Sunday, February 25, 2007
In a season that continues to befuddle, where LSU just proved the "anybody can beat anybody" theory over the weekend, you now have the top five teams in the SEC East with records of 8-6 or better, while Ole Miss and Mississippi State remain in a "who wants it?" deadlock atop the SEC West...at 7-7. It's not out of the question by any means to see Florida, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia go to the NCAA Tournament, while the entire Western Division is left out in the cold.
Vanderbilt's victory earlier today over Kentucky puts them alone in second place in the SEC East, and they've also got a decisive advantage in the tiebreakers. Unless the Dores lose both of their last two games (at South Carolina, vs. Arkansas) you should be able to pencil them in for a first round bye.
Then you've got Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia deadlocked at 8-6. Georgia and Kentucky play Wednesday night in Rupp Arena, which is good news for the Vols. Even with a loss to the Gators on Tuesday night, Tennessee can still be in good position to come in third in the SEC East. It's interesting to note that if the season ended right now, Kentucky would be the #5 seed in the SEC East and have a date with Florida on Friday in Atlanta, while the Vols would have the tiebreaker advantage and finish third. But all of this will work itself out...
SEC Standings (as of 4:00 PM February 25)
1. Florida - 12-2
2. Vanderbilt - 9-5
3. Tennessee - 8-6
4. Georgia - 8-6
5. Kentucky - 8-6
6. South Carolina - 4-10
1. Mississippi State - 7-7
2. Ole Miss - 7-7
3. Auburn - 6-8
4. Alabama - 6-8
5. Arkansas - 5-9
6. LSU - 4-10
(By the way, anybody watching Ohio State-Wisconsin today and see the kid from Wisconsin dislocate his elbow? Gross.)
Looking Back - Tennessee vs. Florida
The Tennessee-Florida series doesn't have as much historical relevance as the Vols and Kentucky - much like football, the Florida rivalry got hot when the Gators did, but unlike football Tennessee and Florida both arrived on the scene as contenders for Kentucky's throne at the same time around the turn of the century. Give Florida credit for staying consistent and taking the next steps, advancing to the Final Four in 2000 before winning it all last year.
The seeds of the recent rivalry were really planted in 1999, with both teams still outside of the main college basketball conversation but on their way up in the world. That season, Florida beat the Vols by 21 points in Gainesville, only to have Tennessee return the favor with a 35 point slaughter in Knoxville, which instituted the longest consecutive period of Vol fans doing the Gator chomp in any sport, including Aaron Green doing it after nailing a 3 just before halftime.
The two games played between the Vols and Gators in 2000, with both teams now certainly in the mix nationally, rank as two of the best basketball games I've ever seen on any level. Tennessee's lineup included Tony Harris, Vincent Yarbrough, Isaiah Victor and CJ Black in the starting lineup, as well as the talented freshmen Jon Higgins and Ron Slay (who both played significant minutes), with Del Baker and Charles Hathaway contributing off the bench. Florida's roster included Teddy Dupay (one of my all time favorite players to hate), Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, with Brett Nelson and Matt Bonner coming off the bench in their youth.
When the two met in Gainesville on January 18, 2000, the Vols were ranked 16th and the Gators 9th. Tennessee had lost only twice previously, once to Tulsa (who eventually made the Elite Eight) in a preseason tournament final, and on a heartbreaker to Vanderbilt in Knoxville. Florida also had only two defeats. This was a Tuesday night, 9:00 PM, Dick Vitale ESPNer. And this was war.
Tennessee had lost eight straight at the O'Dome, but kept Florida off balance all night and would eventually limit the Gators to 38% shooting and 7 of 33 from the arc. The Vols actually built a comfortable second half lead before Florida charged on a 14-0 run to regain the lead. Florida went ahead 66-64 and Tennessee couldn't score and was forced to foul, but the ever-loveable Dupay missed both free throws and the Vols would have one more chance. Isaiah Victor (22 points) hit a jump hook that went through the net with less than one second left, and the game was headed to OT.
Florida's Donnell Harvey dominated the first overtime period, scoring all five Florida points, but Tennessee was there to answer in kind. Tony Harris fouled out, playing only a total of 20 minutes, and the Vols again had to utilize their freshmen. Neither team could score down the stretch in OT, and so the game went on to a second overtime.
