When Adversity Hits, Who Will Respond?

SAN JUAN, P.R. -- "They wanted it more than us..."

Those immortal half-dozen words defined Arkansas basketball last season.

After each of the Razorbacks' tight losses -- and there were plenty of them -- some player always seemed to utter that phrase. The explanation sufficed as an answer for all sorts of questions, but usually, the six words explained Arkansas' reaction to adversity.

With nearly the same cast of characters back in Razorback red this season, John Pelphrey can't wait to see how No. 18 Arkansas will react in similar circumstances. The Hogs open the Puerto Rico Tip-Off at 4 p.m. today against College of Charleston. And the Razorbacks' first-year coach knows a three-game, four-day stretch should produce moments just like those last season that ended with the six-word responses.

"Adversity is coming," Pelphrey said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how we handle that. I want to see how we stick together and who does what for us when winning and losing is on the line. Who is going to do it for us?

"It's not going to be a big play. It could be something like a guard blocking out a seven-footer, getting a rebound, diving to the floor or making a free throw."

Pelphrey can rest easy knowing his players are just as eager as he is.

They eventually grew tired of their answers in the postgame aftermath of difficult losses last season; they lost six of their first 10 conference games, by an average of five points. Down the stretch, they prevailed in several close contests that allowed them to slip into the NCAA Tournament. But the turnaround came only after their coach's job was publicly threatened.

The Hogs have vowed to treat every opponent similarly this season.

"Everybody has an opinion about us that we don't play hard, or that we're underachievers, or this and that," senior forward Sonny Weems said. "We're just going to go out and win the tournament and prove everybody wrong."

The Razorbacks arrived here on the northern coast of Puerto Rico on Tuesday, hoping to win an early-season tournament for the second consecutive season. The Razorbacks defeated three quality opponents in Orlando, Fla., to win the Old Spice Classic and jump-start last season. But then, they were the underdogs.

"We were picked like fourth and fifth in that thing," Weems said.

Now, the Razorbacks are the only ranked team in San Juan, the overwhelming favorites. Point guard Gary Ervin said he has seen a substantial increase in competitiveness since last season that should help when games get tense. The Razorbacks, Ervin said, compete heatedly in everything at practice and scrimmages have even gotten nasty.

Pelphrey, no doubt, hopes that attitude helps to shape Arkansas' focus, which is needed more this week because of the likely sparse crowds at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico. He remembers a trip to Puerto Rico as an assistant coach at Florida, and the lack of focus that accompanied the Gators.

"We really enjoyed the resort," Pelphrey joked, "and I think we came out 1-2."

That kind of result is by no means impossible for the Hogs. Distractions are everywhere in San Juan. The Razorbacks are staying at the lavish Condado Hotel and Casino, and Weems did mention his excitement to see "beaches and girls" this weekend. Even so, Arkansas' players realize that all eight of the teams in Puerto Rico are out to learn more about their grit. They comprehend that no squad is a pushover.

And, truthfully, they want to be tested. They want to respond to adversity. They want to "want it" more.

"The games we've played, we've won by a great deal of margin," sophomore guard Patrick Beverley said. "We want to see if we can win when games get close. I want to see how close we can get with each other at the end of games."

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