Finally, Arkansas can see the rest of the SEC at eye level. A big-man class has arrived that should restore an inside game that has been virtually non-existent.
Head coach Stan Heath spent his first two years in the Ozarks trying to rebuild with scraps left behind by former coach Nolan Richardson and talented guards whom Heath signed in his second class. Now the talent gap between Arkansas and the rest of the conference has closed considerably, to the point that Heath felt comfortable enough to say this will be "Razorback leap year." He isn't predicting a specific record but says he expects the team to collect significantly more than the nine and 12 victories his first two teams managed.
Adding an inside presence should give the Razorbacks more high-percentage shots and take pressure off the guards. The ripple effect could add six to eight points to a scoring average that has sagged into the 60s.
Mental toughness has to improve as well. Arkansas led or was tied in the second half of five SEC road losses and dropped a couple of heartbreakers at home, too.
FRONTCOURTAn instant size injection from the recruiting class will boost the inside lineup by three to four inches, depending on which combinations are on the floor. And that's vital to Heath's philosophy of working the offense inside-out, rather than outside-only as it has been for two years.
Rashard Sullivan and Vincent Hunter, the team's best shot-blockers, are back. They're active rebounders but need to learn how to stay out of foul trouble. Hunter has offensive skills. His biggest challenges have been adding muscle to a lanky frame and rehabilitating a shoulder injury that held him back last season.
Freshmen Steven Hill, Darian Townes and Charles Thomas will move into the rotation immediately, and one or two of them could end up starting. Hill and Townes play center, a position that has been mostly absent at Arkansas for almost 20 years. Thomas brings natural scoring ability.
Heath can only dream about how rich his inside game would have been if signee Al Jefferson had not gone directly to the NBA.
Still, Arkansas can start resurrecting vital parts of the game, such as second-shot opportunities, drawing fouls and post defense.
"We keep a stat, and the team that gets the ball in the paint 80 percent of the time is going to win," Heath said. "We have to have involvement inside on offense."
BACKCOURTHeath has more perimeter players than playing opportunities, and it's a problem he welcomes.
Everything used to run through Ronnie Brewer, a member of the 2004 Freshman All-SEC team, and leading scorer Jonathon Modica. But the addition of junior college transfer Dontell Jefferson gives the Hogs a true point guard and puts other players in their more natural positions on the wing. Brewer led the team in minutes, rebounds, assists and steals, and his .481 field goal percentage was tops among qualifying players. But he also led the team in turnovers, a sign perhaps that he tried to do too much.
Modica is a proven scorer who has worked to improve his defense. Olu Famutimi, a former McDonald's All-American and explosive penetrator, could be ready for a breakout season. Famutimi had knee surgery early in 2003 and came back healthy but spent his freshman season slowly rediscovering the rhythm to his game.
Eric Ferguson, a tenacious defender, took on point guard duties the past two seasons and will still pitch in, but he will be a better fit at shooting guard. Michael Jones is a 6-foot-9 3-point specialist who will earn quality minutes off the bench.
The one area that needs to improve is outside shooting. Just having an inside presence should create more open shots on the perimeter.
FINAL ANALYSISThe Razorback Nation has been unfailingly patient and understanding of Heath's rebuilding job, but it's victory-starved and might expect too much, too soon from the freshmen. Once the newcomers adjust, this could be a dangerous team.
An NCAA tournament trip isn't out of the question, but the NIT is more realistic.