With the Vols leading 79-76 in the second OT, Brent Wright buried a long 3 to tie the game once more. CJ Black was fouled and hit two free throws to put the Vols up 81-79 with 1:04 to play, and once more, no one could score. Brett Nelson rimmed out a 3 with :06 to play, and that would do it - Tennessee won a double overtime thriller 81-79.
(Note: You can see the 2000 game from Gainesville on ESPN Classic, Tuesday at 2:00 PM EST before the 07 edition Tuesday night at 9:00 PM on ESPN)
The return bout in Knoxville was no less thrilling. On February 12, 2000, the 8th ranked Vols hosted the 12th ranked Gators on a Saturday afternoon. This time it would be Florida who jumped to a huge lead, up 48-34 deep into the second half. But Tony Harris made up for his foul trouble in Gainesville. He put the Vols on his back, finishing with 26 points and helping slice the Florida lead down to 63-61 with only a few seconds to play. Off the inbounds pass, Harris went the length of the court and laid one in as the buzzer went off. The play was reviewed for several minutes before it was determined that the basket was good and the game was headed for overtime.
Florida led 73-72 in overtime with less than a minute to play before CJ Black put back his own miss to give Tennessee the lead. When Florida missed, they were forced to foul Harris, who nailed both free throws with :05 left to put the Vols up 76-73, and Florida could not tie it. Two games, three overtimes, two Tennessee victories. The 2000 season would be very kind to both teams - the Vols and Gators would split part of a four-way tie for the SEC Championship, with Tennessee advancing to the Sweet 16 before falling to UNC, and Florida to the National Championship Game where they lost to Michigan State.
The following year, Florida helped begin to put nails in the coffin for Tennessee's season. The Vols had started out 14-1, but had lost two of three when they went to Gainesville, including a double overtime loss at Georgia. Florida's 14 point victory there made the tailspin continue, and Tennessee couldn't come out of it in game two of the infamous "Not In Our House!" three game skid at Thompson-Boling that ultimately finished Jerry Green in Knoxville. The Gators won 88-82 in TBA to sweep the season series.
Buzz Peterson's first team in 2002, snakebitten as they were, gave a great Florida team a tremendous scare twice. The Gators were ranked third when they came to Knoxville, and the Vols took them to overtime before falling 104-100. Later that year in Gainesville, the 8th ranked Gators struggled again but survived, 68-62.
The 2003 team had a rough outing in Gainesville, falling 77-64. But back in Knoxville, with the Gators ranked 4th, Tennessee had ripped off five straight wins to put themselves in the NCAA Tournament conversation. The Vols used clutch plays late in the game to pull out a 66-59 court-storming victory. The Vols would eventually be left out of the tournament field despite a 9-7 mark in the SEC, only the second time in history that a 9-7 SEC team has been left out.
In 2004, Florida put a 38 point blasting on the Vols in Gainesville. Back in Knoxville, with whispers of Buzz Peterson's job being in jeopardy on the heels of a four game losing streak, the Vols broke through against the 22nd ranked Gators. Tennessee went ahead 65-63, then watched Maryville's own Lee Humphrey rim out a buzzer-beating 3 that would've killed Buzz for sure.
(By the way, I guarantee you Humphrey gets booed again on Tuesday night, and I guarantee local Maryville fans whine about it again. You say, "Tennessee didn't offer him a scholarship!" I say you've got a great point there, but as long as it says "GATORS" on his jersey, the kid is getting booed. And let's not forget that this kid plays notoriously bad against Tennessee. Waah waah waah...screw Maryville.)
In Buzz's final season, with the job-on-the-line conversation starting again, Peterson pulled off the most improbable victory of his career: taking a Tennessee team that had lost already to Nebraska, UT-Chattanooga, New Mexico, Vanderbilt and South Carolina into the O'Dome, and raining 3s from the heavens in an 83-76 overtime victory. I call my dad after it's over, and he says "WHAT?!...I didn't even watch the game, I just assumed..."
Florida would get their revenge in Knoxville, and Buzz Peterson gave way to Bruce Pearl.
