With a 2-2 record and a homefloor loss already on the slate, first-year coach John Pelphrey's Hogs appeared well on their way to being the Flop of the Year in the SEC. Then, virtually overnight, the team suddenly jelled.
The turnaround began with a 68-52 thumping of LSU at Baton Rouge. The Razorbacks then hammered a very good Mississippi State team 78-58 in Fayetteville. Three days later Arkansas played a near-perfect first half en route to a 46-21 lead against defending national champ Florida. Pelphrey emptied his bench in the final minutes, enabling the Gators to lose by a semi-respectable 80-61 score. Arkansas then dumped Ole Miss 75-69 last Saturday in Fayetteville.
The four-game winning streak has Pelphrey's Porkers looking like the team most experts imagined when they made their preseason projections.
"It started with their win at LSU, then the three games at home," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "And it wasn't like they were going home to get well (on weak foes). Mississippi State, Florida and Ole Miss are three NCAA Tournament teams that they beat at home."
The hottest Hogs are 6-6 senior Sonny Weems and 6-1 sophomore Patrick Beverly. Weems is averaging 19.5 points per game in SEC play and Beverly is leading the league in rebounding (11.0 per contest) since conference action began. The other starters are 7-0 senior Steven Hill, 6-10 sophomore Michael Washington and 6-2 sophomore Stefan Welsh. Darian Townes, a 6-10 senior reserve, has been a matchup nightmare for Tennessee in years past.
Although Pelphrey will be making his first visit to Knoxville as Boss Hog this evening, he is no stranger to Thompson-Boling Arena. He brought a South Alabama team to TBA to face Tennessee on Jan. 4, 2006. Although his squad lost 87-69, it shot a commendable 45.5 percent from the field, committed just 14 turnovers and outrebounded the Vols 33-27.
After a rocky start in Fayetteville, Pelphrey has begun exhibiting the strategic acumen that earned him the reputation as a rising star when he was at South Alabama.
"Weems and Beverly have stepped up their play," Pearl said when asked about Arkansas's recent surge. "And John Pelphrey has stepped up coaching."
As a result, the Razorbacks (17-5 overall, 6-2 SEC) bring a four-game win streak and tons of confidence into tonight's 8 o'clock tipoff with the fourth-ranked Volunteers (21-2, 8-1).
"Based on the road win at LSU and the three NCAA Tournament home wins," Pearl said, "I think Arkansas is playing as well as anybody in the conference right now."