Lost amid the firing of Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl
yesterday is the fact the Southeastern Conference has two teams left standing in the NCAA Tournament. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s as many as the Big East and Big Ten and one more than the Big 12, conferences rated ahead of the SEC.
It wasn’t the best of regular seasons for the SEC—the league finished sixth in conference RPI, trailing even the Mountain West—but the ultimate barometer for a league’s worth is the NCAA Tournament. And with Florida and Kentucky still in the hunt for a national championship, a supposed down year can still be memorable.
So what do the Gators and Wildcats have to do to keep advancing in the tournament? The way things have transpired so far, the Fast Break wouldn’t put it past any of the Sweet 16 teams to get to the Final Four, where anything can happen. Much like last year, there isn’t a historically great team in the field but rather a lot of good teams that could make a run. Who would have thought VCU, scorned by national pundits for even being allowed into the field, would punk Georgetown and Purdue to get to the Sweet 16?
Yep, this tournament is wide open.
Not to be overly simplistic, but two players will be key for Florida and Kentucky. Gator guard Kenny Boynton
, who went down with a left ankle sprain in a third-round victory over UCLA, missed practice on Monday but is expected to play against BYU in a Southeast Regional game. That’s good, because Boynton, the Gators’ best perimeter defender, will get first crack at slowing down Jimmer Fredette
, the nation’s leading scorer and the Fast Break’s choice for national player of the year and the Bob Cousy Award, given to the country’s best point guard.
Gator fans will recall that Boyton checked Fredette—or at least tried to—when BYU and Florida played in the first round a year ago. The results weren’t pretty: Fredette scored 33 in a BYU victory, prompting Florida coach Billy Donovan
to say that Fredette was more explosive than Kentucky’s John Wall and South Carolina’s Devan Downey
"I don't think either one of those two guys impact a college game like Fredette does," Donovan said a year ago. "As much as I have great, great respect and admiration for Wall and Downey, those guys can't get 50 in a game. They can't get to the free throw line 24 times in a game.”
Boynton’s job won’t be made any easier after his injury. Fredette has been known to break a few ankles with that crossover dribble of his, so Boynton’s had better be wrapped tight.
On the other hand, BYU is going to have to deal with Erving Walker
, the tiny guard with the penchant for taking—and making—big shots. Walker has elevated his play in the tournament so far—he’s averaging 19.5 points and shooting 63 percent from the field and 64 percent from three-point range, up from 14.5, 41 and 38.
As for Kentucky, the Fast Break heard one of the CBS/Turner/TNT/TruTV taking heads declare that senior post man Josh Harrellson
could be one of the most important players still remaining in the tournament. We’ll go along with that, given his defensive responsibility in the Wildcats’ Sweet 16 rendezvous with Ohio State in the East Regional. Harrellson will probably draw 6-9, 280-pound Jared Sullinger
, the nation’s best freshman who averaged a double-double (17.1 ppg, 10.0 rpg) and shot .543 from the field.
Harrellson is no lightweight himself at 6-10, 270, and like Walker has done for Florida, Harrellson has stepped up in the NCAAs. In fact, Kentucky would have been sent packing, perhaps even in its opener against Princeton, if Harrellson hadn’t asserted himself—he delivered 15 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and a blocked shot in 37 minutes against the Tigers and 15 points, eight boards, a blocked shot and a steal in 35 minutes against West Virginia.
Pearl’s firing at Tennessee has caused considerable consternation among Vol fans. A Knoxville News-Sentinel poll that asked the question, “Did Tennessee make the right decision regarding Bruce Pearl?” drew 13,917 votes the last time we checked and was running 70 percent no.
Pearl’s story has been told and retold too many times to rehash in this space. Suffice it to say it was a stunning fall from grace for a coach that had made Tennessee basketball relevant. But that’s the good news in all this. When Pearl was hired, he took a leap of faith coming to a program that seemingly had all the pieces in place to build a consistent winner but had, mainly because of a series of bad coaching hires, never gotten it done.
Pearl proved Tennessee could stand tall with the elite programs in the game, and as such, he’s made it a better job than it was before he was hired six years ago. NCAA sanctions might still lie ahead, but given its facilities, its fans support and the salary it can pay, Tennessee will be a coveted job.
The same is true at Arkansas, another school with great facilities and fan support that is looking for a new coach after the firing of John Pelphrey. Missouri coach Mike Anderson
, an assistant to Nolan Richardson in the Hogs’ glory days, seems destined to spurn the school for the second time—and add some bulk to his wallet—by staying at Missouri. But some successful head coaches will want the gig.
The SEC needs Arkansas basketball to be healthy for many reasons, not the least of which is its fans’ support of the league tournament.
BAMA STILL ALIVE, TOO:
Lest anyone forget about the NIT, Alabama is one home game away from making that tournament’s final four in Madison Square Garden. And given the Crimson Tide’s success at home this season, it would be reasonable to suggest this team is Big Apple bound.
Alabama is one of just 15 unbeaten home teams in Division I, and only one of those, Ohio State (20), has won more than the Tide’s 18 games. Alabama’s calling card most of the season has been defense, but the Tide has ratcheted up the D at home, allowing a Division I-low 52.4 points and .342 shooting from the field. Alabama surrenders a stingy .77 points per possession in Tuscaloosa, by far the lowest in the nation.
Offensively, Alabama seems to click at home, too. The Tide averages 70.6 points at home, 64.8 on the road, and shoots considerably better from the field and three-point range.
If Alabama does get past Miami on Wednesday night, sophomore Tony Mitchell
, who leads the Tide in scoring, will no doubt have played a huge role. His 23 points in a second-round victory over New Mexico on Monday night included several acrobatic dunks and a couple of three-point goals, game-changing plays Mitchell has a knack for making. At least one witness to Mitchell’s mayhem came away impressed.
“You don't have to run anything for Tony Mitchell,” ESPN color analyst Dan Dakich said. “You just give him the ball once in a while and let him go.”