Saturday, March 10, 2007

Ouch.

The SEC Tournament is the biggest risk/reward sports scenario that I've come across in my 25 years. You pay a large amount of money up front to get tickets to 11 basketball games over four days. The atmosphere is incredibly unique and good. If your team wins, and keeps winning, it turns into a magical weekend. But if your team loses - and especially if they lose in painful fashion, especially if they lose when they were supposed to win, and especially if they lose the same way they lost last year, and the year before that, and every single time under the current format of the tournament...it's a gamble.

In the last two years for me personally, and the last 16 for Tennessee Basketball, it's been all risk and no reward. After a day filled with blowouts, LSU and Tennessee played an exciting basketball game with a furious final two minutes, lots of controversy, overtime, and a reminder why Big Baby was the SEC Player of the Year in 2006 and Chris Lofton was the Player of the Year in 2007. But in the end, LSU went on, and Tennessee went home. Again.

The game itself isn't that hard to figure out - Ramar Smith, Wayne Chism, and JaJuan Smith couldn't throw it in the ocean, and LSU blocks shots better than any team I've ever seen in person. The Vols were dead twice in the last two minutes before rallying to tie it and getting a generous whistle to wipe off an LSU basket and send it to overtime. But there was no answer for Baby.

So from here, the Vols are home thinking about 5 or 6 seeds instead of 3 or 4 seeds - though as last year's two seed and this year's RPI of 11 will show, you never really know where the brackets will fall for sure - and should be ready to go come Thursday/Friday in the opening round of The Dance.

The difference between this Tennessee team and others was visible in Atlanta - it's Bruce Pearl. There was more orange in the stands than usual. When Pearl came out to talk to some folks during the Georgia/Auburn game, a large number of Vol fans - including myself - came to an abrupt halt in watching the game, and instead watched Pearl.

Bruce Almighty has something special going on. If you see Phil Fulmer or Pat Summitt in public, you'll say "Hey, there's Coach!" and then your attention moves somewhere else. But with Pearl, it's different. You watch him carry on a conversation with someone on press row for several minutes, just waiting for him to finish and walk back towards the tunnel, so he might turn an eye towards the orange faithful who are waiting to find healing in his wings. He's a showman, a businessman, and he's smart as all get out. And he makes it seem like it's not an act - like he's not playing to the fans, he's actually genuine. In his postgame comments, when he says he and the team feel terrible because of the fans who made the sacrifice to come down, you believe him. When the team loses a heartbreaker, and Pearl walks back towards the tunnel again in defeat, whereas Fulmer would've gotten cussed and no one would dare speak to Summitt for fear of The Stare, Pearl still gets a round of applause from an appreciative and loving Vol Nation. "You'll get 'em next time Coach!" And you believe it. And so does he.

So onward we go into March Madness, hopeful that Pearl and the Vols will keep that something special going. All the analysis, the seeding, the conversation and speculation - none of that will matter after Sunday. Everything, more so than with any other sport and any other time, is about winning. Doesn't matter how, doesn't matter why, doesn't matter anyting. Survive. Advance. Win.

Other random thoughts from one day at the SEC Tournament....

- Alabama's dance team is called The Crimson Cabaret. That gets a round of applause. They were followed by Kentucky's dance team, who danced to "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." That's probably spelled incorrectly, but I can't bring myself to look up the actual spelling of the word. But when you say "Hey, I wonder what the girls from Kentucky are going to dance to..." and then you hear that song, you just nod your head and think that sometimes the world works exactly the way it's supposed to.

- It was an experience to watch Kentucky play in this tournament because of their fan base, who owned the Dome the same way they've owned every venue the SEC Tournament has been played in. Much like the Vols with baksetball now under Pearl, if UK ever got consistently good at football, they'd have the following, because these guys know how to show up and support the troops. The price of such a fanbase is the constant questioning of Tubby Smith. That's just the way it works. But as far as basketball fans go in the SEC, there's Kentucky, and then there's everybody else.

- The individual fan of the game was a gentlemen who was rocking a blue hat and sunglasses, bluejean shorts, and what appeared to be a plaid shirt that had been turned into a homemade plaid vest, while carrying a tan worse than mine. You see this guy and the blue hat, and you say "Kentucky? That can't be right. He's gotta be from..." Yep, you guessed it. Arkansas. You haven't seen them call the hogs until you've seen this guy do it by ripping off said vest and revealing all of his glory, whiteness and mass while yelling "PIG! SOOIE! RAZORBACKS!" I thought about capturing him with my digital camera, but this is a family blog.

- It's about a bajillion times harder to sell/scalp a ticket in Atlanta than it is in Nashville.

- The Curse of the Georgia Dome lives on.

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