After Florida won consecutive national championships in 2006-07, other athletic directors around the Southeastern Conference wanted to tap into some of that magic. So it came as no surprise that two of the assistant coaches who were on Gator coach Billy Donovan’s
staff from the beginning, John Pelphrey and Anthony Grant
, were hired as head coaches at Arkansas and Alabama, respectively.
Ample proof that hiring a Donovan assistant was an astute business decision comes Tuesday night, when Florida plays host to Alabama with the overall SEC championship on the line.
Both teams have an 11-3 conference record. And both still have one more difficult game to play after Tuesday. But tonight’s game could establish conference superiority, and it could well stamp Alabama’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi has recently opined that the Crimson Tide has done enough to earn its spot into the Big Dance. His reasoning: an overall SEC championship would be hard for the NCAA selection committee to ignore, despite Alabama’s poor start and its less-than-ideal RPI (88) and non-conference schedule strength (288) numbers.
It’s interesting to note that Grant has had to turn away from the style he learned under Donovan, who in turned learned it from Rick Pitino. Grant’s personnel has dictated he no longer use full-court pressure except in surprise-attack situations. When Grant began to emphasize half-court pressure after a slow start in non-conference play, the Tide became the best defensive team in the SEC, leading the league in points allowed (58.2 ppg) and defensive field-goal percentage (.373).
Florida has always been a team that embraces the three-pointer, but Alabama, lacking enough distance marksmen, are last in the league in three-point percentage (.300) and threes per game (4.1). Nothing gets forced from beyond the arc.
Despite those alterations in style, here Alabama is, traveling to Gainesville, where Grant worked for 10 seasons, to try and lay claim to an SEC championship. And in Grant’s second season, no less.
Grant has tried not to focus on the storyline that has unfolded.
“We try to stay in the moment,” he said. “We’ve got enough [to worry about] with Florida’s team. We’ve got a lot of respect for what Billy’s done, not just this year, but throughout his career.”
HOGS HANGING IN THERE:
It’s too late for the SEC’s other former Donovan assistant, Pelphrey, and his Arkansas team to run down Alabama for the SEC Western Division championship, but after scratching out two straight narrow victories over Kentucky and Auburn last week, the Razorbacks (18-10, 7-7) suddenly find themselves with a legitimate chance to claim second place and the first-round bye in that SEC Tournament that accompanies it.
In a perfect bit of scheduling, Arkansas will be able to earn that prize, not back into it, because it plays its closest pursuers, the two Mississippi schools, in its final two games.
At 7-7 in the league, Mississippi State plays at Arkansas on Wednesday night. The Hogs end their season with a March 5 game at Ole Miss (6-8). They lost to both Mississippi schools, in consecutive games, earlier in the season.
JACK AND THE KING:
The big game over the weekend was Florida at Kentucky, but the Fast Break chose history over drama and headed to Tennessee, where 85-year-old Mississippi State play-by-play announcer Jack Cristil
called his final game.
Cristil, who had to retire abruptly because of health concerns, was swarmed by well wishers and reporters before and after the game—even ESPN color analyst Jimmy Dykes brought out a hand-held video camera to preserve the moment—and the Fast Break was in on the mix, too. But rather than ask Cristil to recollect highlights from his 58-year career calling Bulldog football and basketball, FB wanted to know about his interview with Elvis Presley.
As recounted in the 2010 book, Baby, Let’s Play House by Alanna Nash, Cristil had the opportunity to chat with the King of rock and roll when he returned to his native Tupelo, Miss. for an appearance at a fair on Sept. 26, 1956. Cristil came away perhaps wondering what all the fuss was about.
“I’m going to be perfectly frank with you,” Cristil said in his trademark baritone. “It was not the greatest interview in the world. He could not express himself very well. He did not have a lot of charisma at that time. He hadn’t been, as we say in the trade, “schooled” in media.
“But it was enjoyable. He being a local boy [Cristil worked at WELO in Tupelo], we had some things to talk about.”
Cristil, who began calling Mississippi State football games in 1953, might not have stayed around for Elvis’ show that night, which was attended by 20,000 people, more than double Tupelo’s population at the time. By late September 1956, Presley had already made the first of his historic appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, put out several hit records and had been linked with actresses Debra Paget and Natalie Wood, among others.
Elvis must have saved his charisma for the stage and screen and not the media.
“I had no earthly idea [that Presley would become an icon],” Cristil said. “I wasn’t into the music end of the entertainment industry. So I really didn’t know what his potential was. I’d heard him sing some songs. Some I liked, and some I didn’t.”
HOMECOURT NO HAVEN:
If Tennessee fails to make the NCAA Tournament field for the first time in coach Bruce Pearl’s
six seasons, the reason won’t be hard to spot. After losing to Mississippi State at home last Saturday, the Vols, formerly bullies at home, are 10-7 inside their Thompson-Boling Arena this season.
If you count an exhibition game loss to Division II Indianapolis—a harbinger of things to come—Tennessee has lost eight home games this season. To put that in proper perspective, the Vols had lost just eight home games in Pearl’s first five seasons, and five of those came in 2008-09. Tennessee was 16-0 in 2006-07 and 2007-08 and 15-1 a year ago. The Vols were 13-2 in 2005-06, Pearl’s first season.
Tennessee’s inability to defend its home turf has been a head scratcher for Pearl, especially given the fact the Vols are a decent 4-5 on the road this season, including 4-3 in the SEC. That total doesn’t even count the Vols’ win over Pittsburgh, which was played at the Consol Energy Center and not the Panthers’ homecourt but was still essentially a road game.
“The energy of the crowds has been great, but it does not inspire our players to elevate their games,” Pearl said after the Vols’ 71-70 loss to Mississippi State, their third one-point defeat of the season. “At this level, a great crowd usually doesn’t bother the opponents. Players are too good, too experienced. It can elevate the quality of the [home team’s] play. But it hasn’t done that this year.”
Pearl wasn’t being critical of Tennessee’s fans. That shifts the focus to his players, but there hasn’t been any one reason the Vols have struggled at home, besides their inability to make plays at the end of games. At various times, the Vols have struggled shooting from the perimeter, suffered maddening defensive lapses—such as the night Charleston shot 57 percent from the field, 56 percent from three and won 91-78—and struggled to make free throws, reason enough for Tennessee to be involved in so many close games.
Pearl’s eight-game suspension to start the SEC season didn’t help, though the Vols will finish with a better record in those games (5-3) than they will the last half of conference play. The best they can end up is 4-4.