Key Losses: G/F Olu Famutimi (9.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.0 spg), G/F Michael Jones (4.0 ppg), F Rashard Sullivan (2.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
Heber Springs, AR/Redshirt 2004-05
Little Rock, AR/Medical Redshirt 2004-05
Denver, CO/Monterey Peninsula (CA) JC
West Port, CT/St. Anthony’s (NJ) Prep
Expectations differ for McCurdy and McGowan. Arkansas needs McCurdy to produce quickly at point guard, while McGowan can be eased in because there are already experienced power forwards ahead of him. McCurdy trained under Bob Hurley Sr. and led St. Anthony’s to a perfect season as a junior, but he missed his senior year with a broken foot that has fully recovered. McGowan doesn't mind doing defensive dirty work and rebounds well.
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Making predictions isn't Stan Heath's style, so hearing him speak confidently about leading the Razorbacks back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 catches your attention. "With the team I've got, we're going to win," says Heath, who points to this as the Hogs' breakthrough year.
Arkansas appeared in the NCAA Tournament 22 of 25 years before the drought set in. A tedious reclamation process that started under Heath in 2002 has showed steady progress -- nine wins in his first year, then 12 and then 18. Along the way, he installed talented guards and then big men. That balanced roster finally has experience too, led by junior All-SEC guard Ronnie Brewer.
Two areas that have to improve are leadership and beating a zone defense. No one emerged to win close games last season, and the team unraveled late, losing five of its last six. Arkansas struggled against zones, unable to shoot over or drive through them. Heath is confident Brewer and seniors Jonathon Modica, Eric Ferguson and Dontell Jefferson can lead as a group.
Darian Townes came to Arkansas with a shot-blocking reputation, but made his mark as an inside scorer. Townes' production increased as the season wore on; he averaged 11.4 points and 5.1 rebounds in SEC play. Townes spent the offseason strengthening his lower body to keep from being pushed around on defense, and he worked on expanding his offensive game. If he can perfect another low-post move to go with his turnaround jumper, he'll be a difficult matchup because he possesses a dead-on mid-range shot.
Heath should have fun mixing and matching Townes and the other big men. Townes played center last season but will play some power forward, and power forward Vincent Hunter has returned after missing last season recovering from shoulder surgery. Hunter can shoot and dribble better than the average 6-10 guy, two essentials for the position.
Heath is tempted to experiment with Charles Thomas, last year's primary power forward, at small forward.
Steven Hill returns at center with all the talent to be a dominant defender and occasional scorer. He blocked 54 shots, second-most in school history for a freshman.
This looks like the year that the Razorbacks finally will put a qualified point guard in place.
Ideally, freshman Sean McCurdy will be able to handle the job quickly. He certainly has the makeup that Heath wants in his lead guard -- sound skills and decision-making, a solid outside shot, toughness and the capacity to absorb teaching.
If McCurdy isn't quite ready, then Brewer could move from the wing to the point, the position he's projected to play in the NBA. Heath has warmed to the idea of using Brewer at point guard after resisting the move for two years out of fear that it would diminish Brewer's effectiveness. No other Arkansas player knows the game or how to involve the other four teammates as well as Brewer. Still, Heath hopes he can give McCurdy the keys. "It would help if he's ready to go, it really would," Heath says.
Stabilizing the point should make Arkansas better at shooting guard. Ferguson has played out of position in running the offense for three years; he's better suited at off-guard, where he's a much better 3-point shooter than from the point.
Olu Famutimi gave up his final two years of eligibility to turn professional, but his departure might be addition by subtraction. The playing time that was committed to Famutimi to help him reach his potential -- which never happened -- cut into Modica's minutes. Modica is an explosive scorer, a former starter who never found a rhythm coming off the bench last season.
Jefferson can help in a supporting role at off-guard.
Brewer and Townes are cornerstones, and more than enough pieces are in place for the Razorbacks to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. They'll find out quickly how they rate against a beefed-up non-conference schedule. Key losses hit the SEC West's top teams, so the time might never be better for Arkansas to make a move.