Saying So Long To Six Seniors

Due to some technical problems with my blog and a general level of busy-ness on my part, it has been a while since I’ve posted anything. I will try to make up for that this week.

On Sunday, while I was riding a bus on the way home from Nashville, the North Carolina Tar Heels were mercilessly ending the season of my beloved Arkansas Razorbacks.

It didn’t really come as a surprise that Arkansas lost to the overall number one seed of the NCAA Tournament, but at the same time, I wasn’t expecting a 31-point blowout either.

In addition to ending the Hogs’ season, the second-round loss also signified the end of the collegiate careers for six Arkansas players—Gary Ervin, Steven Hill, Vincent Hunter, Charles Thomas, Darian Townes and Sonny Weems.

On the whole, this group of seniors was rarely embraced by the Razorback faithful and were more often written off as overrated, inconsistent and soft. In reality, the 2008 Senior Class was a group of individually talented but flawed players who from time to time combined to create a formidable whole.

Vincent Hunter, a fifth-year senior, arrived on campus in 2003 built like a toothpick. His physique never changed, which likely contributed to his injury-plagued career, and as he found himself surrounded by more talented big men, his minutes declined each year. Nevertheless, the elder statesman of the 2008 senior class did come in to spell the other big men this season, and could occasionally be counted on the block a shot, hit a three, or knock down a couple of free throws (which is saying a lot when your team is ranked 200 and something nationally in free throw percentage).

Hill, Thomas and Townes all came in together as freshmen in the 2004-2005 season, and if you could combine them into one player, you’d probably wind up with the best center in the country.

Darian Townes was, at times, an offensive machine inside. He only possessed about two offensive moves, but on a good day, that was enough to make him unstoppable from about six feet in and put constant pressure on the other team’s interior defense. Unfortunately, Townes was generally a defensive liability and sometimes seemed to play without effort. After a promising freshman season, Townes spent his sophomore and junior seasons losing playing time and gradually turning the Arkansas fans against him before he turned things around his senior season and possibly played his way into an NBA career.

On the other side of the coin from Townes was Steven Hill. At 7’1”, Hill was one of the best shot blockers in SEC history, and the only Arkansas player I can ever remember who could single-handedly change the entire complexion of a game with his defense. On offense, Hill would occasionally find himself on the receiving end of a spectacular alley-oop and usually shot the ball with nice touch, but for the most part, was pretty clueless and helpless. In his senior season, Hill was frequently substituted for Townes on an Offense-for-Defense basis, to great effect.

Charles Thomas was the aggressive, rebounding, charge-taking player of the three. Thomas seemed to possess no consistent offensive moves, but managed to get a lot of garbage baskets through his hustle and also converted at a high percentage from the line. After a very solid junior season, Thomas seemed poised for an All-SEC type senior campaign, but he came out of the gates slowly in 2007 and following a one-game suspension for violating team rules at the end of January, was basically a no-show for the next nine games, a stretch in which the Hogs went 4-5. Fortunately, Thomas pulled it together when it counted, and had the best game of his career, a 24-point, 10-rebound double-double, in Arkansas’ SEC Tournament upset of fourth-ranked Tennessee.

Gary Ervin and Sonny Weems started their Razorback careers late. Ervin played two seasons at Mississippi State before transferring to Arkansas after the 2004-2005 season, and Weems joined the team the same year as a JUCO transfer.

Ervin was one of the most maligned players in Arkansas history. As an overall slightly above average player, Ervin was vilified for his limitations rather than being praised for being an overall upgrade from Arkansas’ last point guard, Eric Ferguson. Ervin dribbled too high, over-penetrated, and from time to time made incredibly careless mistakes, but he also threw amazing alley-oop passes, tore apart lackadaisical transition defense, and knocked down big shots. If the Hogs found themselves still in the game with the clock winding down, they always had a chance to win with the ball in Ervin’s hands.

Sonny Weems always had the skills—a smooth jumper with an unusually high release, long arms which disrupted passing lanes and led to steals, and the athleticism to jump out of the gym, but in his first season in the SEC, had trouble putting it all together. He would have big games and then disappear for long stretches. He would knock down big shots, and then make careless turnovers in crucial moments. But then, about eight games into his senior season, something clicked. Weems scored in double figures in the next 19 games, vaulting himself to the All-SEC First Team and helping the Razorbacks into a solid position at the end of the regular season. After struggling through the SEC Tournament, Weems showed up big in the NCAA Tournament, scoring a career high 31 against Indiana to help Arkansas secure its first tournament victory since 1999.

A lot was expected of these players, and maybe that was reasonable. Three of the six—Hill, Townes and Weems—will likely have a shot at the NBA, and Weems has the skill set to be a legitimate NBA player.

Judging by the Arkansas Razorback standards of the early to mid 1990s, when they advanced to three Final Fours and six Sweet Sixteens in seven years, the three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and one total NCAA Tournament win of the 2008 class hardly seems noteworthy, but the truth is that the Razorback Basketball program hasn’t lived up to those standards for a long time.

If success is determined by leaving a program better than you found it, then these six seniors found it during their years in Fayetteville.

I’ll miss not seeing them suit up next season.


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