While he knows some fans have started leaping off the bandwagon head first and looking toward next year already, University of Arkansas basketball coach Stan Heath and his team still hold out hope of a miracle late season run.
"We have no choice but to look at this as a new season and clear our minds of all the clutter," Heath said Monday during his press conference. " We've played well at times and at times we've stunk up the gym."
Arkansas (12-15, 4-12) hopes to do the former instead of the latter Thursday afternoon at 2:15 p.m. when it meets South Carolina (21-9, 8-8) in a rematch of a game that the Razorbacks won by 16 points earlier this season over the visiting Gamecocks.
It will be a matchup of a UA squad that has lost seven of its last eight games against a South Carolina, who was 18-2 at one point but has suffered defeat seven of the last 10 times it has taken the court.
"For us to have a chance against South Carolina, and I think we do, we have to play with confidence," Heath said. "We have to play loose, like a wounded animal, for the love of the game and with a sense of urgency.
"We look at this as an opportunity," Heath added. "South Carolina lost one of its key players in Rolando Howell. They are kind of like us in that they don't have a true scorer inside, but they do have Carlos Powell. In the first game, we controlled the tempo. We played with good energy and never hit a lull. We have to do that again."
Quite simply, the next loss will end the season for the Razorbacks, who come into the contest off a depressing 55-45 loss at Ole Miss that dropped them from the fourth to the sixth seed.
"You have to be ready right from the start," Heath said. "That sophomore class that was there (last year) realizes emotions can run high. That's our season in a nutshell. Sometimes we've handled it and sometimes we haven't."
While their conference record is the same as last season, Arkansas has improved its overall mark by three wins and would like to better last season by not being ousted in the first round as it was last year in a blowout loss to LSU.
"Every win is so valuable," Heath said. "Every win builds confidence and momentum. A tournament win would be huge for us. For this first game, we're going to work our butts off, but it really comes down to how much the players want it; how much they want to extend their season."
Ironically, the sixth seed in the West might turn out to be an advantageous one because both South Carolina and LSU - who would be the Razorbacks' second round foe - have lost a key standout off their team and have been struggling lately.
"The sixth seed is a little bit - on paper - advantage over being a four seed or a five seed," Heath said. "The only reason why I say that is you avoid the one seed if you get the win.
"...We didn't go to Ole Miss not to win that game so we could be in that position, but now that it is over and we are at the sixth seed you look at South Carolina and it is a team that we have had played and we've had success against. They are still a very good team, but you win there and you get the No. 2 seed and it's LSU - and you don't want to look too far ahead - but LSU without (Jamie) Lloreda is not the same LSU team."
Heath says that both Kendrick Davis, who tied his season-high with 19 points in the earlier win over South Carolina, and Mike Jones will see significant minutes on Thursday for what would hopefully be a jolt to the offense.
The trade off is that neither have not been standouts on defense.
"I would love to us to be a team that could just swallow people defensively, but I realize that if we don't get some sort of scoring it is a handicap for us and drains us mentally," Heath said. "So Mike Jones is a very viable option for us. He is one of our better 3-point shooters, we haven't shot the ball well from three and we have got to have him out there on the court at times. He has got to meet us halfway by giving us all he can give on the defensive end."
Heath had hoped to enter the tournament this season with "around 16 wins" this season.
"That's what I expected and it is where we should have been and it's my fault we are not," Heath said. "It's not the player's fault. It's my fault and my responsibility. They have given us all they had, but we just don't have as many bullets in the gun as we need. But we will."
Heath, UA cagers not packing it in yet
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