SEC tournament opens Thursday with Ole Miss

ABOUT THE RAZORBACKS: Arkansas begins its second season with Tom Collen as the head coach. The Razorbacks sport one of the nation’s top 25 recruiting classes, and the six newcomers is the most for Arkansas’ women’s basketball team in several seasons. The Razorbacks return a pair of senior leaders in Ayana Brereton and Whitney Jones. Brereton was the team’s top scorer in Southeastern Conference games last season, and Jones was the top rebounder versus the SEC. Newcomers like freshmen guards Ceira Ricketts and Lyndsay Harris have brought a new scoring power for the Razorbacks from the perimeter.FORD, RICKETTS, HARRIS EARN SEC HONORS: Junior Charity Ford was voted the Sixth Woman of the Year, Ceira Ricketts the Co-Freshman of the Year and second-team All-Southeastern Conference and Ricketts and Lyndsay Harris are SEC All-Freshman as voted by the league coaches. CHARITY FORD, SIXTH WOMAN OF THE YEAR: Junior Charity Ford came off the bench the entire season for Arkansas after serving as a starter her first two years for the Razorbacks. Ford’s contribution off the bench was obvious in SEC play. Injured just after Christmas and unable to play the first games of league play, once Ford became effective the Razorbacks went on a 5-1 run to close the season. Averaging almost double-digits against SEC foes at 9.7 ppg, Ford was named the SEC Player of the Week for her role coming off the bench to guide Arkansas to its first win over a AP ranked team in five years at then 15th-ranked Florida. Ford had 19 points that night, and the week before had a career-high 21 at Georgia to lead Arkansas first-ever win against the Lady Bulldogs in Athens.CEIRA RICKETTS, CO-FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: Leading the SEC in steals almost the entire season and earning a record-tying five SEC Freshman of the Week awards, Arkansas’ leading scorer at 12.7 ppg and 6.3 rpg. Ricketts became the first women’s basketball player at the University of Arkansas to have a triple double with her 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists against Auburn. During the course of the season, Ricketts tied the UA record for most assists in a SEC game and the freshman record for assists with her 12 against Auburn. Ricketts added three more double-double games with points and rebounds against 12 points and 10 rebounds at Georgia and 11 points and 12 rebounds at then 15th-ranked Florida. Ricketts’ career high of 22 points came against Tennessee and Missouri. She led the SEC in steals, and was the top freshman in several categories, including scoring, for almost the entire year. Ricketts ranked top 10 in the nation for freshmen scoring.LYNDSAY HARRIS, ALL-FRESHMAN TEAM: Arkansas’ top three-point shooter and third leading scorer, Harris registered one of the team’s highest scoring games this season with 23 points against Oregon State. Hitting 52 three-pointers during the regular season, Harris turned in one of her best weeks two weeks ago as the Razorbacks swept Florida and Alabama. Early in the season, Harris was named to the Junkanoo Jam all-tournament team after her 23 points versus Oregon State.CEIRA RICKETTS, ALL-SEC SECOND TEAM: Also earning all-conference honors, Ricketts joins only Christy Smith at the University of Arkansas to earn all-conference selection as a freshman. Ricketts was voted by the league coaches onto the second team, equalling Smith’s pick as the Freshman of the Year and second-team All-SEC.ARKANSAS’ FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR HISTORY: Ceira Ricketts joins Christy Smith (1995) and Karyn Karlin (1997) as the SEC’s top freshman.ALL-FRESHMAN HISTORY: Lyndsay Harris and Ceira Ricketts become the second pair of teammates at Arkansas to earn all-freshman honors from the SEC. In 1996, Shaka Massey and Sytia Messer were both Freshman All-SEC. They are the first Razorback freshman on the team since Kristen Peoples in 2004. With Harris and Ricketts, a total of 10 players have earned Freshman All-SEC (Peoples, 2004; Ruby Vaden, 2003; Shameka Christon, 2001; Karlin, 1997; Massey & Messer, 1996; Smith, 1995; Kimberly Wilson, 1994).ALL-CONFERENCE HISTORY: Ricketts is Arkansas’ first All-SEC pick since Lauren Ervin was second-team All-SEC in 2007. All-time, Arkansas has had 14 All-SEC honors, three first-team and 11 second-team. The last first-teamer was Shameka Christon.FORD A FIRST: The Razorbacks receive their first-ever Sixth Player of the Year.THERE’S A COMMON THREAD HERE: All three of Arkansas’ Freshman of the Year honorees — all recruited to Arkansas by Tom Collen. As the recruiting coordinator for Gary Blair, Collen was instrumental in the signing of Christy Smith and Karyn Karlin. With Ceira Ricketts and Lyndsay Harris on the all-freshman team, Collen had a hand in the signing of over half of the players that have been on the SEC rookie team (6 — Smith, Shaka Massey, Sytia