Arkansas Close To NCAA Bid

ATLANTA--Dismissed as unnecessary several losses ago, I looked up the host sites for the first round of the NCAA Tournament with Arkansas in mind.

Unbelievably, the Razorbacks are very, very close to making travel plans at the NCAA's behest. The destination is irrelevant; making the trip is the thing and the Razorbacks are in position following a 81-72 victory over Mississippi State on Saturday in the Southeastern Conference tournament. The triumph not only moved Arkansas into the tournament finals, it eliminated a competitor from the invite list. The Bulldogs are one of a couple of dozen teams the Razorbacks have vaulted past by winning five in a row. It was only two weeks ago that Arkansas was 5-9 in the SEC and Stan Heath was about to be sucked under by the current. The NCAA was unthinkable and one of the questions was whether Heath would be the coach if the team played in the NIT. At the racetrack, such form reversal results in 50-1 longshots. Once again, there is a lesson about enduring the long haul for the end product. In the fall, it was the early season close calls of that belied the football team's run of 10 straight wins. Despite the three Ws in three days in Atlanta, Heath's job is still up in the air. If Arkansas just misses out; what then? The squeeze is on the Razorbacks and others on the periphery because Xavier, Nevada, and Butler — all losers in their conference tournaments — will get invites. If Arkansas loses to Florida on Sunday, I won't be certain that the Razorbacks are in until the bracket is unveiled. When CBS passes on the word from Indianapolis, the team will be on a charter flight to Fayetteville. If the Razorbacks are snubbed, they will accept the NIT and Heath's trial by fire will continue. Until the past two weeks, Arkansas has been the model of inconsistency, never winning two conference games in a row. At times, particularly on the road, the Razorbacks failed to convince watchers that the outcome really mattered. Find your own catch-all for whatever was lacking — concentration, effort, embarrassment, compatibility, love of coach — and note that it has been prominent. In the postgame, Gary Ervin described Heath as fiery. Charles Thomas threw out intense and added, "I think any other coach in his situation, with what's being said, would have folded." Those who want to dump Heath will argue that his body of work should not be outweighed by a 5-0 stretch at the end of this year and last year. Although he was in an impossible situation the first year, his 5-27 SEC road record for the past four years is there in black and white. Cite the Razorbacks' current fast finish and detractors will respond with "what took him so long" to identify the problem and fix it. That is a legitimate argument, but sometimes the difference is as simple as Ervin blowing down the lane and making a shot instead of missing. Once again, Arkansas showed it could win in a variety of ways, a point that was underlined when the Razorbacks reached 50 and leading scorer Patrick Beverley had only six. Booed early and often as a traitor, Ervin was in the middle of a rebuke of a MSU second-half rally. Spurned by MSU because Charles Rhodes was already in the fold, Thomas was far superior to Rhodes with 18 points and an equal number of rebounds. Stefan Welsh, Beverley, and Michael Washington — freshmen all — contributed important baskets. Steven Hill did his intimidation thing. In Starkville, MSU scored 22 points off Arkansas' 18 turnovers and won big. The Bulldogs also made 11 of their first 15 3s at home. Two weeks later, Arkansas had only a dozen turnovers, MSU made 1-of-15 3s, and the Razorbacks won by nine. On Saturday, Arkansas had 13 turnovers and the Bulldogs were 2-of-10 from long range in the second half. Arkansas never trailed during the final 19:36. Early in the second half, Beverley scored on a deliberate fast break, Hill made a picturesque hook, Thomas put back a miss and Welsh delivered a feed to Washington for an easy one and 52-43. At 53-48, Ervin scored twice inside and then hit a jumper. He finished with 15 points, including five field goals in the second half. Ben Hansbrough's 3 cut it to 69-61, but Thomas' 16th rebound and 14th point upped the lead to 10 and Ervin's acrobatic basket in front of the Arkansas bench made it 73-61. If the Razorbacks get in, more thought will go into packing. With three dress shirts in the dirty clothes, the tie won't work with the clean golf shirt. Harry King is sports columnist for Stephen's Media's Arkansas News Bureau. E-mail: hking@arkansasnews.com

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