Two equally good basketball games, on par with 2000, were last year's Tennessee-Florida battles. The 80-76 win in Knoxville over #2 Florida was the one that made everyone really open their eyes and look at the Vols (Pearl in the pregame: "We've done enough losing. It's time to do some winning." Pearl to the students outside before the game: "We are your basketball team, I am your basketball coach, and now let's go KICK THEIR @$$!" (crowd: HUGE pop)) The 76-72 win in Gainesville that locked up the SEC East - with Pearl sweating through everything he had on - was even more hard fought. Both games made Dane Bradshaw a legend, which will come full circle on Tuesday night as he walks the line as the lone senior on this team.
(At least the Wisconsin-Ohio State game ended in exciting fashion...but how come these guys can't score on each other?)
LSU proved that Florida is vulnerable ("You see! You see! He's not a machine! He's a man!") and the Gators have now dropped two of three. However, expect their best basketball against the Vols, as they're still aware of Tennessee's sweep and SEC East crown from last year. That's the type of effort you saw earlier this year in Gainesville, and I'm betting that's what you'll get again Tuesday night. The Vols, of course, are playing at full strength this time around.
Florida, as a collective unit, is one of the five best basketball teams I've ever seen. All five players on the floor are great players. You can't focus on Horford and Noah inside, because then Humphrey and Green will kill you, and vice versa. And Corey Brewer is everywhere, all the time. They're well coached, they'll be inspired, and it will take Tennessee's A+ game to even think about winning.
That said, the Vols have won 3 of 4 from the Gators in Knoxville and been the underdog every time. Chris Lofton is clearly back towards 100%, as he dropped 31 on Arkansas. And let me add that watching our press make Arkansas look like a junior pro team at times made me deeply proud to be a Vol basketball fan.
Tennessee is undefeated at home this season, and this is the last one. It's the last one for Dane Bradshaw. The atmosphere is going to be special, the game is going to be sold out, and it's all going to be in place. And yeah, Florida is still playing for an all-important #1 seed and the Vols are playing the all-important SEC Tournament seeding. But even that aside, you're going to have a loaded environment to step into on Tuesday night.
Even Dick Vitale is coming to the party.
I'll be making my second trip down from Virginia for basketball...at the very least, it's an opportunity to see a great Florida basketball team that you can tell people about later. It's one more chance to see Bradshaw, and yet another chance to see if Lofton is going to turn the lights out again. As I'm sure you can tell, I hope they put Humphrey on him, and I hope Lofton drops 40 on him. Maybe these two will get together again in Atlanta, who knows. But right now, a win over Florida is the difference between an average NCAA seed and a good one. It's protecting your house all year long. It's taking care of business.
Tuesday Night. 9:00 PM. ESPN. Warm up the Gator chomp.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
- Florida has won the SEC East and the regular season SEC Championship. The Gators are a considerable distance ahead of everybody else this season, currently 12-1 in SEC play and 24-3 overall - no other SEC team has fewer than 8 losses. Florida still has a #1 seed to play for and will be going for a three-peat in the SEC Tournament in two weeks, so don't expect these guys to fall asleep.
- South Carolina will finish last in the SEC East. Despite the head scratching beating they put on the Vols last weekend, the Cocks are 3-10 in SEC play and safely tucked away in the cellar. Don't write them off - the two-time defending NIT Champions certainly have a habit of playing their best ball in postseason tournaments, and they've got the firepower in Tre Kelley and company to give the entire conference a run for its money in Atlanta.
- We're still throwing darts at the SEC West. The current division leaders, both hailing from the state of Mississippi (because you had that in October) are tied at 7-6. It again should be noted that five of six teams in the SEC East have an SEC record of 7-6 or better. Anyway, everyone but LSU (you can read about their Final Four to cellar ride from Pat Forde) can still win the SEC West with only three games to play, and LSU could still rise as high as 4th in the division before it's over. Essentially, when you're looking at potential matchups in the SEC Tournament, I still like my chances with any SEC West team outside of Alabama, and yes, LSU, than against anyone in the East. Finishing 4th in the SEC East and then having to play the eventual division champion from the West in the second round may be a tremendous blessing in disguise.
- Total gridlock in the middle of the SEC East. Vanderbilt and Kentucky are 8-5. Tennessee and Georgia are 7-6. And unlike the round-and-round, where she stops nobody knows SEC West, positioning and final seeding in the SEC East can be very, very important. Any of these four teams still have a shot to finish second, and any of these four teams still have a shot to finish fifth.
In a further attempt to break down the importance of possible seedings in Atlanta...
