The Biggest Challenge So Far

The University of Arkansas (9-1) gets its biggest challenge of the season so far on Tuesday night when No. 4 Oklahoma (12-0) and national Player of the Year candidate Blake Griffin invade Bud Walton Arena for a 7:05 p.m. contest.

The mere mention of the fourth-ranked college hoops team in America seemed to vex Arkansas junior guard Stefan Welsh.

Minutes earlier Saturday night, Welsh had dropped a career-high 27 points on overwhelmed Northwestern State (La.). Reporters made sure to ask about his six 3-pointers and his team's suffocating defense before querying about national player of the year candidate Blake Griffin and undefeated Oklahoma (12-0).

But Welsh quickly, adamantly, wanted no part of any Sooners discussion, of any talk regarding tonight's 7:05 contest in Bud Walton Arena. He uttered "no comment" four straight times, and then added, "Just focus. We'll be ready to play, but no comment."

Two of Welsh's teammates acted similarly Saturday.

Freshman point guard Courtney Fortson commented little on Oklahoma, saying he didn't want Arkansas "to get overwhelmed" by big-game hype. Freshman guard Rotnei Clarke began to speak his mind but quickly backtracked.

"It's obviously an opportunity for us to prove ourselves because of how young we are," Clarke said. "But it's only a big game because it's our next game."

Whether the Razorbacks (9-1) want to admit it, this is their most important game to date. And their collective focus shows they have taken to coach John Pelphrey's pleas to remain composed as they prepared for their stiffest test this season.

Pelphrey knows tonight's outcome won't make or ruin Arkansas' season. That's why he stresses that -- throughout an entire season -- "the two most important games are your last one and your next one."

Still, he can't wait to watch his team, his five healthy freshmen especially, compete with Bud Walton Arena near or at capacity.

"I'm excited to see how we're going to respond, but it won't be the last game we're going to play like this," Pelphrey said. "We'd better get used to playing against good teams and good competition. I anticipate us being ready."

"I hope we can play well, because we may not be facing the fourth-ranked team every time, but we're going to face ballclubs like this."

The Razorbacks realize what awaits them tonight, the highest-ranked team to visit Fayetteville since No. 2 Kentucky in February 2003. Arkansas might not see a more talented starting five this season than Oklahoma's.

Griffin, a 6-foot-10, 251-pound, ultra-gifted power forward, could get drafted No. 1 overall in the 2009 NBA Draft. The Sooners return four starters from a team coach Jeff Capel took to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Their other starter is freshman guard Willie Warren, an AAU teammate of Clarke's who averages 14.9 points.

Pelphrey was complimentary of Griffin's supporting cast -- Warren, guards Austin Johnson and Tony Crocker and forward Taylor Griffin, Blake's older brother.

"When they go to figure up end of season (Big 12) awards, these guys will be on the list," Pelphrey said. "They'll be in the conversation."

Arkansas will "have to overachieve" to win, Pelphrey said. He also said the Razorbacks wouldn't change their style as they take a step up in competition.

He wants "to go full throttle" with the basketball and wants his improving defense to get tough, and stay tough.

"The thing I want is for our defense is to be physical," Pelphrey said. "We need to dive on the floor. When (Oklahoma) guys come to the basket, it needs to be either hard fouls or charges. ... We just need to play hard and be physical."

Sounds a lot like the team Welsh always talks about, like the team he wants Arkansas to become. Even he later admitted how important tonight would be toward figuring out if the Hogs can mold into that team.

They've conquered tests before, like rallying past Southeastern Louisiana, like winning at South Alabama. But this challenge is much different, enough so that Welsh eventually gave in on Oklahoma.

"It's a real big game for us," Welsh said. "It's not too often you get the No. 4 ranked team in to Bud Walton Arena. We understand that."

Today's Ticket

No. 4 Oklahoma at Arkansas

When: 7:05 p.m.

Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville

TV: KFTA (Cox Ch. 8)

Radio: KEZA-FM 107.9, KKEG-FM 92.1, KUOA-AM 1290, FM 105.3

Records: Oklahoma Sooners, 12-0; Arkansas Razorbacks, 9-1

Coaches: Oklahoma, Jeff Capel (third season); Arkansas, John Pelphrey (second season)

Series: Arkansas leads 12-10 (Oklahoma has won the last five meetings)

Last Meeting: Oklahoma won 83-72 on Dec. 15, 2007, in Norman, Okla.

Hawgs Daily Top Stories