Arkansas Seeks Defensive Improvement

FAYETTEVILLE — John Pelphrey's last two teams at South Alabama dominated defensively.

The Jaguars finished the 2006 and 2007 seasons second in the Sun Belt Conference in steals and scoring defense and earned a reputation for being scrappy, irritating and hard-nosed.

But Arkansas assistant coach Tom Ostrom, also an assistant those seasons at South Alabama, said expecting the same immediate output from this year's young Razorbacks wouldn't exactly be fair.

"The advantage there was we had older teams," Ostrom said. "We had a lot of transfers, a lot of seniors. They were older, more mature players who knew what it took to play at the highest level. Even last year's team was pretty good defensively because we were older.

"So maturity really helps, and we're really inexperienced."

Pelphrey said he has seen glimpses of a successful future for his youthful Arkansas team defensively, but he couldn't have noticed many Friday night.

The Razorbacks nearly lost their season opener to Southeastern Louisiana, winning 91-87 in overtime and displaying lazy or dispassionate defense on too many possessions. They gave up too many uncontested shots, they fouled too often and they didn't show the attitude Pelphrey wants.

His 2006 South Alabama team that went to the NCAA Tournament possessed the swagger, the constant hustle Pelphrey seeks.

"They were very selfless," Pelphrey said. "They only cared about winning basketball games. And there was an edge to them. There was a toughness. They were hard-nosed and they had a nastiness to them."

It's not as if the Razorbacks lack the pieces to become a defensive force.

Arkansas wants to "press a majority of the game," Ostrom said, and the Hogs seem athletic enough to pull that off. The Razorbacks also appear to have several above-average individual defenders.

Junior forward Michael Washington can take charges, block shots and rebound. Freshman point guard Courtney Fortson can hound any point guard, as can junior guard Stefan Welsh. Juco transfer Montrell McDonald can guard any position on the floor, as well.

But individual abilities don't automatically translate to overall defensive prowess, especially in the Razorbacks' system. Ostrom said the entire coaching staff has shown patience as Arkansas' seven newcomers have learned how to defend as a unit, not as five separate players.

"It's a team defense," Ostrom said. "We call it a ‘ball defense.' Guys have to realize it's not about just guarding your guy. Stepping up, taking charges, getting help side, trapping baseline drives — all those things are important. We need to be better at the team stuff, the off-the-ball stuff."

Of course, exuding more effort never hurts. After Friday's victory, Fortson admitted the Razorbacks didn't show defensive urgency until they fell behind in the second half.

Washington agreed, adding that a similar approach would be unacceptable in the future.

"I don't think we're close to being where we need to be, not just yet," Washington said. "We really need to work on it."



THURSDAY'S TICKET



CALIFORNIA-DAVIS AT ARKANSAS

WHEN: 7:05 p.m.

WHERE: Bud Walton Arena

RECORDS: California-Davis, 1-2; Arkansas, 1-0

COACHES: California-Davis, Gary Stewart; Arkansas, John Pelphrey

PROBABLE ARKANSAS STARTERS: Courtney Fortson, G; Rotnei Clarke, G; Stefan Welsh, G; Michael Washington, F; Michael Sanchez, F

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