Roller Coaster Ride

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Through triumphant highs and depressing lows, the Arkansas basketball season has been a roller coaster of emotion.

A season-opening five-game winning streak. A frustratingly inconsistent Southeastern Conference season. An ultimatum to Arkansas coach Stan Heath. Another five-game winning streak, capping a late run to the NCAA Tournament. And, eventually, another first-round tournament exit.

Thinking about it all was enough to send Sonny Weems' eyes rolling far up into his head Friday night.

The Razorbacks had just ended their 21-14 season with a 77-60 loss to fifth-seeded Southern California in an East Regional contest in Spokane, Wash. And the junior forward couldn't believe how many different feelings he had felt in the course of just more than four months.

"It's all been pretty crazy," Weems said. "It's been up and down. Real up and down. The ups have been real up, and the downs have been real down. We accomplished a lot, but we also let ourselves down a lot."

The lack of consistency Weems alluded to defined Arkansas' season.

At times, the Razorbacks looked as talented as any team in the country. In late November, they won the Old Spice Classic in Orlando by beating one NCAA Tournament team (Southern Illinois) and two NIT participants (Marist and West Virginia).

They left Central Florida feeling like they could beat anybody.

"We came together as a team, and we know there's no one we can't beat," Arkansas point guard Gary Ervin said after the 73-64 championship-game win over the Mountaineers.

But then, Arkansas' mysterious inconsistencies appeared. The Razorbacks were drilled by 22 points at Missouri and showed up flat in a 15-point loss to Texas Tech in North Little Rock. They then blew a late five-point lead at Texas.

In each loss, the Hogs started slow and were forced to play from behind, a theme that would emerge repeatedly later in the season.

"There were just too many times when we didn't play with the intensity we need to win," Weems said.

A low point in the season occurred when Darian Townes was sent to the locker room in the middle of Arkansas' Jan. 2 victory over Tulsa.

In the next game, though, the Razorbacks reverted back to their Old Spice Classic form. They drilled then-No. 9 Alabama by 27 points in Fayetteville, the biggest victory over a top 10 opponent in school history. Four days later, they led top-ranked Florida in the second half of a seven-point loss.

But as fast as Arkansas turned the season around, its fortunes tumbled.

The Hogs struggled at Ole Miss in a two-point loss, foreshadowing more road struggles to follow, and blew a late seven-point lead to Georgia in Fayetteville. Steve Newman's game-winning 28-footer at the buzzer silenced the Bud Walton Arena crowd and stunned the Razorbacks.

"That was about as low as it got this year," Weems said.

Those sentiments would get lower. Big wins over LSU, at Alabama and over Auburn would be sandwiched around disappointing losses at South Carolina and to Kentucky.

After defeats at LSU and Mississippi State, Arkansas was 4-7 in the SEC, its season in danger of spiraling out of control.

A home win over Ole Miss stopped the bleeding. But a devastating loss at Auburn and an even more hurtful defeat at home to Tennessee resulted in the threat to Heath's job. A source close to the program, on the Monday after the Tennessee loss, told The Morning News that Heath would be fired if the Hogs failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

Whether the ultimatum fueled Arkansas is unknown.

"Coach Heath just told us at the time to focus on basketball," Arkansas forward Charles Thomas said.

But either way, the Razorbacks played with an urgency, with a must-win mentality for the rest of the season. A near brawl in the second half of their next game, a home win over Mississippi State, also spurred Arkansas' impending run.

Arkansas finished the regular season with an emphatic 15-point win at Vanderbilt. The Hogs then won three straight in the SEC Tournament, improbably earning a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"We had a lot of people to prove wrong," Ervin said.

Those same people might believe they were actually right after the Razorbacks played poorly in the NCAA Tournament loss to USC.

The same issues that hampered Arkansas during the regular season arose in that defeat. The Razorbacks lacked consistent intensity and energy. Their point guard play, from Ervin, was sporadic. Their post play was inconsistent. Players once again bickered with one another, identifying some possible chemistry issues.

And, their freshmen looked like freshmen.

Still, for those that argue Heath should return for a sixth season, many positives can be identified.

Freshman Patrick Beverley emerged as the SEC Freshman of the Year. Ervin, Weems and Thomas grew into team leaders, though they never developed consistency. Plus, at the end of the season, the Razorbacks' two other freshmen -- Stefan Welsh and Michael Washington -- found contributing roles.

The Hogs also had to deal with costly injuries to Thomas (shoulder and ankle) and Steven Hill (hamstring) throughout the heart of their SEC schedule..

Most importantly, when looking ahead, no one graduates.

"We've got so much coming back for next year," Beverley said. "There's no limit to what we could do."



TOPSY-TURVY SEASON

Arkansas was as erratic as any team in college basketball this season. The Razorbacks started strong with five straight victories, but they then struggled with inconsistency throughout their Southeastern Conference schedule. The Hogs peaked near the end of the regular season and into the SEC Tournament, but they played poorly in their second consecutive NCAA Tournament first-round exit.

High Points

* The Old Spice Classic -- Arkansas, before a national TV audience, picked up three victories in four days over Southern Illinois, Marist and West Virginia to claim the tournament championship in Orlando.

* An 88-61 victory on Jan. 6 over Alabama -- The Razorbacks stormed out to a 15-2 lead and went on to blister the then-No. 9 Crimson Tide. They recorded the largest margin of victory over a top 10 opponent in school history.

* The second five-game win streak -- After word leaked about Stan Heath's impending firing if Arkansas failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, the Hogs won five straight, including three in the SEC Tournament.

Low Points

* The 22-point defeat at Missouri -- On a snowy night in Columbia, Mo., former Razorbacks assistant coach Mike Anderson's Tigers put Arkansas through 40 Minutes of Hell in an 86-64 drubbing.

* Repeated road failures -- Arkansas consistently showed up with little energy away from Bud Walton Arena. The most glaring defeats were at Ole Miss, South Carolina, LSU and Auburn.

* One and done, again -- The Hogs exited the NCAA Tournament in the first round for the second consecutive season. Southern California harassed Arkansas in Spokane, Wash., with smothering defense, and the Razorbacks shot badly and didn't exhibit much spirit.


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