Messer, Karlin, Ricketts and Harris).BEST FINISH, SEED SINCE 2003: The Razorbacks went 7-7 back in 2003, with the six wins this season as the most since that year. As the eight seed this year, Arkansas has its highest SEC tournament seed since the 2003 season when Arkansas was the seven seed.DEJA VU, NOT: At least we hope not as the Razorbacks have drawn Ole Miss in the first round in the past and have only a 1-2 mark. Ominously, the last time the tournament was in ALLTEL Arena Arkansas was the ninth-seed playing eight-seeded Ole Miss, losing 94-64, in the first game of the tournament.BUT WE WERE WEARING RED: And that might just be the ticket as the Razorbacks are undefeated wearing the home jersey at ALLTEL Arena for SEC Women’s Tournament games — beating Alabama in the first time ALLTEL hosted. Arkansas is 0-2 in red at ALLTEL for the SEC — the previously mentioned first-round loss to Ole Miss and the second round game with LSU in 2003.A RECORD STREAK: Tom Collen did something no other Razorback women’s basketball coach has ever done – win five straight SEC regular season games — when Arkansas downed Alabama. The Razorbacks have tied the longest win streak for SEC regular season games with four this season. The 1995, 2000 and 2001 teams went for four. The 1995 team on the last four games of the regular season, then won the opening game of the 1995 SEC Tournament to claim five overall wins.WHEN THE DEAD ZONE MEETS THE CLUTCH: In the past three games, it is all about the clutch. Florida didn’t get a Dead Zone break, but cut Arkansas’ lead to one late in the game. The Gators fouled, but Arkansas made just enough in the final four minutes to take a double-digit win. Ole Miss and Arkansas stumbled through the Dead Zone with neither team gaining ground, but the Lady Rebels finally pulling back to within five after trailing at half. But when Arkansas hit the four-minute mark, it was all Razorback starting with Charity Ford’s clutch three. The Razorbacks went on an 11-2 close to the game with Ole Miss. In the previous game, Arkansas overcame its first Dead Zone slump with South Carolina. The Gamecocks used a 7-2 push to gain a five-point margin and held the lead during the entire dreaded space between the second and third media time outs. It was Arkansas down the stretch as the Razorbacks went 10-6 in the last four minutes to defeat Carolina.PRETTY MUCH THE SAME OFFENSIVE TEAM: This is no small achievement for a team the past four years that roared through non-conference then saw precipitous drops in offensive production in league games. For the year, Arkansas shoots 40.4% and in SEC games only, 40.2%. Arkansas is scoring 67.3 ppg full season and 64.9 ppg SEC season. Rebounding is also very close, 38.7 full season and 38.3 SEC games.BIG UP — REBOUNDS: Arkansas’ rebounding margin goes from just +0.7 for the full season to a +2.0 in the 14 SEC games.BIG DOWN — DEFENSE: While the offense has stepped up, the defense has struggled with SEC opponents hitting 41.4% against the Razorbacks compared to the full-season of 38.8%. Defensive scoring is the turnaround from a positive full season scoring margin of +3.4 to a SEC only -5.8. Opponents go from 64 ppg to 70.7 ppg.THESE HOGS SEE NO SHADOW: This February, the Razorbacks have thrown off the dark gloom of four more weeks without a win as Arkansas got its first win in the month of February since Feb. 13, 2005, at Georgia. That snaps a pair of concurrent 27-game streaks — 27 overall since the Feb. 13 game was against Georgia Tech and 27 SEC since Arkansas won the previous game on Feb. 10 against Alabama. Arkansas then added its first home win since that same Alabama game of 2005. For the month of February, Arkansas goes 5-2 this season — one of the best groundhog months on record.LET’S EXPLAIN THIS, FOR THE LAST TIME: The SEC women’s teams do not play the divisional schedule as the men’s teams, and have a 14-game schedule that breaks down this way: once against the entire conference plus home-and-home with the rival/travel partner, home-and-home with a rotating Western Division member and home-and-home with a rotating Eastern Division team. For Arkansas, that means home-and-home with LSU (rival), Auburn (West rotator) and Florida (East rotator). Why the last time? The league voted to begin a 16-game schedule next season; however, the exact format is now being decided.BEWARE THE DEAD ZONE: The Clif Notes — when Arkansas skids between the second (12:00 and under) and third (8:00 and under) time outs, bad things happen. The games of 2009 without that opponent run? Miss State, Georgia, USC, Ole Miss and Florida — coincidence?BEWARE THE DEAD ZONE, UNABRIDGED: For the Arkansas Razorbacks, the second media time out (the under 12:00 break) marks the start of an offensive black hole that started just after New Year’s Day. Roughly around the 12 to 9 minute mark, Arkansas has suffered game-deciding runs. The hallmark of the runs are a lack