Heath replaces hot seat with winning streak

In one week, Arkansas' Stan Heath has gone from the hottest seat in the SEC to the conference's hottest coach.

Of course, that could all change by the end of this week, but for now Arkansas fans are finally seeing the kind of results they've expected from Heath's teams all along.

The more patience Razorback fans were willing to forgive a trying 2002—03 season because of the rebuilding process, but Heath's team have spent most of the past two seasons underachieving, looking a spark of fire that rarely seemed to ignite and never stayed lit.

All that changed in the past week, with an 85-81 overtime home win over then-No. 10 Florida on the previous Saturday, a 65-63 home win over Alabama on Tuesday and a stunning 73-69 road win at 10th-ranked Tennessee on Saturday.

"We battled all season long. We've had a lot of tough games that didn't go our way. The last three have fortunately gone in our favor," Heath said. "It just shows you we've been right there all season long. I think I should get a medal for coaching in more close games than anybody in the country except maybe Notre Dame."

Suddenly, the Razorbacks look like a team seriously willing and able to fight for their coach, their season and their tenuous shot at the NCAA Tournament.

"I feel like we owe it to our seniors, Coach Heath and the university and the people of Arkansas to go out there and give it everything we've got," said

Ronnie Brewer, the SEC's leading scorer.

Even the normally low-key Heath is showing some much-needed intensity.

"Awesome!" Heath said after the Alabama game. "Somebody is looking over us. We never gave up. One of the best games I've ever been a part of. ...

"I'm going to go home tonight and watch that tape one more time just to see if we did win that. Man, we must be doing some good things now."

Those good things were evident last week down the stretch in close games, when the Razorbacks played with a mental and physical toughness that has often been missing the past two seasons.

"We're finding a way to win at the end of games," Brewer said. "We've been locking up on defense, making more plays at the end."

At 19-8, 8-6 in the SEC, the Razorbacks are above. 500 in SEC play in February for the first time in five years. They're also in their best position to earn an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament since their last appearance in 2001.

The Razorbacks entered the week ranked 56th in the RPI, but after beating No. 37 Alabama and then winning at No. 4 Tennessee in a five-day period, their RPI is bound to make a significant jump this week.

"We haven't exactly been killing people on the road, so a win against the best team or the top-two team in the league is really a credit to our team," Heath said after the Tennessee win. "I'm just really proud of the way they never quit, the way they never stopped fighting."

Even though they close their regular season this week with two winnable games – a home game against Mississippi State on Wednesday and a road game at Georgia on Saturday – the Razorbacks can't afford to take anything for granted.

"If you were looking on our schedule and said we were going to win all three, I am not sure many people would have believed that," Heath said. "It shows you we have always been right there. I would not have thought we were going to win all three, but I would not bet against us right now."

While Heath has made a strong move in the right direction in the past week, Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes' stock continues to decline.

As if losing 84-55 at Mississippi State on Saturday wasn't bad enough, the Rebels followed with an 80-40 loss at Kentucky. It's important to note the Rebels played without their best player, sophomore center Dwayne Curtis, who missed the game to attend the funeral of his brother, but it still have Ole Miss nine losses in 10 games.

With a 58-54 home loss to Auburn on Saturday, it's hard to imagine Barnes being able to do enough at this point to save his job.

"I'm not going to get crushed," Barnes said after the Auburn loss. "I may bend, I may lean over, but I'm not going to fall."

Then again, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger last week reported on Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone's non-committal status regarding Barnes future as the Rebels' coach.

While Barnes insisted, "a mind should be made up until the season is over," he also added, "The only thing I really want to say about it is that certainly this has been a disappointing year.

"Coach Barnes had talked about that several weeks ago. But we've got the season left to do. As I should do and as I think anybody should do, you let seasons play themselves out and then you evaluate. You sit down with coach and you discuss the evaluation of that and that's what we plan to do."

Barnes, a former SEC player and assistant coach, inherited a solid program when Rob Evans left Ole Miss for Arizona State in 1998. Barnes continued to build on Ole Miss' success with three NCAA Tournament berths and one NIT in his first four seasons on the job. Since the 2002-03 season, however, Ole Miss has not won more than 14 games overall or five SEC games in a season.

"I don't think I would ever go into any season with a win-loss goal," Boone told the Clarion-Ledger. "You really need to see progress. Sometimes progress is evident to the average fan and sometimes it's not. I have to have, I guess, some sort of standards, heart beats or the pulse of important things that I look at to see how something is developing.

