEMS

Position: Small forward

Height: 6-foot-6

Weight: 201 pounds

Hometown: West Memphis

Junior College: Arkansas-Fort Smith

Notables: Named to the Old Spice Classic all-tournament squad in November and the SEC All-Tournament team after averaging 15 points and 5.3 rebounds in four games. ... Earned first-team all-state honors his senior season at West Memphis High ... Played on championship teams at West Memphis High (state title) and Arkansas-Fort Smith (junior college national title).



MORE CONSISTENCY FROM WEEMS

Erratic for most of the Razorbacks' season, Arkansas junior Sonny Weems has produced positively in each of the past seven games. He has scored in double figures in six of those contests.

Weems' last seven games:

Opponent FG-FGA Points Rebounds

Tennessee 9-15 18 7

Mississippi State 4-9 10 3

at Vanderbilt 3-5 7 5

vs. South Carolina 4-8 10 4

vs. Vanderbilt 7-13 17 9

vs. Mississippi State 6-11 18 4

vs. Florida 5-12 15 4

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