of Arkansas offense, not an outpouring of opponent production. Throughout, the Arkansas defense is holding teams to “walks” rather than runs. Consider the two most recent losses. Tennessee held Arkansas scoreless for almost seven minutes starting at 8:33, but could only manage 11 points. Auburn limited Arkansas for almost five minutes starting at 11:50, but could only advance the margin eight points (11-3). Still, the second half stall has cost Arkansas five straight — Tennessee (11-0), Auburn (11-3), Kentucky (10-2), LSU (8-0, after an earlier 12-0 to start the half) and Texas Tech (15-1). Florida had a 12-0 run in the zone to push to its largest lead. The Razorbacks took one at Vanderbilt (10-1) that also gave the Commodores their largest lead of 15; however, the Razorbacks returned the favor with a 19-4 close to overtime. Proof in the pudding? Arkansas two SEC wins had no Dead Zone — a 9-4 UA advantage in the time slot at Miss State; and a 10-4 UA performance with Georgia. To Arkansas credit, in every game, the Razorbacks made comebacks to narrow the gap, and played even basketball the final four minutes of each game. However, the damage was done by the final media time out near the 4:00 mark.DEFENSE DOWN THE STRETCH: Opponents must exploit the Dead Zone, because if they don’t, Arkansas defense will clamp down hard at the close of the game. The pressure is stronger on the road as the Razorbacks have allowed only one field goal in the final five minutes of the last three road conference games. Vanderbilt needed overtime to escape the 7:14 vise. Kentucky used free throws to overcome a 6:33 close without a field goal. Miss State had two free throws but no field goals in the last 4:02. Georgia had one field goal and got run 13-3 in the final three minutes.MILLIONTH FAN FOR TENNESSEE: In 33 years of women’s basketball at Arkansas, to date, 999,286 fans have attended Razorback games in Fayetteville. The season-high 3,916 for Tennessee brought the millionth fan to Razorback women’s basketball at home. Arkansas entered the season with 984,206 total recorded fans (attendance records prior to 1985 are incomplete), and registered 18,996 so far in 2008-09 for 14 home games.2008-09 SIGNEES:DARSHAE BURNSIDE: One of the West Coast’s best rebounders, Darshae Burnside of San Bernadino, Calif., was the first women’s basketball player of the early period to sign a National Letter of Intent with the University of Arkansas. The 6-3 center-forward from Cajon High School in San Bernadino is ranked top 100 by most of the prep prospect services. She was singled out by as one of the top players at the Nike Regional Skills Academy in May. Burnside is the second California prep star to sign with Arkansas under Collen. Last fall, Arkansas signed Jamesha Townsend from the San Diego area. Arkansas’ recent star junior college transfer, Lauren Ervin, was from the Los Angeles area, and last spring was a draft pick of the Connecticut Sun. Last season, Burnside averaged 15.5 ppg and 16.1 rpg for the Cajon. The Cowgirls to the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section 2A title with a 30-4 overall record. In the state title game, Burnside had 12 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots as CHS defeated Ayala, 51-47. Only two teams held her to single digits, with a season high of 33 points against Ontario (Calif.). As a sophomore, Burnside was first-team all-state as one of the top rebounders in the country and the No. 4 shot-blocker in the state of California.SARAH WATKINS: Forward Sarah Watkins is one of the nation’s top 50 players. The 6-3 Watkins gives Arkansas a pair of top-flight post players in the 2009 recruiting class. California post player Darshae Burnside opened the early signing period for the Razorbacks last week Watkins is rated top 50 or top 100 by almost every notable girl’s basketball service. ESPN listed the versatile center as the No. 42 recruit in the country (and the No. 7 forward in the country), touting her ability to score from two feet to 24 feet. Already a 1,000-point career scorer by the close of her junior year, Watkins led Houston High in Germantown, Tenn., to the 8-AAA regional championship in basketball. Watkins averaged 23 ppg, 10 rpg and 5 blocks last season. She broke the HHS single-game scoring record last year with 43 points against rival Germantown, pulling down 18 rebounds with eight blocks. As a junior, Watkins was named MVP of the regional tournament, along with all-metro Memphis and several other tournament teams. The 6-3 post was also selected for both Nike Skills Academy and adidas Top Ten. Her AAU team, Memphis Elite, is a fixture on the national tournament scene. Along with her basketball talent, Watkins is a member of Houston High’s two-time district and regional golf champion squads. As a senior, she was a scoring member of HHS team that was third at the state Class AAA championship; seventh her junior year.