Jones: Hogs' Late-Season Problems Were "Unfixable"

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas senior Mike Jones said Monday he doesn't believe there was enough time for the Razorbacks and third-year coach Stan Heath to cure what ailed them in their season-ending slide.

"I think it was an unfixable situation, let's put it that way," Jones said. "(Heath) told us, and he told me, that he didn't think we could get it back in two or three days. Some things you just can't get back."

A little more than a month ago, Arkansas still entertained NCAA Tournament hopes at 17-7 overall and 5-6 in the Southeastern Conference coming off a three-game winning streak punctuated with a 65-62 victory against eventual Western Division champion LSU on Feb. 12.

The Razorbacks then proceeded to fall apart down the stretch, could win only a single game to close the season and were humiliated in their last two games by teams with losing seasons and a combined 10-22 record in the SEC.

Arkansas committed 24 turnovers and lost 77-64 at Auburn in the regular season finale March 5 and was outrebounded and by 19 in its 65-46 loss to Tennessee last Thursday in the SEC Tournament

Citing emotional and physical weariness, a lack of competitiveness and cohesion, Heath overruled what he described as an obligatory unanimous player vote to accept an NIT bit with his decision to skip the less-attractive alternative to NCAA play last Friday.

A one-and-done in the NIT after Arkansas' embarrassing previous two losses looked increasingly likely and Jones said the team's play left Heath little choice.

"The way we were playing, it didn't seem like it was getting any better," said Jones, who was denied his first postseason trip by Arkansas' decision to end the season prematurely.

"It's not about me and my last game. It's about the team. I felt like if he felt like that was the best decision for the team, then I had a nice little run in my four years."

Any disagreement the players had with the decision was as half-hearted as their play in the second half at Vanderbilt on Feb. 19 (a 79-65 loss) or in their final two games at Auburn and against Tennessee in Atlanta.

Jones wasn't ready for his career to be over after he went 1 of 5 against Tennessee in his second full game back from the groin injury that knocked him out in the first minute against Kentucky on Jan. 29.

"By that being my last performance in my last game, unexpectedly, I was kind of hurt," Jones said. "But Coach is a good man and he did what he thought was best for the team. I think in everyone's hearts, they felt like it may have been the best decision because of our competitiveness.

"We wanted to keep playing, but sometimes you have to make the best decision for the team. If we can't see it, then he probably can."

At his Friday afternoon news conference to announce his decision after meeting with Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles, Heath pegged that tendency in his team as the most troubling part of a season which began with promise at 13-1 but netted only five more wins between Jan. 8 and March 10.

While Arkansas' overall record improved from 9- and 12-win seasons in Heath's first two, the numbers in SEC play didn't show great improvement despite a larger mix of Heath's players and the most talent he's had since taking over for Nolan Richardson in 2002.

The Razorbacks averaged 1.6 more points (66), shot 1.8 percent better from the field (42.1) and held their opponents to 0.5 percent less shooting (44.6) than last season.

The bright spots were sophomore Ronnie Brewer earning All-SEC honors (coaches first team, AP second team) and center Darian Townes earning All-SEC and honorable mention All-American freshman honors.

Brewer (16.4 ppg) and Townes (10.2) were Arkansas' only consistent scorers and the only two who finished with double-figure scoring averages and rebounding averages of 4.4 or better per game.

Junior and leading returning scorer Jonathon Modica spent the season on and off the bench and in and out of Heath's doghouse, but his hot hand led to Arkansas' three-game winning streak and he averaged 15.3 points in five games as a starter before Heath benched him against Tennessee on Feb. 26.

Arkansas lacked a third consistent scorer and none was forthcoming from likely candidates sophomore Olu Famutimi, Ferguson or freshman Charles Thomas.

Junior college transfer Dontell Jefferson was inconsistent at point guard and Arkansas lacked for a true player at that position all season.

