Taking Shots At Heath Out Of Bounds

FAYETTEVILLE - A disc jockey way down in Little Rock who sounds a lot like a fan said the other day that third-year Arkansas coach Stan Heath should be fired if his 13-3 Hogs fail to reach the NCAA Tournament.

Well, hell, who could possibly argue with a guy who makes dicey comments to teenagers and burnouts and spins rock 'n roll records (actually, he probably just pushes a "play" button) for a living?

In reality, this guy who might tune into the Hogs on TV on occasion, which is another good cause to respect his expertise, probably doesn't know a pick from a shovel.

This is where - and when - Heath earns the big bucks. Many of us believe Arkansas fans are the toughest to please in the SEC.

And because there have been small rifts (mostly head-scratchers) with almost every one of us who work the beat (the ones who face him often, not those who bravely stroke keys of criticism from long distance), we're interested to see how Heath will handle real scrutiny.

Most postgame sports bar banter with Hogs fans was hardly kind to the coach late Tuesday night.

But scanning some of those Internet message boards just hours after the Hogs' 64-61 home loss against No. 23 Alabama -to get a handle on what those sort of Arkansas fanatics are thinking -really revealed how out of bounds some folks already are.

Summarizing many posts (keeping in mind many of these unidentified posters thought Heath was a basketball god just a couple of weeks back):

• Heath can't recruit.

• Heath can't coach.

• Alabama coach Mark Gottfried outwitted Heath.

• Heath's Hogs are soft.

• There is no half-court offense.

• Heath should yell at his players more.

Ronnie Brewer plays too much.

• Ronnie Brewer plays too little.

Eric Ferguson plays too much.

• Eric Ferguson plays too little.

• Heath doesn't press enough.

• Heath presses too much.

• Heath's cupcake schedule has made the Hogs fat and slow.

• Heath's players are not improving.

Thus far, most of us in the media have layed off Heath, even though he disagrees to a point. Fact is, he has not been blistered - or even slightly roasted -in print by any importants. Of course, all the local TV gushers (Bo Mattingly and Mike Irwin excluded) have taken no shots and local talk radio hosts continue to be largely supportive.

There's a reason for that: We, like most around the Southeastern Conference, see Arkansas getting there. The Hogs, 21-35 in Heath's first two seasons with little to work with, are clearly loads better, inside and out.

For the first time in years, there is serious talent on the Arkansas campus and excitement - from most - about this season. More big-time players and big-time wins are coming, folks, just not quickly enough for the blow-hards.

Heath has brought back class to his position and the thought here is he mostly has handled this team the right way.

Of course, we don't agree with everything Heath has done (and the same could be said for every coach we've covered).

On Tuesday night, for instance, we found it curious that Ferguson would be reinserted into the game with two fouls and 7 1/2 minutes remaining in the first half. Some eight second later, Ferguson picked up his third foul and never was the same again.

We don't know why Arkansas got away from going inside to Darian Townes, whose energy and scoring elevated the Hogs in the first half. After all, according to Alabama's Gottfried, Townes was "killing us."

We're not sure why Brewer played almost the entire game with a gimpy ankle (although we do know how crucial he is) or why Olu Famutimi still plays lots, although he generally only does so full-Boar for one half.

It was curious that Arkansas didn't really extend its defense on Alabama sharpshooters like Earnest Shelton, probably the SEC's best pure shooter, until the Hogs trailed 47-40 after two consecutive Shelton 3-pointers.

Sure, the lulls that led to two straight losses - at Florida, 82-74, on Saturday and vs. Alabama - are confounding.

Probably more so to Heath than to us. He can't do it for them and he seems to use timeouts wisely to stem tides.

Yeah, the half-court offense could be more crisp and the defensive pressure of late could be turned up a notch.

And on second thought, as some players have muttered, Arkansas' nonconference schedule probably was too easy, making the Hogs look somewhat lost after stealing and slamming wins against shorter, slower foes.

We wouldn't mind seeing Heath rant a bit more, but the psyche of his team is fragile and we figure he knows better than us how to handle it at this point.

Look, Heath and company are on the right track. He's playing three freaking freshman - starting two - and a junior college transfer. The lone senior, Mike Jones, is a part-time 3-point specialist and the Hogs' best player, Brewer, is a sophomore.

It's easy to complain about where the Hogs have been.

Should be just as simple to see where they're going: To a perennial spot in the NCAA Tournament. That may not happen this season - although that lofty goal for such a young team still is quite reachable - but it's coming.

And you know what? Most of you as Razorbacks fans have dropped the ball. Even against the likes of top-ranked Illinois (in North Little Rock) or vs. No. 23 Alabama, you have yet to fill up an Arkansas arena one doggone time this season.

The high-top's on the other foot.

Arkansas lost at dangerous Florida and fell a Ferguson open-look 3-pointer short of going into overtime against Alabama.

The Crimson Tide, by the way, returned four starters from last season's team that went to the Elite Eight.

Just as it should've, a veteran and talented Alabama team held on.

Get a grip.

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