FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas’ basketball team begins practice Friday with a 7 p.m. workout in Bud Walton Arena. Fans are invited to attend the two-hour session, which will include approximately 30 minutes of scrimmaging at the end. Head coach Stan Heath met with the media on Thursday to preview the season. Following is a partial transcript.
“It’s been three years since I’ve personally been to the NCAA Tournament and I’m hungry to get back there. That’s a goal; a reasonable goal. If we stay healthy, we should get there. It’s been even longer than that for our fans. We also want to do it for them. I know they are hungry for us to get there.
“This team is a close-knit group. They will play with urgency and continue to get better. We have to do well in our non-conference season, and it’s a monster. If our schedule doesn’t battle-test us, I don’t know what does. It will test us.
“I want to contend and battle for the SEC championship, and I think we have a good chance to do that.
“Our team really excels in the open court and in an up-tempo game. We have to find ways to create that. I think that’s a style our fans will enjoy watching us play.
“Our off-season has been very demanding. We put them through things that have really challenged them to make them tougher. This group is as close as it’s ever been.
“This team has good experience, talent and attitude. I think those three things will carry us a long way. Our players are walking different and talking different this year. They are humble kids, but they have some confidence. All are probably around 10-plus pounds stronger. They’ve all grown physically and in maturity.
“We want to prove ourselves. I still think we’re the underdogs. We know we have to go out and prove ourselves. Nothing will be given to us. Over the years, we’ve had a lot of question marks. Now, we have a lot more answers than we do questions.”
This year’s experience:
“I remember the first year. Our top returning scorer had averaged 5.5 points a game. We were just trying to win games and get through it. The next year, we had Eric Ferguson and Jonathon Modica, and Ronnie Brewer was a freshman. We got some experience. Last year, we had good talent, but we lacked experience on the frontline. Sometimes that caught up with us, but 18 wins isn’t bad at all.”
Freshman guard Sean McCurdy:
“He plays a very demanding position. For a freshman, there are few elite players who can come in and get it done. He shoots the ball well and has good toughness, but I’m not ready to throw all of that on him. I don’t want to put as much pressure on him as I did Dontell Jefferson last year. We’ll put the players out there and see where we have the best chemistry. We play in five weeks, so we have until then to make a decision.
Freshman forward Cyrus McGowan:
“With the depth we have in Darian Townes, Steven Hill, Vincent Hunter and Charles Thomas, Cyrus is another guy we don’t have to throw into the fire. He rebounds very well and defends very well. He fouls too much right now, but I would rather tone him down than take away his aggressiveness.”
Steven Hill, Charles Thomas and Darian Townes:
“They are a lot better. They are all doing things they didn’t do last year.”
“If we’re playing against a zone, he’s a fourth guy who can step out there and hit a shot. He hasn’t played in a year, but he has adapted very well. He’s an energy guy and his teammates like playing with him. He will help us.”
Scoring against a zone:
“That was confidence that was missing last year. We didn’t have problems against zones early in the year last season, but we will address it early in the season. We will attack it. We will shoot the ball better from outside and be able to attack it inside.”
“My vision is to have four, five or six players in double figures every night. The responsibility is for each player to blend in his talent with the rest of the team.”
“I want him to keep it simple and don’t try to make a lot of complicated plays. If he gets an open shot, take it. In the early part of last season, he didn’t handle the pressure very well, but he had other spots where he did.”
Eric Ferguson and Jonathon Modica:
“They’ve been through it more than anyone. They weren’t perfect and made some mistakes, but they fought through it. I know they want to go out with a bang and get the program back where it was nine or 10 years ago. They’ve been asked to make changes and adjustments, and they’ve done it.”
Junior guard Gary Ervin, who must sit out this year after transferring from Mississippi State:
“We can benefit a lot from him being on the team, not only on the floor but in the locker room. He will go at Sean McCurdy every day. Sean will not go up against anybody better defensively every day than Gary and Eric Ferguson. Gary is constantly talking to the guys about what he sees and what they can do better.”
“Last year Ronnie wasn’t satisfied with how the season ended. He wants to improve and he wants to win. There’s something about being a homegrown kid. He has a lot of pride in this program. He’s a Razorback.”
Assistant coach Dan Hipsher:
“His addition has been very good. It’s a good situation for everyone involved – the players and the staff. He’s a good fit. Sometimes we just sit and talk basketball. I also know if I need to do something, he can finish up. I like my staff.”