- Jeff Shelman
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The last time we saw Arkansas, the venue was Dallas and the Razorbacks were losing a first-round NCAA Tournament game to Bucknell.
In that game, Ronnie Brewer, Jonathon Modica and Eric Ferguson comprised Stan Heath's starting backcourt.
The three combined for 39 points, nine assists, nine rebounds and 102 minutes played.
When Arkansas arrived at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex, exactly zero of those three remained. Modica and Ferguson were seniors a year ago and Brewer left Fayetteville and proceeded directly to the NBA draft lottery and the Utah Jazz.
Those departures are part of the reason why the expectations of Arkansas were tempered a bit this season. Sure, the Hogs would be decent, but considering that LSU still has Big Baby and Alabama returns four starters from last season, it was hard to imagine Arkansas being anything better than the third-best team in the SEC West.
After all, Heath has all but tossed the car keys to a pair of new guards. Yes, Gary Ervin played two seasons at Mississippi State, but he sat out a year. Yes, Patrick Beverley is talented and put up sick numbers in the Chicago Public League as a senior, but he's still a freshman.
That's why this weekend's Old Spice Classic was so important for Arkansas. Because, despite a new backcourt (and junior-college transfer Sonny Weems starting at small forward), the Razorbacks opened the tournament with an overtime victory over Southern Illinois and a semifinal win over a Marist team that is the preseason pick to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. In the championship game, Arkansas solved the riddle of West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone defense and defeated the Mountaineers, 71-64.
As a result, Arkansas enters Thursday's game at Missouri with much more confidence than it had a week ago and the Razorbacks -- thanks in part to Kentucky, Florida and LSU all losing in the past week -- are one of only two undefeated teams remaining in the SEC.
Considering the importance of guards in college basketball, is this really supposed to happen when new guys are a team's primary ball-handlers?
"I shave my head and there's a reason -- it wouldn't be pretty [to see the hair left]," Heath said. "I have to live with a few things. We sometimes throw the ball in some places that I'm not really comfortable with. Last year we were one of the best assist-to-turnover ratio teams in our league and right now that stat's not very good for us. We've got to clean that up a little bit, but those guys do make some big plays too."
In the three games, Ervin and Beverley combined to average over 22 points, 11 rebounds and just under nine assists per game. Weems, who Heath said can be a "game-changer," finished with 38 points and 16 rebounds in the three games. He had 19 of those points against the Mountaineers.
That's part of why Arkansas showed improvement with each game in the tournament.
"We're starting to click on all cylinders," forward Charles Thomas said. "Today, we played together as a team, it was a good win."
Heath understands how important this weekend could be by the time the NCAA Tournament arrives. Southern Illinois almost certainly will be a Tournament team, Marist has a chance, and Heath believes the Mountaineers will exceed their preseason expectations.
Now, however, Heath wants to keep perspective. After all, the Hogs have games with Texas Tech and Texas before SEC play begins, along with potentially dangerous games against Oral Roberts and Tulsa.
"We have to build on this," Heath said. "We can't think that we've arrived. We've got to be a blue-collar team."
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Other items from the Old Spice Classic:
Marist guard Jared Jordan would watch college basketball games and think that he and the rest of the Red Foxes could hang with the teams on the screen, but he didn't know for sure.
Now he does.
That was the biggest thing that Marist got out of playing in the Old Spice Classic. On Thanksgiving, the Red Foxes undressed Minnesota, leading from start to finish. While Marist lost in the semifinals to Arkansas, the Hogs got a handful. Then on Sunday, Marist defeated a Western Michigan team that opened the tournament with a victory over Virginia Tech.
Marist, the preseason favorite in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, is a very solid, experienced team. Jordan, who dropped 30 on Western Michigan and was named the tournament's most outstanding player after scoring 62 points, dishing out 27 assists and grabbing 17 rebounds in three games, certainly could help a lot of teams at a higher level. He makes solid decisions, he's crafty off of the dribble and he can shoot. There's a reason he led the nation in assists last season.
"He showed a lot of people why he's the MAAC preseason player of the year," said Marist coach Matt Brady, a longtime Phil Martelli assistant at St. Joseph's.
Heath certainly is a fan.
"That Jordan kid, if you don't know him, you need to get to know him," Heath said.
Add in 3-point gunner Will Whittington and a very serviceable 7-footer in James Smith and Marist is a very fun team to watch. And if the Red Foxes survive the MAAC tournament, Marist will be a team capable of upsetting a major-conference team in the NCAA Tournament.
One other thing: The Marist band was one of the highlights of the event, especially when they stayed and played during the championship game. This isn't a mid-major band -- this is a high-major outfit.
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The Southern Illinois coaching staff probably will replay the final minute of regulation of Thursday's loss to Arkansas over and over in their minds for a while. After all, the Salukis were up five points with a minute to play before losing in overtime.
That said, Southern Illinois left Orlando with two crucial victories over Minnesota and Virginia Tech.
Considering Southern Illinois' recent success -- only Duke, Illinois, Connecticut, Gonzaga, Pittsburgh, Kansas, Kentucky and Syracuse have won more games since 2001 -- most major-conference teams have had very, very, very little interest in scheduling games with the Salukis. The primary reason that Indiana will play Southern Illinois next month is because the Hoosiers' administrators wanted to change the date of a previously agreed-upon football game. SIU said, in essence, "We'll do it for a hoops series."
While neither Minnesota nor Virginia Tech is an elite team, both have a chance to have reasonable RPIs and both almost certainly will pick up a good win or two in conference play. That will, in turn, help the Salukis' NCAA Tournament résumé come March and will be a factor in whether Southern Illinois reaches a sixth consecutive dance.
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With tournament losses to Marist, Southern Illinois and Montana, Minnesota will enter Wednesday night's ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against Clemson with a four-game losing streak. It's the longest nonconference losing streak for the Gophers since the 1962-63 team lost six in a row.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Several teams, including Arkansas, walk away from the Old Spice Classic feeling pretty good about themselves, Jeff Shelman writes.