Heath Happy For Spartan Seniors

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas coach Stan Heath knew what Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was thinking as Kentucky grabbed two offensive rebounds trailing by three points during the closing seconds of regulation in the finals of the Austin Regional last Sunday.

Heath was an assistant to Izzo for five seasons from 1996-2001, taking a part in three straight trips to the Final Four from 1999-2001 and the 2000 NCAA title.

Heath experienced firsthand the value Izzo puts on rebounding and the Spartans rank ninth in the nation this season in rebounding margin at plus-7.3 per game.

"I know Tom wasn't happy about that," Heath said with a chuckle about the Spartans' inability to corral one last defensive rebound. "They had pretty much dominated the glass in that game."

Most Razorback fans can guess what Heath was thinking about while Kentucky junior Patrick Sparks' successful basket from the top of the key was reviewed after the Wildcats' third 3-point attempt of their last possession.

Sparks apparently forced overtime by tying the score at 75 with a miracle, leaning shot that bounced on the rim four times before rolling in as the buzzer sounded.

For more than five minutes, officials reviewed the replay to see if Sparks' right toe was clear of the 3-point line and Heath couldn't help thinking back to Jan. 19 at LSU when a nearly identical shot by Razorbacks senior Mike Jones was reviewed and ruled a two-pointer to force overtime and led to a 66-63 loss rather than a 59-58 win in regulation.

"I was more focused on the toe on the line," Heath said. "I thought that was a three and ours was, too."

The officials agreed with Heath and the Spartans (26-6) eventually won in two overtimes, 94 88, to make Michigan State's fourth Final Four in seven seasons under Izzo to set today's matchup against North Carolina (31-4) scheduled to tip at 7:47 p.m. from St. Louis' Edward Jones Dome.

Heath had plenty of other thoughts after the Spartans finally pulled out the win in the capper to a regional final weekend unlike any ever seen.

"I was just really happy for the seniors in that group," Heath said. "It was kind of a group that had to follow in some big shadows. That was the group that came right after the three Final Fours in a row, so they were held to an incredible standard to get back there."

This has been the most unlikely of Izzo's Final Four runs after the Spartans entered the tournament as a No. 5 seed picked by many to either be upset in the first round by No. 12 Old Dominion or knocked out in the third by top-seeded Duke, who'd handled the Spartans easily in Durham earlier in the season.

The Spartans had a 12-game losing streak against ranked teams until beating Wisconsin on Feb. 16.

Now, after three straight seasons with double digits in losses, they are the only team to ever beat Duke and Kentucky in the same NCAA Tournament.

The farthest the current group of seniors had made it in the NCAA Tournament was the Elite Eight in 2003, preceded and followed by first-round exits at the hands of North Carolina State in 2002 and to Nevada in 2004.

The senior group of Alan Anderson, Chris Hill, Kevin Tolbert, Tim Bograkos and Andy Harvey were the final signing class Heath helped recruit to East Lansing and leading scorers Maurice Ager and Paul Davis were among the prep juniors Heath and the Spartans were hard after.

Two prize recruits -- Zach Randolph and Jason Richardson -- left after their freshman and sophomore seasons, respectively, following the 2001 Final Four and are now with Portland and Golden State in the NBA.

"They had very good years, but were probably getting negative publicity as guys that underachieved and couldn't get the program back to that level," Heath said. "To see those guys in their senior year after going through all that to win the game and win the game in the way they did showed a lot of character about those kids how they were willing to handle that adversity and fight through it."

The Spartans' toughness, especially on the glass, is where Heath would most like to see his Razorbacks compare favorably to his former employer.

Heath wanted Arkansas to play uptempo the way Michigan State has in the tournament, outscoring its opponents 60-16 in fast-break points.

"The biggest thing, they are very good at their relentlessness on the glass," Heath said. "Once they rebound, the transition. If you don't rebound, you can't run."

Arkansas was outrebounded by 1.7 per game in the Southeastern Conference and the Razorbacks' most successful stretch of the season came while winning four of six games, including a one-point loss to Kentucky, and controlling the rebounding advantage in five of those contests.

"As I watched them play, and I hadn't watched them a lot this year, I had thought there were some differences in some ways," Heath said. "But when I looked at them, I saw more similarities. You saw pretty good balance. You saw the bench utilized quite a bit, you saw fresh bodies on the court.

"If we could get better at rebounding, we'll be a better team. We haven't reached that level yet. I saw a lot of similarities and what we would like to do better."

And where they would like to be.

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