The second place team in the SEC East gets the first round bye and doesn't play until Friday, and also will not see Florida unless it's in the Championship Game. They would play the winner of South Carolina vs. whoever ends up finishing 3rd in the SEC West.
The third place team in the SEC East gets the luxury of playing the worst team from the already sub-par SEC West on Thursday (but I still say that's no luxury if it is, in fact, LSU), then would face the second best team from the SEC West on Friday. They would also be in the same side of the bracket as Florida and would potentially face them in the semifinals on Saturday.
The fourth place team in the SEC East might potentially end up having it better. They'd get the fifth place team from the SEC West on Thursday, then get the SEC West champion on Friday (eh). More importantly, if you fancy winning the thing, you're on the opposite side of the bracket than the Gators, and you wouldn't see them unless it was for the title on Sunday.
But fifth place is where you absolutely don't want to be. It's not so bad on Thursday, playing the fourth best team from the West. But if you've got tickets for the tournament and you want to make it a long weekend in Atlanta like myself, you don't want to come in fifth and earn a date with the Florida Gators on Friday. That's the best receipe to go home early and unhappy.
And among Vandy, UK, UT, and UGA...one of them is going to finish fifth. All five teams are still holding out NCAA Tournament hopes, but finishing fifth means you'll do more losing than winning down the stretch, then be staring up at Florida on Friday if you manage to get out of the first round. Could be trouble.
If there's a two team tie for any spot in either division, the tiebreaker is head-to-head record. The Vols are in good shape here - they've split the season series with Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and they'll have a chance to win the season series with Georgia on the final day of the regular season. Tennessee won't lose any ground based on this tiebreaker. If there's a three team or more tiebreaker, they'll continue to look at head-to-head records if it can determine seeding.
If still tied after the head-to-head, the next tiebreaker is division record. Like I said, we're still throwing darts at the SEC West, which changes drastically every week and is a fruitless effort to try and figure out with three games left to play, especially if your team plays in the East and you'd rather talk about that.
Vanderbilt currently is in the best shape - they've beaten Kentucky and Tennessee so as not to lose any head-to-head tiebreakers, and the Dores own a 5-3 record against the SEC East. Tennessee and Georgia are 4-4, while it's Kentucky who could be in the most trouble - currently 3-4 against the SEC East, and still have to go to Gainesville.
The next tiebreaker is record vs. the best team in your division, then next best team, and so on. This means anyone who beats Florida (again, Vanderbilt is in good shape) is going to have an extra leg up.
There are more in depth tiebreakers than this - you can go to the basketball section at secsports.com and check out their Road to Atlanta feature which updates divisional standings and potential matchups in the SEC Tournament after each game is played, as well as to check out every tiebreaker.
The Remaining Schedule
Here are the standings, after Wednesday night's games:
1. Florida - 12-1
2. Vanderbilt - 8-5
3. Kentucky - 8-5
4. Tennessee - 7-6
5. Georgia - 7-6
6. South Carolina - 3-10
1. Mississippi State - 7-6
2. Ole Miss - 7-6
3. Alabama - 6-7
4. Arkansas - 5-8
5. Auburn - 5-8
6. LSU - 3-10
The general consensus appears to be that, barring an upset champion in the SEC Tournament, you're going to get five (it's becoming less and less likely that I can write "or six" here with any confidence) SEC teams in the dance. Florida is a lock, and Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Tennessee are in really good shape. Alabama was/is thought to be the team in the best shape from the SEC West, but their continued road woes (1-6 in the SEC on the road, which is one win more than the Vols have...) have people shaking their head. Here's a question: should the regular season SEC West champion automatically get in?
