Did 2-0 Week Change Heath's Status?

LITTLE ROCK - Once dead certain that Stan Heath was 4-0 in Atlanta or out, now there is some "what if" attached to his future.

The win-or-else mandate was the word post-Tennessee on Feb. 24. Less than 72 hours after stinking it up at Auburn, the Razorbacks had lost at home to the Vols by 11 and were officially out of the Western Division race. On top of that, division-leading Mississippi State was coming to town and there was still that trip to Vanderbilt where the visitor never wins.

At that point, it made sense that the only way Arkansas could get to the NCAA Tournament was to win the SEC Tournament. By their own doing, the Razorbacks changed the landscape and considering the other candidates for an invite, Arkansas might get in by winning three in Atlanta.

The last two games, the Razorbacks shot the ball well and wound up one W shy of sharing the division title. In losses to Auburn and Tennessee, the Razorbacks were 4-of-26 from 3-point range. In follow-up victories, they were 17-of-38.

The 7-9 finish, coupled with the Mississippi schools' sweep of the Alabama schools on the weekend, moved the Razorbacks into the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament and put them opposite South Carolina.

By far, the Gamecocks are the worst team in the Eastern Division. They won only four conference games all year, albeit one was against Arkansas, but have lost eight of their last 10.

There is more. If the Razorbacks get past the Gamecocks, they will play the Commodores again. What happened in Nashville on Saturday has little to do with what will happen in Atlanta on Friday, but Vandy showed little interest in playing the pressure defense that bothers Arkansas the most.

If Mississippi State had lost on Sunday, the Razorbacks would have been in line to play defending national champion Florida in the second round.

The Big Four from the Eastern Division are in the NCAA Tournament. If the selection committee adds a fifth SEC team, it could be as simple as who does the best in Atlanta.

Working against Arkansas is its conference record. On the flip side, the Razorbacks' strength of schedule is No. 12 and the best of the remaining SEC teams under consideration. The Razorbacks' RPI is second only to Alabama and a dozen points or more ahead of Mississippi, Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn. LSU and South Carolina could get there only by winning the tournament, which seems unlikely.

It is clear that a 1-1 tournament will not be good enough. If Arkansas beats South Carolina and Vanderbilt, then loses to No. 1 seed Mississippi State or highly regarded Kentucky, it would be a splendid two weeks, but not enough to get into the NCAA. In that case, uncertainty about Heath could continue into the NIT, particularly if the Razorbacks played hard and lost on a last-second shot.

But win three and lose to Florida in the conference finals, hmmm. If not in the NCAA at 21-13, Arkansas would be on the cusp and would be one of those teams committee chairman Gary Walters of Princeton would be asked about late Sunday. No matter the team, his answer will be generic and noncommittal.

If Arkansas is in the NCAA field for the second straight year, canning Heath would take some powerful explaining. In addition to the won-loss record, there is another factor at work here and it involves the fact that Arkansas has seven juniors — Preston Cranford, Gary Ervin, Steven Hill, Charles Thomas, Darian Townes, Vincent Hunter and Sonny Weems. None of them have the NBA options of, say, Florida's Yoakim Noah, so they will be around next year.

That means that come November, the Arkansas coach could sign as many as seven athletes for the 2008 season.

If Heath remains as the coach, he needs a stout three-year endorsement. Otherwise, he could be on the hot seat again next spring. If he is fired a year from now, the new coach could be in a bind, either dumping Heath's signees and playing catch-up for ‘08 or being stuck with a large group of players he might not want.

Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media's Arkansas News Bureau. e-mail: hking@arkansasnews.com.

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