Heath sees past struggles to bright UA future

Dudley E. Dawson talks to UA head basketball coach Stan Heath about the current status and future of his basketball program and offers up a few opinions of his own in his weekly column. The Arkansas Toyota Dealers have a special promotion for Razorback baseball. Click on a banner to enter a contest for free tickets to Razorback baseball.

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More than once in the past few days, a frustrated University of Arkansas basketball fan has come up to me with an assertion that things will not be any better next season when it comes to the school's basketball program.

One young man said even if 6-10, 255-pound superstar recruit Al Jefferson foresakes the NBA for the Razorbacks "they won't even break .500."

Now that's just ridiculous, although I know that he and many others are rightly disappointed in what is a 12-15 squad headed into Thursday's 2:15 game with South Carolina in the first round of the SEC Tournament in Atlanta.

People are frustrated with a season where even Razorback head coach Stan Heath expected his team would win "about 16 games" this season and be a postseason club and is disappointed that hasn't happened.

"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 players' 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."

But the assertion that Arkansas won't be better next season than this season - with or without Jefferson ? Ludicrous.

"I was told before I got here it was going to be a tough job, a difficult job," Heath said. "To follow after so much success and so much history and at the same time, the program is not where it used to be is tough."

"We have got to continue to build," Heath added. "But we are part of the solution. Trust me. We are part of the solution. We are going to build it up. I'm confident. I'm confident in myself, confident in my staff and confident that these players are going to continue to get better, confident that we are going to continue to recruit our butts off and add to the talent base that we have."

Jefferson is certainly the focal point for everybody. The Mississippi prep phenom averaged 42 points, 18 rebounds and 6 blocks per game this season.

His season ended with a 56-point effort in Prentiss High's 88-72 loss to Byhalia last weekend and now turns his attention to the McDonald's All-American game March 31 in Oklahoma City, the Nike Hoop Summit in San Antonio on April 4 and the Jordan Classic in Washington, D.C. on April 17.

Not too long after that, he'll announce whether he is headed to the NBA or to Fayetteville.

There is no question that Arkansas would be much better off if he dons a Razorback jersey than if he doesn't.

Some will tell you that he is definitely going, some say that he is definitely coming. None of them - except Big Al, his family and his advisors - have a clue one way or the other and that certainly includes myself.

But even if he doesn't come, the program will get bigger by adding 6-10, 235-pound Darian Townes, 7-0, 235-pound Steven Hill and 6-8, 235-pound combo forward Charles Thomas.

Townes averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds and 8 blocks this season for Hargrave Academy, swatting away over 150 shots while playing just a little over an average of a half a game because his nation's best prep team simply blew people away.

Hill, a dominant defensive player and a developing offensive player, came alive during the latter half of the season when he shed 15 of the 30 pounds that he had put on with a physical trainer. He ended the season averaging 16 points, 12 rebounds and 6 blocks per game.

Thomas, who averaged 27.4 points and 12 rebounds per game, is very gifted offensively and simply as fine an inside-outside force that will have walked on this campus in awhile.

"The guys coming in will simply take the pressure off our perimeter players," Heath said. "They (the current players) are not shooting as good a percentage from the perimeter because no one has to sag in at all. They have to take contested shots all the time. You will see their percentages go up and we'll be able to score more inside baskets and our opponents will be getting fewer."

Hey, Hill's high school career ended when he was the victim of a questionable goaltending call.

At least a shot went back where he started, something that hasn't happened around here enough lately.

All of the incoming big guys have something so desperately missing from this year's team.

"All of them have a mean streak and will bring a toughness to the team that we need," Heath said.

Junior college transfer Dontell Jefferson - a true point guard from Atlanta Metropolitan College who averaged around 16 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds this season - is expected to be given the ball and leadership of the team.

He's a vocal, no-nonsense type of guy who has made it clear that he expects to run the show and people to be where they are supposed to or be yelled at until they get there.

While that might ruffle a few feathers early on, hey, a few feathers could stand to be ruffled.

Add in Minnesota transfer Mo Hargrow - who likely will play some at both guard spots when he becomes eligible to participate in mid-December - to Ronnie Brewer and whatever other guards return and things look much better back there in the backcourt.

"I think we will have more depth at our ballhandling at the guard positions and at the same time age and maturity will be a big positive for our whole team," Heath said. "There is no question we will be a much better team."

If Al Jefferson doesn't arrive, a shooter may very well be added to take his place. And for the record, this isn't something that just became apparent to Heath.

After all, there were at least five that he went after in the early period that he just didn't happen to land.

"I still feel like we need a pure shooter in the bunch," Heath said. "Hopefully over the summer someone can emerge as a role guy in that spot. But there is no question that size alone is going to help us along with additional guards."

While I think basketball programs are better served when the full-time basketball guys are playing the majority of the minutes than football guys, adding East Poinsett County's Marcus Monk and possibly Little Rock Parkview's Marc Winston and their toughness and court awareness can't hurt.

And if Matt Jones does indeed play basketball next year, rest assured he would be welcomed back with open arms.

If everyone came back and everyone that is expected to be here next season actually shows up that would be 19 players.

That won't happen and Heath even alluded to that a little bit when he said Monday that some players would be playing for the last time and others would likely be seeing significant minutes for the last time.

"We are getting there, not as quick as fans want, not as quickly as we want, but to say that we aren't better this year than last and we won't be very much improved next season is just not right in my book," Heath said. "If people want to get on me that's fine, I can handle it. But I know what we are doing, I know we are doing it the right way and even though there have been some setbacks, we are getting better and know we are headed in the right direction. And that's up."

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