Season In Review

FAYETTEVILLE — His cardinal red jersey already discarded for the final time, Arkansas senior point guard Gary Ervin couldn't find the words Sunday as he spoke to reporters in Raleigh, N.C. Asked for reflections on his Razorback career, Ervin struggled to get past the shock and finality of Arkansas' NCAA Tournament-ending loss to No. 1 North Carolina.

But he had no problems forecasting the future. While Ervin and his five fellow seniors won't be in Fayetteville to experience seasons to come, he didn't hesitate to predict bigger and better successes.

"This is just the beginning for Arkansas basketball," Ervin said.

That seemed to be the consensus opinion of the six seniors who played their last games as Hogs on Sunday. They spoke as if they realized they'd be remembered by fans just as much for their failures as for their accomplishments. They grasped that their inconsistency will be recalled by those who followed them.

But they also know they will leave the basketball program in far better shape than when they arrived. The seniors helped post three consecutive 20-win seasons. They weathered constant criticism. They survived a coaching change. And they finally broke through to claim the school's first NCAA Tournament victory in nine years.

That, they hope, will define their legacy.

"I'm really proud of my career here," senior center Steven Hill said. "This group of seniors will be known as a group of transition. We had the transition from Coach (Stan) Heath to Coach (John) Pelphrey. And we finally got back on to the national scene with getting back to the tournament and winning there. I think we did a good job. "We had a lot of ups and downs, but that's just how life is. I think we picked ourselves up when we got down, and we made the most of the hand we were dealt."

The Razorbacks performed admirably in 2007-08 considering the drama that transpired before the season even began and the adjustments they were asked to make afterward. Pelphrey, the former Kentucky player who came from South Alabama, replaced Heath after Arkansas lost last spring for the second straight time in the NCAA Tournament.

The two coaches couldn't have been more different, and Arkansas' players didn't handle the switch all that well at first. Pelphrey brought more discipline and accountability to the program, evident immediately from the suspensions he handed down for missing the bus for Arkansas' Labor Day trip to Cancun, Mexico.

"We did try to hold their foot to the fire about doing the right things," Pelphrey said. "You know, (things such as) being consistent, trying to be a better teammate, trying to make sure anything that comes out of their mouths is of an encouraging fashion to make somebody else better."

Pelphrey also admitted early on that the Razorbacks needed many on-court habits changed. After watching the Hogs commit school-record tying 32 turnovers in a Nov. 16 loss to Providence in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, Pelphrey reacted in disbelief.

"Thirty-two," Pelphrey bluntly stated at the time. "I could have put my son and daughter out there, and they probably could not reach that number."

Gradually, though, the Razorbacks began — as Pelphrey wanted — to "get both feet in the circle" and "play the right way."

Their season still contained maddening moments. Arkansas lost to Appalachian State in North Little Rock. The Hogs underachieved in seven road losses, including flat efforts at Georgia and Alabama. And the Razorbacks somehow managed to have their one home defeat come to South Carolina, the fifth-place finisher in the SEC Eastern Division.

But as they had done the previous two seasons, the Hogs peaked down the stretch to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Hogs defeated a ranked Vanderbilt team twice in March, posted a thrilling one-point win over Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals and beat Indiana on Friday in Raleigh.

Senior forward Vincent Hunter said all involved — coaches, seniors and underclassmen — deserved credit.

"We've been through so much," Hunter said. "We went a few years doing things one way, and then all of a sudden, everything changed. We've had to put in so much hard work since the coaching change, and it all paid off.

"No team in the whole country went through what we went through."

Throughout the trying times, the seniors also managed to be mindful of the future, knowing their replacements would need to be led by those who followed them this season.

"We'll have six new guys coming in," sophomore guard Stefan Welsh said, "and myself, Patrick (Beverley) and Mike (Washington) will be forced to be leaders. It's a transition, and roles will change real quick. The seniors did a great job of prepping us for this. The things I learned from Vincent Hunter, Charles Thomas and Gary have prepared me to be a leader."

