Three phases of basketball define John Pelphrey's foundation for winning.
"We need to play defense, rebound and fast break," Arkansas' first-year coach said.
Throughout most of their 15 games this season, the Razorbacks have adhered to that philosophy. They rank third in the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense. They place fourth among SEC teams in total rebounding. They have scored at least 70 points in two-thirds of their contests.
Lately, though, getting past step No. 1 has challenged the Hogs in the early stages of games. And as they host Alabama today in Bud Walton Arena, attempting to go 2-0 in the SEC for the first time since Nolan Richardson's final season, they aim to halt that trend.
Arkansas' sluggish starts its past two times out didn't cost them victories. The Hogs rallied for a gutsy nonconference victory against Baylor on Jan. 15 in Dallas and fought back for an SEC-opening win Thursday night at Auburn. But their seemingly nonexistent defensive fire in the opening minutes of those matchups ensured they would play from behind.
The Bears jumped out to a 10-3 lead and scored 26 points in the first 10 minutes, often driving into the lane for uncontested layups. Auburn tallied 33 points in the first 12 minutes, draining unguarded jump shots and scoring on offensive rebounds.
But senior forward Charles Thomas said the Razorbacks aren't overly concerned with the defensive lapses. That's likely because the Arkansas defense quickly became dominant in the final three-fourths of both games.
"Our defense comes more so in the last four minutes of the game when everybody is tired," Thomas said. "When they're tired, that's when we really press up on them. We know we can make that last push."
Still, Thomas and his teammates realize it wouldn't hurt to exhibit the same defensive ferocity in the first few minutes as they show off in the final ones. For examples of what immediate defensive intensity can do, the Razorbacks can remember how they pestered Alabama in their two victories over the Crimson Tide last season.
Arkansas exploded for 14 straight points to open its first win over Alabama last January while hounding the Crimson Tide into missing 23 of its 31 first-half shots. In the second victory, Alabama misfired on 13 of its first 14 attempts.
Despite the frustrating offensive explosions by Baylor and Auburn -- as well as Oklahoma and Appalachian State -- Arkansas' defense hasn't disappointed this season. The Hogs are third in the SEC in scoring defense, fifth in field-goal defense and first in 3-point defense.
And Pelphrey believes they would relapse only if their mental toughness fails them, a possibility considering Arkansas should compete today in front of its largest home crowd this season.
"From our standpoint, we have to make sure we come out and have the same focus that we had (at Auburn)," Pelphrey said. "I thought our shoot-around was probably the best we've had all year.
"We've got to have toughness right now. And that's the ability to do the right things over and over again. That mental toughness is important."
Especially just after the Razorbacks' games start.
ALABAMA AT ARKANSAS
WHEN: 3:05 p.m. TV: Raycom (Cox Ch. 7)
WHERE: Bud Walton Arena
RECORDS: Alabama 11-5, 0-1 Southeastern Conference; Arkansas 12-3, 1-0
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: Alabama, Mark Gottfried (11-5, 10th season; 260-137, 13 seasons); Arkansas, John Pelphrey (12-3, 1st season; 92-70, 6 seasons).
SERIES: Arkansas leads 24-20 (11-5 in Fayetteville)
LAST MEETING: Arkansas beat Alabama 63-57 on Jan. 27, 2007 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Alabama at Arkansas
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