Team preview: Arkansas

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 20, 2004, 4:42 PM ET
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COACH AND PROGRAM

Stan Heath would have liked nothing better than to quickly pump new life into Arkansas basketball when he succeeded former coach Nolan Richardson two years ago. But Heath hadn't inherited one of those quick-fixer-upper programs. Quite the contrary, the talent base had dipped so low that Heath knew it was going to take a couple of years to put a team on that floor that had realistic expectations of competing for the SEC's Western Division title.

After he was hired in April 2002, Heath scrambled around and found a couple of guards, just so his first Arkansas team would have someone to advance the ball up the floor. Forced to start an all-freshman backcourt, Heath had to sit back and watch his career coaching record-a sterling 30-6 after his only season at Kent State-take a hit when the Hogs won but nine games. Last season, having fortified Arkansas' perimeter corps with a top recruiting class, Heath coaxed three more wins out of his team. But the 2003-04 team had a weakness that was as glaring as the guard deficiency of the year before.

"Here's how bad it got," Heath says, laughing at the recollection. "Last year, we were starting the quarterback on our football team (6-6 junior Matt Jones) at center. Size has been a sore spot for us. It was scary trying all kind of different things [to make up for a lack of size]. I'm not comfortable with all the rotating and doubling and zoning we had to do. Those just created other holes in different areas."

Able to offer potential recruits as much playing time as they could handle, Heath and his staff attracted the attention of some of the country's top big men. But even as Heath was signing coveted high school recruit Al Jefferson, he was planning ahead. Heath knew Jefferson was a potential target of the NBA, so he overstocked on the post positions. When Jefferson decided to turn pro-he was taken by the Boston Celtics with the 15th pick in the NBA draft's first round last June-Heath was disappointed, but he had backups.

"Went into it with our eyes wide open," Heath said. "If we were going to recruit an Al Jefferson we knew we better have some alternative plans to go with that."

Even without Jefferson, Arkansas' incoming class of big men is as good as any in the country. With 6-11, 255-pound Steven Hill, 6-10, 235-pound Darian Townes and 6-7, 230-pound Charles Thomas, Heath now has some big bodies in the paint.

Heath hopes the rookies blend quickly and seamlessly with a perimeter group that has size, quickness, versatility and scoring ability. If Heath chose to, he could start four perimeter players with a center and have a lean, long-armed, athletic group that can defend and do major damage offensively in transition.

PLAYERS

Leading the way is 6-4 junior Jonathon Modica, who last season emerged as one of the SEC's most reliable scorers. Modica (16.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.2 apg), led Arkansas and finished eighth in the SEC in scoring and earned second-team All-SEC honors. He reached double figures 22 times and led the Hogs in 16 games, including a 33-point effort against Mississippi State and a 28-point night against Tulsa.

"He really improved from his freshman year to his sophomore year," Heath said. "Jonathon is still working hard to become an all around player. But he's a strong, aggressive player, and a guy that can put some numbers on the board.

"He's one of the top scorers in our league. I really felt like he established himself as a very solid SEC player. And he's hungry to improve for his junior year."

The only problem Heath has with Ronnie Brewer (12.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.4 apg, 2.0 spg), a 6-7 sophomore, is where to play him. The son of former Arkansas All-American Ron Brewer can play all three perimeter spots and probably take a turn at power forward if he had to.

Brewer made a huge impact as a rookie, leading Arkansas in rebounding, assists, steals and field-goal percentage. He led all SEC freshmen with 125 field goals and easily made the league's All-Freshman team. Brewer also earned freshman All-America honors from Rivals.com (second team) and College Basketball News (third team).

Brewer, who played a lot of minutes at the point last season, could again see the bulk of his time there.

"He's a jack-of-all-trades player," Heath said. "He does a lot of things for us, a lot of little things that help you have a successful year. We might play him at the point or the two or the three. He's a guy that makes for a difficult match-up. But the thing I really like about Ronnie is he makes guys around him better players."

Heath can't wait to see what a healthy Olu Famutimi (7.0 ppg, 3.5), a 6-5 sophomore, can do. Famutimi was Arkansas' most heralded recruit a year ago, but the former Parade and McDonald's All-American was hampered by a knee injury. Famutimi tore an ACL at the end of his final high school season and didn't play for seven months.

"I don't think we've truly seen Olu Famutimi," Heath said. "Between him getting healthy and then overcoming the mental part of his injury-it's hard to put a time frame on that. What we saw last year was a kid not totally confident.

"But he really had a good summer. We're looking for one more guy to step into the rotation, and he could be that guy. He's more of scorer than a shooter-he gets his points in different ways, but he's best suited for the open court. He can be a highlight film. The kid is oozing with talent."