Essentially, you've got Georgia and the upper tier of the SEC West all scrambling to win out and make their case. Even Vandy/UK/UT can't really afford to lose their remaining three and get bounced early in Atlanta without breaking a significant sweat. With the jockeying for position in Atlanta and flirtation with the bubble in full effect, here's the remaining schedule for the SEC teams:
Florida - at LSU, at Tennessee, vs. Kentucky
Vanderbilt - vs. Kentucky, at South Carolina, vs. Arkansas
Kentucky - at Vanderbilt, vs. Georgia, at Florida
Tennessee - at Arkansas, vs. Florida, at Georgia
Georgia - vs. Mississippi State, at Kentucky, vs. Tennessee
South Carolina - vs. Ole Miss, vs. Vanderbilt, at LSU
Mississippi State - at Georgia, at Arkansas, vs. Alabama
Ole Miss - at South Carolina, at Alabama, vs. Auburn
Alabama - vs. Auburn, vs. Ole Miss, at Mississippi State
Arkansas - vs. Tennessee, vs. Mississippi State, at Vanderbilt
Auburn - at Alabama, vs. LSU, at Ole Miss
LSU - vs. Florida, at Auburn, vs. South Carolina
You want to try and predict it? I will say this for the Vols - which is going to be true for everyone else in the East - the competition may knock each other off, and if the Vols can go at least 2-1 down the stretch here to finish 21-10, 9-7 in the SEC, they're going to be in great shape in Atlanta and otherwise.
And, as has been true all year, everyone is capable of beating everyone else, which makes this so hard to predict, and makes Atlanta a wide open field should the Gators falter. But we're going to have some fun along the way.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
TNT has to fill air to open the show because traffic is so bad, not all of the participants have arrived. This weekend is an off-beat dry run for the city of Las Vegas for future NBA considerations, and already we've got issues. If anything in the dunk contest is as painful as watching Michael Cooper, George Gervin, and Scottie Pippen struggle at the three point line in the opening event, I don't want to watch.
And does it strike anyone else as just plain wrong that in a world where Roger Clemens can already pick and choose his team of choice to join at midseason, now 41 year old Scottie Pippen says he wants to play for a contender, about 15 minutes a night in the playoffs? Before I get too riled up about this whole thing, Charles Barkley rips the idea apart before outracing a senior citizen.
But you have to give TNT credit - I think their team of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Barkley is the most enjoyable trio in sports outside of Chris, Lee and Kirk.
And why can't we get the big stars in the dunk contest? We can easily get LeBron, Kobe, and D-Wade in some lame skills challenge, but we can't get Vince Carter and T-Mac to dunk? Arenas and Nowitzki are in the three-point shootout. In the dunk contest? Nate Robinson, Gerald Green, Dwight Howard, and Tyrus Thomas - who was already fined for voicing his displeasure with the event in the first place. The NBA needs to do what is takes to get the best of the best in there. Right now.
(And why, as I watch Jessica Simpson in a Pizza Hut commercial, is John Mayer dating her? As a fan of his music and his songwriting, he's coming across as a total fraud by being with her. And I'm a fraction as upset about this as the million young females across the country who just set fire to their Jessica Simpson CDs...)
And on the 3-Pt Shootout...I really think someone sat down and said "Let's just make a blindingly ugly alternate jersey and just see what happens. We'll put it on a team that no one really cares about. Like Washington."
Jason Kapono wins the 3-Pt Shootout and drops 24 points in the finals, the most ever scored by anyone but Craig Hodges (remember when he was in it one year and he wasn't even on an NBA team?), and is immediately asked about teammates Shaq and D-Wade, then asked about UCLA. He has feelings too!
10:32 PM - One reason why the dunk contest doesn't carry the weight it used to is that it's hard for today's seven year olds to build memories like me in the 80s, because they're asleep.
The judges: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Dominique Wilkins, and Julius Erving. Can we just let them dunk, or just watch their highlights instead?
The new kids here might do some old school stuff to appease the judges. Because what Jordan and 'Nique did in the mid/late 80s isn't nearly as impressive as what Carter and Kobe did, but it still is compelling to watch.
10:35 PM - Tyrus Thomas starts it off, and each competitor must use a teammate for one dunk. So he starts by trying a bounce from Ben Gordon into a 360 and misses thrice before settling for a backwards between the legs bounce off the glass slam. The judges roast him with a 37.
10:37 PM - Let's go Celtics! Gerald Green and Paul Pierce do not disappoint, as Pierce throws it off the side of the backboard and Green catches it perfectly before dropping a windmill slam two handed. 48, and that was good stuff. Jordan is going to be a tough judge, as he and Dr. J give it a 9.
10:38 PM - Dwight Howard - tallest in the history of the dunk contest - goes right for Dominique's heart with a one handed windmill with authority. 43.
