He said sophomore Gary Ervin has several qualities similar to former Michigan State floor general Mateen Cleaves, who led the Spartans to two Final Fours and one national championship during his four-year career.
Ervin, wearing an Arkansas basketball T-shirt and gym shorts, made his first appearance as a Razorback after transferring from Mississippi State and enrolling at Arkansas this week. The 5-foot-11, 170-pounder must sit out the 2005-06 season under NCAA rules, but Heath is confident Arkansas finally has found the Cleaves-type floor general it has been sorely lacking.
"(Cleaves) had a lot of intangible qualities," said Heath, who was an assistant on coach Tom Izzo's staff during Cleaves' career with the Spartans. "He was tough. He had great leadership qualities. He was fast and he could push the ball. He had some negative raps, too. Sometimes his stats didn't always look the way you wanted them to look. But at the end of the day, the kid was a winner.
"That was one of the things that intrigued me and excited me when I found out Gary had a lot of interest in Arkansas. Once we got him down here, we got to know him a little bit, I just thought he was a great kid. He's a kid that was going to bring a lot of leadership, bring a lot of toughness to our program."
Ervin was granted a release from his Mississippi State scholarship and will have two seasons of eligibility remaining beginning in 2006-07.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native started 33 games and averaged 7.4 points and 4.7 assists as a sophomore. Ervin, who helped the Bulldogs reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, asked for his release because he felt his up-tempo style didn't fit into Mississippi State's plans.
Ervin said he didn't transfer because of Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury's decision to bench him during the Bulldogs' 80-72 loss against LSU on Feb. 16.
"It wasn't too much of that," Ervin said. "It was really just the style of play. It was a decision that I had to sit down and think about because there's not a lot of places you can go after this. I just wanted to play at the same level. It wasn't too much about the (LSU) game.
"I just sat down and had a talk with my family and thought it would be best to go elsewhere."
To Heath's surprise, Ervin contacted the Arkansas staff and told them he was interested in the Razorbacks. He visited Arkansas on April 30 and had four other trips scheduled to Texas-El Paso, Seton Hall, Rutgers and Marquette.
But Ervin knew Arkansas was the best fit during his on-campus visit.
"I just felt that I was going to go with my heart," Ervin said. "I took one visit. I was planning on taking a couple others, but by the time I left (Arkansas), I kind of had in the back of my mind, I knew that this was the place that I wanted to go.
"I just never told anybody. But I new that I was going to end up here."
Ervin is regarded as a speedy point guard and solid penetrator. His success at Mississippi State was predicated on his ability to drive to the basket to set up post players like Lawrence Roberts or draw contact and get to the free-throw line.
Ervin was third in the Southeastern Conference in assists last season and seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.58 to 1). He also finished second on the team, behind Roberts, in free throw attempts (95).
"This guy from Point A to Point B is as fast as anybody you'll find in college basketball," Heath said. "What does that mean? Coaches always search for easy baskets. He gives you easy baskets."
Those talents will be vital to the Razorbacks, who haven't had a true point guard during Heath's tenure. Senior Eric Ferguson has handled ball-handling duties most of his career, but Heath would like to move him to shooting guard.
Ervin won't be able to help a 2005-06 backcourt that includes Ferguson, senior Dontell Jefferson, junior Ronnie Brewer and incoming freshman Sean McCurdy. But with Ferguson and Jefferson graduating and Brewer expected to consider NBA options after the season, Arkansas could be short on experience in 2006-07.
That's why Heath believes Ervin's addition is valuable.
"He's got a presence about himself," Heath said. "He's got a cockiness, a toughness that, when it gets crunch time, he's going to step to the plate.
"Unfortunately, we got to see that in our games against him. So it's going to be good to have him on board instead of playing against him."
Ervin was 4-0 against the Razorbacks in his two seasons at Mississippi State.
He struck a blow to Arkansas' hopes last February when his 3-pointer gave Mississippi State a 56-52 lead with 1:09 left in its 57-55 win in Fayetteville. It was the start of a three-game slide that wiped out Arkansas' NCAA Tournament hopes and led to its decision to decline a bid in the National Invitation Tournament.
Now he's planning to help lead the Hogs to the NCAA Tournament in 2006-07.
"It's going to be very exciting," Ervin said about facing his former Bulldogs' teammates twice in 2006-07. "I love Mississippi State. I love everything about it. I'm just sorry it didn't work out. Now, I'm a Razorback."
Heath Believes Ervin Brings Leadership, Toughness
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