Tough Stretch Awaits

FAYETTEVILLE -- Some told me earlier this week that Arkansas faced a "must-win" game against Alabama at Bud Walton Arena on Tuesday. I didn't buy into that theory then and still don't after the loss.

But I will admit that the Razorbacks now face a most difficult stretch with four of their next six SEC games on the road. It is not helpful that one of those two home games is Kentucky.

Unless the Hogs can find a way to break a long SEC road losing streak, things could get ugly in what was once a promising season in Stan Heath's third year at the helm.

I'm not predicting gloom. I'm just noting that gloom could be ready for an ambush.

This is where Heath will earn his considerable salary. So far, the critics and naysayers have left him alone in his attempt at rebuilding the program.

I think it's easy to find the reasons so few have tried to beat him up.

First, he's a likable guy, much more so than his predecessor. He's said the right things and carried himself with class.

More importantly, Heath has been relatively successful in recruiting. He's added inside strength of late and that is another plus. His predecessor failed miserably in that area of recruiting over his final five or six classes.

However, Heath must still find a way to get some victories in SEC play if he is to keep the vultures away. I'm afraid that the naysayers will fly from the woodwork if the next six games aren't any better than the last two.

Everyone is pulling for Heath. How could you not root for such a good man? His players give effort on and off the court. They are never in trouble. He is a straight shooter. He never complains. I think he is a solid coach. In short, he appears to be the right man to head the UA basketball program.

But, and he knows this, Heath better win some more games. He better figure out a way to get the Hogs back in postseason play.

What will it take? Well, the 12-1 nonconference record assures this will not be another losing season. All it takes to make the National Invitation Tournament is a winning record. So, there will be postseason play as long as the Hogs win at least three more games.

I'd bet on that.

It's unclear what it will take to make the NCAA tournament. Playing such an easy nonconference schedule (only Illinois and Missouri will turn any heads with the selection committee) puts the Hogs at risk unless they have a winning SEC record. Usually 8-8 will get an SEC team into the Big Dance, but that finish this year is not a lock with Arkansas' schedule.

I settled on 8-8 as my prediction for this team in SEC play weeks ago. Nothing I've seen so far has changed that. I figured there were three "tough" SEC home games on the schedule --Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi State. I figured the Hogs would win one of those. So, now they must win one of those two to hit my number.

That means they'll have to win two times on the road. The most likely places for breakthroughs are LSU, Ole Miss and Auburn. It may come down to the last game of the year at Auburn on Saturday, March 5. I wouldn't be surprised if the Hogs headed there with a 7-8 record and the season hanging in the balance.

I'd take that scenario right now. Oh, I know, that sounds pessimistic. I'd rather call it realism. I know how difficult it is to win on the road in the SEC. I know that Kentucky and Mississippi State will be extremely tough to beat even in Bud Walton Arena.

That doesn't mean I don't like the way this Arkansas team plays. These Hogs are much improved over the last two years. It's just that things had fallen so far and there is still so much more that has to be accomplished before I'll say that the program is truly back.

Even in the Alabama loss, I was buoyed by the play of Darian Townes, the 6-foot-10 freshman center. He is a much better player than I first thought. His offensive skills are well beyond anything I anticipated for this season. His play over the past three weeks leads me to believe that he could be the Hogs' most talented player and the "go-to" guy.

I just wish he received more than five touches in the paint in the second half. Three of those resulted in shot attempts. Two more resulted in fouls and four made free throws.

I think one of Heath's tasks over the next few days is to convince the rest of his players the need to feed the post with veracity, something they didn't do against Alabama during a 15-0 drought just before and after half-time.

Identifying roles and educating his players to accept them is one of the toughest jobs a coach faces, especially in a rebuilding mode. All players, if they have any pride, believe they can be the one to lift their team to the next level. That could be a fatal thought process at this stage of Heath's program and it is his job to put each player in the proper role for these crucial games.

During the glory days of his program, I thought Nolan Richardson was masterful at handling egos and building chemistry. He made sure the right people took the shots and had the ball in critical situations. I often heard about Richardson's one-on-one sessions with each player in his hotel room before key road games. He wanted to make sure they understood their role for the next game. He did that well and it paid dividends in the form of many road wins.

How Heath gets it done is his business. He must do it his way. But he must begin to get it done. A lot of people are pulling for him and not just because he's coaching their team. People have grown to like him and like him in a big way. Count me in that group.

Unfortunately, Heath's SEC record is 9-26. It's now to the point that he needs some SEC victories to maintain those positive thoughts.


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