Dealing With Failure

FAYETTEVILLE — This is the time of the college basketball season when teams make their final push for the NCAA Tournament. Members of the tournament's selection committee pay far more attention to games played in January and February than in November and December.

Stellar performances are rewarded more now, during the closing stretch of conference play, than during nonconference competition. Arkansas coach Stan Heath is fully aware of this. And that's why his assessment of the Razorbacks pains him so much. "Right now is the time of year when you should play your best basketball," Heath said. "We're not doing it." The Hogs' 83-72 loss Saturday to Tennessee all but sealed their postseason fate. Now, not even an NIT invitation is guaranteed. And anyway, the Razorbacks (16-12, 5-9) may not even accept. They didn't two seasons ago when they lost their final three games, and they may not this season with Heath's future in limbo. About seven weeks ago, Arkansas' current plight seemed improbable. After drilling Alabama 88-61 on Jan. 6, the Razorbacks' record was 12-3. They were receiving votes in the both polls. ESPN color announcer Dick Vitale even named Arkansas as his "team of the week." But ever since, the Hogs have sputtered along. They haven't won consecutive games since that victory over the Crimson Tide in Fayetteville. They have lost nine of their last 13 games and have gone from as high as a No. 8 seed in NCAA Tournament projections to "on the bubble" to "off the bubble." The only consistent quality about Arkansas has been, well, its inconsistency. "We have to get on the same page with everything we're doing — offensively and defensively — and we haven't been," Heath said. Arkansas' players don't know how to explain the January and February swoon. Heath had an idea Saturday, moments after watching his Razorbacks give up 17 offensive rebounds and commit 17 of their 24 turnovers in the second half. "I just think we have too many breakdowns on little things," Heath said. "Whether it's boxing out on rebounds, or guarding penetration, or rotating and getting our coverages there, or executing things and getting the ball where we want it." Reversing their course doesn't get any easier for the Razorbacks, either. Games await Wednesday against Mississippi State, the co-leader in the Southeastern Conference Western Division, and at Vanderbilt, the No. 2 team in the SEC East. All the Hogs can concentrate on is building some positive momentum for the SEC Tournament, their last long-shot avenue to get into the NCAA Tournament. "We can't give up," Arkansas forward Darian Townes said. "We've still got a lot to play for. We have to get rid of the feeling we have right now somehow."

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