Arkansas' strength was in its frontcourt, as four seniors standing 6-foot-8 or taller were back. On paper, no school in America could boast that.
But the quality of the Razorbacks' forwards and seniors was quickly questioned. ESPN color analyst Fran Fraschilla wasn't too impressed in November when he called all three of Arkansas' games in Puerto Rico.
"Experience doesn't matter if it's not consistent," Fraschilla said before the Hogs' win over Virginia Commonwealth on Nov. 18. "They have a long way to go if they want to be in the (NCAA) tournament."
Well, the Razorbacks did improve enough to reach the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season. The big men Fraschilla criticized played a major role in the three-game winning streak that sealed the Hogs' at-large berth. And they must again Friday night if they hope to knock off Indiana in a first-round East Regional game in Raleigh, N.C.
Arkansas coach John Pelphrey wasn't ready to laud his the seniors quite yet. He surely appreciates the work done lately by 7-foot center Steven Hill, 6-10 center Darian Townes, 6-8 forward Charles Thomas and 6-10 forward Vincent Hunter.
With Big Ten player of the year D.J. White, on Indiana's roster, though, Pelphrey didn't want to jinx the quartet.
"I don't know if this is the time to stop and reflect," Pelphrey said. "They are going to be challenged. They'll be going against guys as good as anybody in America. We will need everything we have."
The Hoosiers do have White, a 6-9, 251-pound senior, and they do bring 6-8, 295-pound junior DeAndre Thomas off the bench. But Arkansas has an advantage depth-wise. And size-wise.
A fact White knew right when he found out the Hoosiers drew the eighth-seeded Razorbacks.
"They're very deep across the front line," White said. "I'm kind of familiar with them. It's going to be a challenge. They are very, very big."
Opposing teams weren't as intimidated earlier this season.
Thomas was inconsistent and turnover-prone. Hill and Townes struggled with foul issues. Hunter failed to consistently crack the lineup. Even sophomore Michael Washington, who improved rapidly in the final month last season, seemed to regress at times.
But now, the frontcourt is performing with far more consistency. Townes is a legit low-post scoring threat, confident enough to call for the ball and talented enough to finish once he gets it. Hill is accepting of his role as a defender, yet his 6-footer with 5.3 seconds left won the SEC Tournament semifinal against No. 4 Tennessee. Hunter is the ultimate team player, always hustling, and possesses the ability to throw in a 3-pointer once in a while.
The main difference, however, has been Thomas. Before Arkansas' regular-season finale against Auburn, Thomas had failed to score in double figures in 10 consecutive games. He scored 10 points on Senior Day and has averaged a team-high 14.8 points in Arkansas' past four games.
Pelphrey said he didn't know why Thomas suddenly started to produce. Thomas didn't either, other than to cite increased aggressiveness. He didn't mind having trouble explaining the turnaround, pertaining to himself and his frontcourt teammates.
"I say, better late than never," Thomas said. "Why not turn it on now going into the NCAAs? I wish we could've done it all season and gotten a better seed, but I think right now we're starting to come into our own. We're starting to get hot. We're starting to play the ball we know we can play."
Senior Big Men
Arkansas ranks third in the Southeastern Conference, 22nd nationally, in blocked shots at 5.3 per game and third in the SEC, 42nd nationally, in rebounding margin at 4.5. The four Razorbacks in the frontcourt who have logged the most minutes to help post those numbers are seniors.
Here are their averages the past four games, the last three coming in the SEC Tournament:
Player Points Rebounds Blocks FG-FGA FG Pct. Minutes
Charles Thomas 14.8 5.5 0.3 21-38 55.2 25.0
Darian Townes 13.2 8.0 1.3 25-36 69.4 24.5
Vincent Hunter 4.3 2.8 0.5 6-10 60.0 12.0
Steven Hill 2.0 3.0 1.8 4-5 80.0 13.5
Razorback Big Men Producing At Right Time
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