"Mental Fatigue" Sets In For Hogs

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas coach Stan Heath saw more than his team's physical stamina fading late against Vanderbilt on Saturday.

"I could see the mental fatigue setting in," Heath said.

As yet another close game got away from the Razorbacks, Arkansas broke down as much between the ears as it did between the baselines.

The Hogs lost dribbles, left their feet with nowhere to go and didn't rotate back on defense against a Vanderbilt team that played the game at Arkansas' favored tempo and ran the Razorbacks out of Memorial Gym with it.

The Razorbacks (17-9, 5-8 Southeastern Conference) led 34-33 at No. 16 Alabama on Wednesday and trailed just 34-31 on Saturday but haven't been able to muster the moxie to finally win a game they weren't supposed to.

All the narrow losses and no-shows defensively have taken their toll on the Razorbacks' psyche.

Last-second shots by Eric  Ferguson in Fayetteville that could have sent the first game with Alabama to overtime and given Arkansas a win against Kentucky didn't go down.

A long shot by Mike Jones at LSU was posted as a game-winning 3-pointer but changed to a two on review and Arkansas lost 66-63 in overtime on Jan. 19.

Arkansas, of course, disagreed with that decision by lead official Tom Eades in Baton Rouge and even Vanderbilt junior Mario Moore said he didn't think Rashard Sullivan's hard foul against him was an intentional one.

That didn't stop the Commodores from using a five-point possession after the call to turn a 55-51 lead into nine and take a stranglehold on the game

The Razorbacks didn't answer the challenge in road losses at Mississippi State (80-55) and South Carolina (64-52) or after halftime in Nashville.

Arkansas gave up 45 second-half points, just off the season-high of 47 they allowed to Mississippi State on Jan. 15, and has an open week before hosting Tennessee next Saturday.

Heath has played his three freshman post players Darian Townes, Charles Thomas and Steven Hill heavily this season and while he's avoided talk about the "freshman wall," he suggested his entire team may have hit it in Nashville.

"It gives us a week off to regroup," Heath said. "I'm sure there's a lot of guys on our team, especially the young guys ...

"This can be a long season for them."

Players and Heath acknowledged after the game their NCAA Tournament hopes were down to a last-gasp effort of winning out against the Vols, Mississippi State and Auburn and either winning the SEC Tournament or winning enough games in Atlanta to impress someone in one of the legendary smoke-filled rooms.

Anything less than that means NIT games in Fayetteville, and nobody sounded excited about that.

"We're definitely in the postseason, but we're not in the postseason we want to be in," said Sullivan, who played his best game of the season Saturday with 8 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks in 29 minutes.

"We want to be in the NCAA Tournament. I think to do that we have to win the last three games and go to the (SEC) Tournament and take a couple games there."

Besides getting rejuvenated physically (Jones returned from his groin injury at Vandy), Heath said the first priority of the week has to be shoring up Arkansas' defense.

The Razorbacks have allowed more than half of their SEC opponents (seven of 13) to shoot at least 48 percent and four times they've given up 53 percent or better.

Heath is in a quandary in some ways because his best offensive players are not his best defensive players and vice versa.

His all-defense team would likely be Ferguson, Ronnie Brewer, Olu Famutimi, Sullivan and Hill.

His all-offense team would probably be Brewer, Famutimi, Jonathon  Modica, Townes and Jones.

Only two players -- Famutimi and Brewer -- could make both teams and Heath said he has to get more from his entire squad at both ends.

"We have to get our defense playing at a higher level," Heath said. "I challenged our guys because it's going to require more than 5 or 6 guys.

"We need guys that score for us to pick it up on defense. It can't be one-dimensional. I believe those guys will rise to the challenge."

Arkansas' long-shot hopes now mean catching Mississippi State (18-8, 6-6) for the third seed in the Western Division and avoiding Kentucky in the second round of the SEC Tournament.

If both the Razorbacks and Bulldog finish at 8-8, Arkansas will have the tie-breaker with a better record in the Western Division and would play Georgia with a possible second-round matchup with Florida.

Wins against Florida in the quarterfinals and Alabama in the semis could be enough to get Arkansas an at-large berth even if it loses in the finals.

For now, that's the best the Hogs can hope for after a kidney shot to their NCAA aspirations by Vanderbilt.

Arkansas can still post its first 20-win season since 2001 and the 2000 Razorbacks proved anything can happen by winning the SEC Tournament with a group of sophomores and freshmen.

"It's a chance to come together even more and make things happen," Modica said.

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