Arkansas lost to NCAA Tournament-bound Kentucky (68-67), Alabama (64-61) and Mississippi State (57-55) at home by a total of six points and had what the Razorbacks thought was a game-winning 3-pointer by Jones at LSU changed to a tying two on the scoreboard, leading to a 66-63 loss in overtime Jan. 19.

Only in the Auburn home game (a 95-59 win) following the LSU loss did Arkansas not fall flat after the three other close losses.

"Adversity hit and everybody started looking for answers whether it was in their way or within the team concept," Jones said. "When adversity hit, we got knocked down."

An 80-55 loss at Mississippi State on Jan. 15 followed the Alabama loss. A 64-52 defeat at South Carolina came on the heels of the loss to Kentucky and the aforementioned Auburn loss was easy to spot coming after the home defeat to Mississippi State on March 1, crushing any shot of finishing 8-8 in conference.

"I saw an emotional loss translated the next game into a performance I wasn't comfortable with," Heath said. "And I saw that continue to happen. That pattern needs to stop. That's one of the things I'm going to really look at hard as to why - what I can do a better job with first.

"Again, I'm not pointing the fingers at this guy or that guy. It starts here. And it's going to go all the way through the program."

Heath had his share of moments when he didn't handle adversity well this season.

• In November, he suggested ESPN commentator Dick Vitale could "stick it" for criticizing Heath's soft nonconference schedule.

• Following Arkansas' 64-61 loss to Alabama, Heath publicly scolded a newspaper reporter for using a quote from junior Eric Ferguson suggesting Arkansas' nonconference schedule didn't help the Hogs learn how to win close games.

• In the second half after Arkansas fell behind 21-2 at Mississippi State, Heath had an emotional moment against referee Eli Roe and called the officiating "a charade" and "a joke" after the Bulldogs shot 39 free throws to Arkansas' 12.

• He was publicly reprimanded Jan. 21 by the SEC for saying official Tom Eades "compromised the integrity of the game" in his ruling on Jones' 3-pointer against LSU.

• Three days before Heath quit the Razorbacks' season after the final loss to Tennessee, he said it was "a joke", "a lie" and "irresponsible" to suggest his team quit at Auburn.

Heath used six starting lineups in his last 10 games and the player mix and chemistry became another issue after Jones said on March 3 the team needed to "get on the same page" and "check" any selfish tendencies following the Mississippi State loss.

Jones said Arkansas didn't have personality conflicts, only players trying to make the team win all by themselves.

"We were always together," Jones said. "It wasn't, 'I don't like this man or I don't like that man.' It wasn't nothing like that, ever. I don't want nobody to get that perception.

"Everybody wanted to win so bad we'd take it upon ourselves like maybe with me, 'I can shoot us out of this.' Or maybe somebody else, 'Maybe I can score us out of this. Maybe I can defend us out of this.'"

Heath's promised "top to bottom" evaluation of his program began Monday with individual meetings with the players and Friday ruled out either player or staff changes.

He may have an opening on his staff as assistant coach Oronde Taliaferro is a candidate for the Eastern Michigan head coaching job.

Heath said he would "attack" any area he thought was lacking and added he had a lot of "built up anger" about the way his team ended the season.

Besides the problem of motivating his players, Heath will also have to address his team's problems against a 2-3 zone.

Beginning with the South Carolina game Feb. 2 when Arkansas scored 25 points in the first 29 minutes, the Razorbacks were crippled offensively when teams shifted to zone defense in the final 10 games of the season.

"I look at it like our basketball IQ wasn't very high because we didn't know how to handle certain situations in the heat of the moment," Jones said. "It comes from experience.

"It's nothing the coaches didn't try to teach us."

Jones, who will graduate this May with a degree in communications and have corrective hernia surgery at some point before trying to land a basketball gig, said he expects a "personality change" from Heath during this offseason and in practice next fall.

"There's going to be a lot of things where they try to challenge the guys in adverse situations to see how they respond and bounce back," Jones said. "That's the main thing. As long as you know how to deal with adversity, with losing, as long as you know how to bounce back from all those things, everything will fall into place."

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