Last season was a breakthrough year for Arkansas head coach Stan Heath. After three years of making considerable improvement across the board, Heath's fourth Razorback team made noise nationally and earned Arkansas' first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years.
Every one of Heath's teams at Arkansas has been better than the previous squad. The Hogs have gone from nine wins in 2003 to 12 in 2004 to 18 in 2005 to 22 last year.
In 2006, Arkansas finished 22-10, tying for second in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division and tying for the third-highest victory total in the league. The Hogs beat eventual NCAA champion Florida, 85-81 in overtime, and eventual NIT champion South Carolina, 73-59. The Razorbacks were 15-1 at home, the best mark in the conference. The Hogs also recorded wins over two top 10 ranked opponents, beating then-No. 10 Florida and winning at then-No. 10 Tennessee, 73-69. The win at UT was the first road win over a top 10 opponent for Arkansas since 1994.
Of Arkansas' 10 losses, eight were by five points or less. In fact, the six SEC losses were by a total of 16 points. Outside the conference, UA, which received votes for the top 25 for the second straight year, scored big non-conference wins over Kansas, Missouri and Texas Tech.
The Razorbacks were solid across the board, finishing third in the SEC in scoring (74.7), fourth in scoring defense (64.9), third in scoring margin (+8.8), fourth in field goal defense (.416), sixth in field goal percentage (.458), fifth in free throw percentage (.692), second in blocked shots (6.1), third in assists (15.47), third in steals (8.31) and second in turnover margin (+3.38).
Arkansas' field goal percentage (.458) was its best since 1995 (.464) when the Hogs advanced to the Final Four championship game, the 194 blocked shots are the second-most in school history (229 in 1991) and the 498 free throws made in 720 attempts are the most in each category since 1998 (511-788) while the .692 percentage is the best since 1992 (.741).
Proof of overall progress is in the numbers during Heath's tenure. In 2003, UA was 12th in the SEC in scoring (61.6), 12th in field goal percentage (.393), 11th in three-point percentage (.310), 12th in free throw percentage (.609), 12th in assists (9.8), 12th in turnover margin (-3.39), ninth in blocked shots (3.5) and ninth in steals (6.5).
Signs of what was coming were evident in 2005 when Arkansas went 18-12, won the Paradise Jam, a six-team tournament at St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, received votes for the top 25 for the first time since 2001, and led the SEC in blocked shots (5.2) and three-point defense (.309).
Heath's 2004 club was the eighth-youngest in the nation, based on players contributing quality minutes, but the Hogs took steps in the right direction with the win total increasing by three to 12-16. That total included a pair of wins over ranked teams – No. 22 Vanderbilt, 70-62, and No. 25 South Carolina, 82-66.
When he became Arkansas' 10th head basketball coach on March 28, 2002, he inherited a team returning just 25.1 points and 16.8 rebounds a game from the previous season. Despite an all-freshmen backcourt, the Razorbacks enthusiastically bought into Heath's system and the results were evident. Heath's emphasis on defense resulted in UA holding opponents to 66.5 points a game, then the lowest total since 1988 (64.9). The biggest difference was on the boards. After ranking 12th in the Southeastern Conference in 2002 with a -8.7 rebounding margin, 10th with 8.0 offensive rebounds and 11th with 32.1 boards per game, Arkansas was the top rebounding team in the league with 38.0. The Hogs were also first with 14.54 offensive rebounds a game and third with a +5.5 rebounding margin.
Heath's coaching has a lot to do with those gains, but his recruiting is also a factor as he and his staff continue attracting several of the top players from across the country.
The 2003 class, which included Ronnie Brewer, Olu Famutimi and Vincent Hunter, was ranked No. 7 in the nation in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index and by Hoop Scoop, and No. 10 by CNNSI.com.
Heath and his staff earned praise in 2004 for signing Al Jefferson, the top prospect in the nation. Jefferson signed with Arkansas during the fall recruiting period but was selected by the Boston Celtics with the 15th pick in the first round of the 2004 NBA Draft.