That, more than anything, left Arkansas' six seniors with a feeling of immense pride on Sunday, even after their careers ended with a 31-point setback. The difficulty of the 23-12 season isn't lost on Pelphrey, either.

As he reflected Sunday on his first campaign in Fayetteville, he expanded on the state of the program, as well as on his admiration for his six seniors.

"Does it need to get bigger and better here? No question," Pelphrey said. "I know the University of Arkansas demands that and expects it. So do I. But, I think as time goes on, we'll appreciate and understand what this group has done. They have done some significant things in terms of the good for Arkansas basketball."



MANY HIGHS, MANY LOWS

Arkansas was as unpredictable as any team in college basketball this season. The Razorbacks started strong, winning eight of their first nine contests under first-year coach John Pelphrey. They struggled with inconsistency throughout the latter portion of their nonconference schedule and throughout their entire Southeastern Conference slate. Arkansas recovered to finish with a flourish, and its six seniors will depart Fayetteville leaving the program in a much better state than when they arrived.

High Points

• The three-game home winning streak — Bud Walton Arena hadn't rocked like this since Nolan Richardson coached the Razorbacks. Arkansas recorded consecutive victories in Fayetteville over Mississippi State, Florida and Ole Miss before near-sellout or sellout crowds and improved to 17-5 overall.

• A 92-91 overtime victory on March 15 over then-No. 4 Tennessee — The Razorbacks advanced to the Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship Game for the second consecutive season. Senior center Steven Hill's six-foot turnaround jumper with 5.3 seconds left seals the win.

• First NCAA Tournament win since 1999 — Spurred by senior Sonny Weems' career-high 31 points, No. 9 seed Arkansas defeated No. 8 seed Indiana 86-72 on Sunday in Raleigh, N.C. It had been nine years since the program last advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Low Points

• The Appalachian State loss in Alltel Arena — Arkansas' one trip to North Little Rock on Dec. 22 ended in a complete disaster. The Razorbacks lost 74-67 after the Mountaineers made 11 of their 14 shots after halftime and Arkansas missed 20 of its 32 attempts in the second half.

• South Carolina shocker — The Hogs defended their home court extraordinarily this season. Arkansas went 15-1 in Bud Walton Arena, but that one defeat was quite startling. Gamecocks guard Devan Downey scored 28 points on Jan. 16 as South Carolina stunned Arkansas 70-66 before 17,883 fans.

• A 59-56 defeat on Feb. 27 at Alabama — This loss put Arkansas' NCAA Tournament prospects in limbo. In front of a two-thirds empty crowd in Coleman Coliseum, the Razorbacks shot 36.1 percent. The defeat marked Arkansas' fourth setback in five games and dropped the Hogs' overall mark to 18-9.



WORTH QUOTING

Sonny Weems, senior forward

on his two years at Arkansas:

"We came together as a team. We've come through adversity and been through a lot and we've struggled (at times). We've been through a lot of ups and downs together. I've only been here two years, but we've been through a lot. It was so fun playing with these guys while I had the chance."

Vincent Hunter, senior forward

on his feelings toward the team:

"I love my team. I love them so much. I know we lost (to North Carolina), but we won. We won the battle. We won the fight. We all came out a good group of kids. This team — my teammates, my coaches — made me a better man."

Stefan Welsh, sophomore guard

on the half-dozen Razorback seniors:

"We laid it all out on the line for these six seniors this year. Just having the two years with these six seniors is something that I'll never forget for the rest of my life. The bonds that I've built with them are huge. It's going to be so difficult to see them go."

John Pelphrey, Arkansas' coach

on the challenge of replacing so many players:

"We are going to have a different basketball team. We are losing over half of it. So we've got — we'll probably take a half-step back with our program in terms of experience, and maybe some talent in some areas. But at the same token, I think it's a wonderful opportunity for the guys that are coming through the door. We are excited about who we have had a chance to recruit."

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