Arkansas' depth at the perimeter positions caused one probable returning player, Kendrick Davis, to assess his future. Davis, who played a lot of minutes as a freshman, obviously didn't see one in Fayetteville. He decided to transfer to North Texas.

Another guard who played more than his share as a freshman two years ago is Eric Ferguson (8.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.3 spg), a 6-1 junior who last season was fourth on the team in scoring and second in assists and steals (1.3). Ferguson started 26 games at point guard as a freshman and struggled with turning the ball over (109 turnovers compared to 91 assists). Last season, he improved markedly in that department, passing for 78 assists and cutting his turnovers nearly in half (55).

Heath spent all last spring looking for another guard. When he couldn't find one in the high school ranks, he opted for Dontell Jefferson, a 6-6 junior from Atlanta Metropolitan College who 16.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 9.2 assists and 3.4 steals last season. Heath didn't sign a JUCO player so he could sit on the bench.

"He's a long kid, but a pure point guard," Heath said. "We really feel like the fact that he's got a couple of years under his belt. He's a real distributor and smart, a guy who can get the ball to the right guys. He can create a problem for other teams with his size."

Interior defense has been a problem at Arkansas for the last several seasons. Heath hopes he's solved it by signing three highly regarded high school big men who clearly demonstrated a willingness to defend the post.

Hill was a consensus Top 45 player at Branson (Mo.) High School, where he averaged 16.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 6.0 blocked shots as a senior.

"Steven Hill has a tremendous upside," Heath said. "He's just got a great presence. I'll give you an example: The kid who played at Georgia Tech [Luke Schenscher] at the end of the year was a tremendous presence for them. At the end of the day the kid was a seven-footer and he just played over the top of guys. We haven't had a defensive presence that could stop big guys in our league from scoring around the basket. He's just a freshman, but I think Steven can do those things for us."

Townes, who originally chose Georgetown before opting for prep school, averaged 12.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 8.0 blocked shots at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy last season. Before Hargrave, Townes played for T.C. Williams High School in Alexanderia, Va. As a sophomore there, he blocked 183 shots, breaking former Georgetown and NBA star Alonzo Mourning's single-season Virginia high school record.

Thomas was ranked No. 56 in the senior class by Rivals.com after averaging 27.4 points and 12.0 rebounds for Callaway High School in Jackson, Miss.

"Charles is another big body," Heath said. "Not only have we added height, but we've added bulk with these guys. All three are a defensive presence inside."

Heath will throw the freshmen into the fray if they're ready, and if they're not, he's got some experienced frontcourt players, though each has a weakness. Michael Jones (4.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg), a 6-9 senior, is more comfortable facing the basket and is Arkansas' top returning three-point shooters (.338).

Vincent Hunter (3.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 0.9 bpg), a 6-10, 195-pound sophomore, had some moments as a freshman, but he needs to get thicker and stronger to hold his own in the SEC. He had moments last year, including a big night against Ole Miss when he made 12-of-14 free throws, scored 14 points and grabbed nine boards. Before dislocating his right shoulder in a game against Illinois, Hunter averaged 7.8 points and 4.5 boards. He missed four games and lost his spot in the regular rotation, but he slowly worked his way back.

Rashard Sullivan (1.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.1 bpg), a 6-8, 235-pound junior, isn't much of an offensive threat, but he can provide the toughness Heath wants inside.

"He's a great rebounder and a very good interior defender," Heath said. "We think he can add some offense with some garbage baskets and just give us some more depth."

In December, Arkansas will get a little help by way of the football team from Jones and freshman Marcus Monk. Last season, just three days after leading the Hogs to an Independence Bowl victory over Missouri, Jones (5.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) was on the basketball floor. Tough and savvy, Jones played in 17 games and earned 10 starts.

Monk, from East Poinsett County High School in Lepanto, Ark., was chosen the state's Mr. Basketball by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last season after averaging 20.8 points, 16.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 3.8 blocked shots and 2.5 steals. He was ranked the country's No. 37 wing and the No. 142 player overall by Rivals.com.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B
BENCH/DEPTH: B
FRONTCOURT: B
INTANGIBLES: B

No, Stan Heath didn't work the same sort of magic as a first-year head coach at Arkansas as he did in his first season at Kent State. But the situations were vastly different. When Heath took over at Arkansas, the program had suffered after several seasons of average recruiting in a league where average recruiting doesn't cut it.

Heath, a disciple of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, recruited several star players in his time with the Spartans, and he hasn't lost his touch in the SEC. Heath restocked the Razorbacks' perimeter corps two years ago, and last year worked on the frontcourt. The result is a roster that has a lot more talent and depth than he inherited, but scant experience.

If the Razorbacks can blend together reasonably quickly, their chances are excellent to post their first winning record and return to postseason play for the first time since the 2000-01 season.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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