Even though Jefferson did not suit up for Arkansas, his signing made inroads with other recruits nationally and the 2004 Razorback class was ranked No. 13 by Rivals.com and No. 16 by Hoop Scoop.
The 2003 class raised Arkansas' overall athletic ability. The 2004 class gave UA an inside presence with size in the form of 7-0 Steven Hill, 6-10 Darian Townes and 6-8 Charles Thomas.
The 2006 class is a combination of both, and was ranked No. 2 in the SEC and No. 14 in the nation by Scout.com, and No. 2 and No. 15, respectively, by Rivals.com.
Heath came to Arkansas after a record-setting season as the head coach at Kent State University. In 2001, his first year as a head coach, he led the Golden Flashes to a 30-6 record and to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.
Before going to KSU, he was an assistant for five years under Tom Izzo at Michigan State. He helped the Spartans advance to the Final Four three straight years (1999, 2000, 2001), win the 2000 national title, make another appearance in the Sweet 16 and go a combined 132-37.
On March 19, 2001, Sports Illustrated featured “five college coaches waiting in the wings.” Heath was on that list, along with assistant Leonard Perry of Iowa State, Florida assistant John Pelphrey, head coach Jeff Ruland of Iona and Hofstra assistant Jay Wright.
A month later, he was the head coach at Kent State. Under his guidance, the Golden Flashes won the Mid-American Conference regular-season and tournament titles, and came within a victory of reaching the Final Four before falling to Indiana in the South Region finals.
Along the way, Kent set school and MAC records for wins (30), breaking the record of 29 set by Ball State in 1989; became the first MAC team to reach the Elite Eight since Ohio University in 1964; recorded a league-record 21-game winning streak, including a 17-1 mark in conference play; beat three ranked teams in the NCAA Tournament, including No. 20 Oklahoma State, 69-61, No. 8 Alabama, 71-58, and No. 9 Pittsburgh, 78-73 in overtime, before losing to Indiana, 81-69; went 12-0 at home with an average attendance of 4,928, Kent's best since 1970; led the MAC in scoring defense (64.0 ppg), scoring margin (+11.9 ppg), field goal percentage defense (.418), rebounding margin (+5.0 rpg) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.24) while also ranking second in three-point field goal percentage defense (.326) and turnover margin (+2.78); and suffered its five regular season losses by a total of 15 points.
Individually, Heath's 30 wins ties for the third-most by a first-year head coach in NCAA Division I history with John Warren of Oregon (1945). Only Bill Guthridge of North Carolina (34 in 1998) and Bill Hodges of Indiana State (33 in 1979) won more. The Detroit native was also voted the MAC Coach of the Year and named the national Rookie Coach of the Year by both CBSSportsline.com and CollegeInsider.com.
Before going to Kent, the three-year letterman from Eastern Michigan helped Izzo and the Spartans post records of 17-12 in 1997, 22-8 in 1998, 33-5 in 1999, 32-7 in 2000 and 28-5 in 2001. In addition to the three trips to the Final Four, MSU also reached the Sweet 16 in 1998 and the second round of the NIT in 1997.
Heath, who earned his bachelor's in social science from Eastern Michigan in 1988 and his master's in sports administration from Wayne State (Detroit, Mich.) University in 1993, began his collegiate career at Hillsdale (Mich.) College in 1989 as an assistant. After one season, he moved to Albion (Mich.) College where he was an assistant and the junior varsity head coach for two years. He worked at Wayne State in Detroit the following three years, including serving as associate head coach in 1994 when WSU set a school record for victories (25-5), helping the Tartars win two Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles with a trip to the Division II Final Four in 1993.
After two seasons as an assistant at Bowling Green State University, he joined Izzo at Michigan State. He began his coaching career on the prep level, working as assistant varsity and head freshman coach at Lincoln High in Ypsilanti, Mich.
An all-state performer at Catholic Central High in Detroit, he lettered in 1985, '86 and '87 at Eastern Michigan.
He is married to the former Ramona Webb and they have two sons, Jordan (14) and Joshua (11).