Team preview: Arkansas

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Exacting critics that they are, some Arkansas fans were concerned about coach Stan Heath and his team as last season began. At the time, the Razorbacks were mired in a period of mediocrity that must have seemed like decades for a program of Arkansas' stature. Not since 2001 had the Hogs played in the NCAA Tournament.

A less passionate, or more positive-minded observer -- a glass-is-half-full type, if you will -- might have looked at Heath's record and seen a steady progression. From a 9-19 record salvaged out of the shambles of the former Nolan Richardson regime in Heath's first season in 2002-03, the Hogs improved to 12-16, then 18-12. That latter season ended in disappointment as Arkansas failed to capitalize on an opportunity to claim a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Not even an NIT bid could ease the pain -- the Hogs were extended one but turned it down.

As last year began, Heath and his team felt some pressure. There were rumors that Heath had to lead the Razorbacks into the NCAAs -- or else. No one will ever know whether that mandate was accurate. That's because the Hogs put an end to their NCAA drought, earning a bid with an impressive six-game winning streak in late February and early March that included consecutive victories over eventual national champion Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. The last win came on the road and was the SEC Eastern Division champion Vols' first home loss of the season.

Arkansas' long-awaited trip to the Big Dance turned out to be brief. The Hogs had to play giant-killing Bucknell in a game that was everybody's upset special, which meant it wasn't really an upset when the Bison bumped the Razorbacks from the tournament, 59-55. Still, for a program struggling to get back on track, progress had been made.

Now the scrutiny of Heath's program really begins. Last year's team revolved around three veteran guards -- junior Ronnie Brewer (18.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.2 apg, 2.6 spg), who surprised no one by jumping to the NBA, and seniors Jonathon Modica (16.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.1 spg) and Eric Ferguson (8.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.0 spg). Their contributions have to be replaced, and as a new season begins, Razorback fans are again wondering how far the program has progressed. Is Arkansas to the point where it can reload rather than rebuild?

Let's let Heath take that question.

"Since I first got here, it's constantly been a battle," Heath said. "Fighting the negativity surrounding
coach Richardson not being here. Going through a couple of rebuilding seasons. We had a year where we finished very poorly.

"I know it appeared from the outside that things weren't quite there. But I was proud of the team taking the next step [last season] and really putting the program back on solid ground. This is the first year since I've been here that we've gone into a new season feeling that way. Recruiting is an easier sell. There are no seniors in this program. Our future really looks bright."

Spoken like a man with a new contract. In July, Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles extended Heath's deal through 2011.