Arkansas' transition game
May 28, 2002 Print it
For weeks after Stan Heath completed his sprint from major college assistant to power program head coach -- Michael Johnson wishes he moved that fast -- he was asked by reporters whether they might observe a few of his Razorbacks' offseason workouts. Upon agreeing to open the doors, Heath was greeted by four television cameras and 10 beat writers.
"Amazing," he says. If that degree of interest seems overwhelming, though, Heath could look at it this way: He won't be alone while facing the challenge of replacing former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson.
In April 2001, Heath was an assistant with Michigan State's Final Four team. Less than 12 months later, after a season as head coach at Kent State that ended in the NCAA Elite Eight, he was hired to run the Arkansas program, which owns a national championship and four Final Four trips.
In replacing Richardson, fired just before the team completed a 14-15 season, Heath will attempt a succession that ranks with the more daunting in recent history: Gene Bartow following John Wooden at UCLA, Bruiser Flint taking over when John Calipari left Massachusetts, Mike Davis stepping into the midst of Indiana's civil war when Bob Knight was dismissed.
As with Bartow and Davis, Heath is following a genuine legend. As with Flint and Davis, he enters with relatively little head coaching experience.
As with all of them, he is taking over a program that supporters expect to contend for national championships.
All those men, though, had concerns distinctive to their new positions. Among those faced by Heath:
Culture shock. It's not just that Heath is trying fit into the hills of northwest Arkansas. More important is the overwhelming change he'll implement in the Razorbacks' style of play.
Under Richardson, they employed the "40 Minutes of Hell" pressure that led to 20 opponents' turnovers per game last season and produced three Final Fours and 13 NCAA Tournament appearances. The system Heath learned at Michigan State emphasizes halfcourt execution on offense and defense.
"I'm not as conservative as people may think," Heath says. "I do love to play an up-tempo style. Unfortunately, a lot of the teams we played against in the Big Ten or the MAC wouldn't let you play like that. You're going to see more transition. But when you play against teams that like to slow you down, you have to be able to execute in the halfcourt."
Richardson's approach did not demand creative point guard play or effective rebounding. The Razorbacks ranked last in the SEC in rebounding margin. Without a point guard to control the action -- a Mateen Cleaves, a Trevor Huffman -- Heath's style cannot work. And rebounding may be the single most important ingredient.
Heath is not concerned with the Razorbacks' potential to learn rebounding, and with good reason. The team he took over at Kent State moved from ninth to first in the Mid-American Conference and ranked 16th among Division I teams in rebounding margin.
Leftover talent. Behind Richard Washington and Marques Johnson, Bartow went to the Final Four his first season. Davis got to start with Jared Jeffries and Kirk Haston. Heath does not enjoy the luxury of a lineup stuffed with All-Americans.
Richardson was kind enough to play nearly everyone on the roster for at least six minutes a game, so those who remain at least have been on the floor. But the top four scorers are gone. Wing J.J. Sullinger transferred to Ohio State. Top recruit Andre Iguodala received a release from his letter of intent and signed with Arizona. Reserve guard Charles Tatum injured his knee in a pickup game and is likely out for the year.
Rugged forwards Alonzo Lane and Larry Satchell could blossom with the new approach. Satchell got seven rebounds in four of the five games he played at least 20 minutes. In the final five games, Lane averaged 19.8 minutes, 5.2 points and 4.2 rebounds. But to make the offense go, Heath probably will rely on 6-2 Eric Ferguson from Connecticut's Milford Academy or 6-3 Kendrick Davis from Sugar Land, Texas, both spring recruits.
"He pays such attention to detail," guard Blake Eddins says. "I'm not the quickest guy in the world, and everybody knows that. But I was dribbling to my side instead of dribbling out front, and it was further slowing me down.
"He pointed that out and said, 'You're not as slow as you think.' "
The Richardson specter. Anyone who follows a wildly successful coach must deal with his predecessor's legacy, but Heath is stepping into a situation with the residue of racial controversy. Richardson's allegations regarding his treatment by the university administration and his suggestions that black athletes do not enjoy an entirely blissful experience at Arkansas constructed another obstacle for Heath to overcome.
"I probably should be more concerned. I'm really not all that worried about it," Heath says. "I guess when you're on the road recruiting, it becomes a topic people use to recruit against you. But no matter where you are, what school, people are going to find some way to attack you."
The media could turn out to be a significant ally for Heath as he builds his program. His agreeable personality contrasts with Richardson's instinctive combativeness. Many Arkansas basketball writers had grown weary of the rants and sermons he delivered.
Most of the 19,000 who pack Bud Walton Arena on game nights won't get to know him as well. Like any crowd, they are seeking positive results. If Heath can elevate the Razorbacks half as quickly as he advanced to this position, those fans should be pleased.