"But I like to just see it, feel it and digest it. And when it is all said and done, then put it all together."

As for Barnes, he's trying to focus on his players instead of his own concerns, but it can't be easy.

"You're always concerned and I'm concerned about our kids," Barnes said. "But you know, let's win. And not win to change anybody's perception of what my job situation is. I've just always been a guy that, when I set goals, stays focused on accomplishing it. I still see that winning season out there. All the other things, whether I'm going to be back, all that, you just learn that all that counts is Saturday."

At 14-12, 4-10, a winning season is still possible, but that still might not be enough to save Barnes' job, especially in light of the Rebels' losing SEC record. Playing Vanderbilt at home on Wednesday and LSU on the road on Saturday isn't going to make that task any easier.

"What's going to happen is what's going to happen," senior Londrick Nolen told the Clarion-Ledger. "Coach is a great guy. He deserves his job. I don't ever want to see a man get fired. We've got to play for him, ourselves. This is my last year. I'd like to go out a winner.

"We need one more to have a winning season and we're trying to get it. I know we are."

In many ways last week was tough on the SEC. While Arkansas improved its NCAA Tournament stock, some of the SEC's other NCAA Tournament possibilities took some hits.

-- LSU 71, Kentucky 67 in Baton Rouge: Good for LSU, but LSU is already headed for the tournament and the win won't likely change the Tigers' seeding. Kentucky, on the other hand, is 18-10, 8-6 in the SEC and needs every win it can get to improve its NCAA resume.

-- Tennessee 76, Florida 72 in Gainesville: Good for Tennessee, but the home loss doesn't do anything to improve Florida's seeding. It also adds to the perception that Florida tends to struggle late in the season under coach Billy Donovan.

-- Arkansas 73, Tennessee 69, in Knoxville: Again, good for Arkansas, but not a good home loss for the SEC team with the best chance at a high seed. After the Florida win, national pundits were pushing the Vols for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That changed on Saturday.

-- LSU 77, Vanderbilt 67, in Nashville: Another good win for LSU, but this appeared to be Vandy's last, best chance to make its mark.

-- Vanderbilt 57, South Carolina 56, in Columbia: South Carolina joined Vanderbilt on the list of SEC teams on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament discussions.

Add it all up, and the SEC still looks like a good bet to put six teams in the SEC, with LSU, Tennessee and Florida locked in at this point and Alabama, Kentucky and Arkansas still working to secure their bids. If the projected brackets on the Internet (i.e., ESPN, CBS Sportsline, USA Today), all six are in unless the Crimson Tide, Wildcats or Razorbacks fall apart in the next two weeks.

Even though Kentucky lost at LSU on Saturday the Wildcats still appear to be headed in the right direction at the right time thanks to a late-season lineup change.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith benched his three McDonald's All-Americans, point guard Rajon Rondo, center Randolph Morris and wing Joe Crawford, and started seniors Ravi Moss and Brandon Stockton and junior Lukasz Obrzut in their place.

The Wildcats responded with three consecutive wins before the loss at LSU.

"That's why Tubby is one of the best coaches in the country," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "You can't cave in to the pressure of what other people think is best. ... It takes a strong personality and a very confident coach to do that."

It also takes a strong will to deal with unhappiness of benched stars who aren't afraid to express their displeasure. Give Rondo credit, though. He wasn't happy with the demotion but he responded in a positive manner against Ole Miss, with a career-high 12 assists and no turnovers in 23 minutes.

"Sometimes you need a wake-up call," Barnes said of Rondo. "Now he realizes, 'If I just go play the game, it'll take care of itself.'

"I'm sure he wants to prove himself. Being an all-SEC candidate coming off the bench, he's probably a little more hungry than he was before."

As for the team's veterans, they're just trying to make sure the Wildcats don't miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991.

"Coach is pushing the right buttons," senior guard Patrick Sparks told the Lexington Herald-Leader, "doing all he can to motivate the team."

As for Smith, who has been mentioned as a candidate for a possible opening with the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats after years of enduring the criticism of relentless Kentucky fans, he didn't sound like a coach on the move during the most recent installment of his radio show.

After a caller shared his support and asked Smith if was planning on coaching the Wildcats next season, Smith said, "Oh yeah. I plan on being back next year. I don't know where else I could be."

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