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February 18, 2011

Arkansas rematch could clinch division for Tide

TUSCALOOSA _ What is it they say about elephants and memory?

Fans at Coleman Coliseum on Saturday will probably find out if the idiom about never forgetting is true when the University of Alabama men's basketball team hosts Arkansas (6 p.m., FS South).

The Razorbacks are the only team in the SEC West to beat the Crimson Tide this season, 70-65 on Jan. 15, and this time there will be even more on the line. Should Alabama win it'll clinch at least a tie for the division title, and combined with an Ole Miss loss to Mississippi State (12:30 p.m., SEC Network) will secure it outright.

"Arkansas was really aggressive," Coach Anthony Grant said about the previous meeting in Fayetteville. "They attacked us on both ends of the floor."

For the second straight week a quick turnaround comes into play as Alabama played at LSU on Thursday night and didn't arrive home until after 1 a.m. While the Crimson Tide (17-8, 9-2 SEC) had just Friday to recuperate and prepare, Arkansas had an extra day after crushing Florida A&M on Wednesday, 94-55.

Last Saturday it held off Ole Miss, 74-64, two days after the controversial loss at No. 23 Vanderbilt, 81-77.

"At this time of year I get more concerned about the mental fatigue" Grant said. "I think the challenge of refocusing and preparing for an opponent in such a short period of time is challenging.

"You look at last week, we had a very difficult game to have to come back and play a team the caliber of Ole Miss. Very tough game last night and a very good team in Arkansas."

Physically, Grant said he wasn't aware of any problems even though sophomore forward Tony Mitchell was grabbing his wrist after a dunk attempt at LSU (he stayed in the game).

Regardless, sophomore Andrew Steele's playing time continued to increase, with a season-high 30 minutes and 10 points off the bench against the Tigers.

"It has been a long road, but to finally get back to the point where I do not have to worry about how my body feels is nice," Steele told reporters after the game.

"They shot 56 percent from the field in the first half and then they shot 29 percent in the second half. We knew that if we continued to rebound that everything would take care of itself. Just like the first game against LSU, we were able to get turnovers and get out into transition. That really helped us tonight."

That stifling defense let Alabama down a bit at Arkansas (16-9, 5-6 SEC), which is one of only two opponents since mid-December to score at least 70 points. The Razorbacks also only made nine turnovers, the fewest by an opponent this season.

Alabama is still tied for the national lead in points allowed per possession (0.83), is third in opposing field-goal percentage (.370), and is sixth in both scoring defense (58.3) and steals (9.5).

"The best (term) I can use is scrappy," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said earlier this week. "They're just very active."

Kennedy and Auburn's Tony Barbee, who both get to face Alabama next week, will almost certainly give Saturday's game a close look to see if Arkansas used the extra prep time to come up with something new.

"They're very physical," Barbee said. "They're very physical with your ball-handlers, they're physical guarding on the post, they have their hands on you, they're pushing, they're directing you with their hands, they're just a physical team. That's what makes them a very good defensive team. It's something that a lot of teams try and do, but Alabama has the personnel to do it. Their pressure bothers you.

"It looks like they've all bought into it that they have to play defensively and it's what every coach tries to do. It's always difficult to do that and it seems that Alabama has done that collectively as a team."

Only the whole avenging a loss thing will also be in play, especially since Alabama felt it should have won the previous meeting that slipped away. A similar desire for payback helped LSU go from its 70-46 loss at Coleman on Jan. 29, to 67-56 at home.

"We knew coming in that they were going to come out with lots of energy and play tough," junior forward JaMychal Green said in Baton Rouge. "Everyone has pride and nobody wants to get blown out on their home court on national television, so they came out and gave us a good fight."


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