10:39 PM - Defending champ Nate Robinson goes vertical with a bounce ball caught one handed with plenty of hang time. Nate Robinson makes everything look better because he's so small. He gets a 45 but it looks better every time you see it. Jordan gives it an 8. "Michael's the Russian judge." - Kenny Smith
During the commercial break, I'm still thinking about that 1988 contest between Jordan and Wilkins, because it was the only time he had a real rival who could match him step for step. Wilkins had beat Jordan head to head in 1985 before they both missed each other due to injury the next two years, with Spud Webb winning in 86 and Jordan winning in 87. The rematch was three years in the making, in Chicago no less, and I can still remember every ounce of inflection and emotion in the "Michael Jordan needs a 48 to tie, a 49 to win..." before he did the free throw line dunk that made Nike and MJ iconic for a 50 and the win.
10:45 PM - Jordan says he's not giving 10s because he wants to leave room for improvement.
Tyrus Thomas goes back to the teammate dunk with Ben Gordon, and on the first try catches a bounce ball and jumps over Gordon in a less-than-fluid motion. Bonus points for ripping the net loose from the rim. Kenny Smith makes the absolutely correct point that you have to be a salesman to win this thing, and Tyrus Thomas looks exactly like someone who's in it for the money. Thus, he gets a 43 and is probably done. Back to commercial while we find a new net...
10:49 PM - They fill time by asking Magic, Barkley and Kenny who the best dunker of the judges was. Kenny says Vince, but only because he learned from Jordan, who learned from Dr. J. Magic says Jordan in a contest, but 'Nique in a game situation (which is absolutely right). Barkley goes back to Carter.
10:50 PM - Okay - Jameer Nelson throws a bounce ball to Dwight Howard, who slams it one handed while slapping the backboard with his left hand, which looks completely unimpressive. Until you realize that Howard had a sticker in his left hand with his face on it that he tagged on the backboard - then Nelson pulls out the tape measure and gets 12'6". I'm pretty sure the judges didn't see the sticker, because they give it a 43. But that was really funny, original and good. Howard also wrote something like "All thanks to Christ - Philippians 4:13" on the sticker, which is also another separate blog to talk about that...
10:52 PM - Nate Robinson takes the ball from his teammate and does a 360, which is average but the judges give it a 45?!
10:54 PM - More Celtic pride - Gerald Green pulls out the Reebok pumps and a Dee Brown jersey while Paul Pierce has a life-sized cutout of Nate Robinson. The real Nate Robinson says screw this and goes out there and stands in place of the cutout. Green goes the Dee Brown eyes-covered route while jumping over Robinson and throws it down. Robinson's facial expression while being jumped over is hilarious. 47 - Jordan hasn't given a 10 yet - but he's off to the finals. And at the very least, everyone is entertained so far. Green and Robinson have a chance to make this memorable and good.
10:59 PM - That first dunk from Nate Robinson looks more and more sick every time I see it - he's so small and he gets so high. The announcers think Howard got jobbed and the sticker dunk was one of the best they've ever seen. Definitely one of the most original.
11:01 PM - Robinson misses his first and second attempt at a bounce ball rim grabbing slam before hitting it, and that ain't gonna get it done. 39. The most impressive thing about that was his wipeout after the second dunk.
11:02 PM - Kenny thinks Gerald Green can pull off both/either a 720 (?!) or a between the legs twice dunk, which I've seen somewhere before (maybe in a college contest)...Paul Pierce throws it from behind the backboard and Green throws it down, a safe dunk that gets a 41, and Robinson is now back in it.
11:04 PM - Robinson is trying an off the backboard 360, but he can't get the timing at all, which is nothing new for him if you were with us last year. They implemented a new rule just for him, which has a two minute time limit on all these dunk attempts. He messes it up 8 times before time runs out, which means he gets two tries to hit a dunk now. He misses his first attempt, and he needs to change it up and make something. And he's exhausted from the effort.
And then he pulls a Tin Cup moment by nailing it on his final attempt. 41, and the drama brought the crowd back in it.
11:07 PM - "WE WANT TABLES!" Gerald Green has pulled out a table. He's gotta do something more creative than just jump over it. Eh, maybe not - a one hand windmill over the table, and that earns a perfect score from the old school judges and the new kids as well for our first 50 of the night, and this bad boy should be over. Robinson can't catch him, and just like that it's over. Weird, because his first dunk was his best one in my opinion.
What was memorable? Howard's sticker was good stuff, and if someone has a still shot of Nate Robinson at the peak of his jump on that first dunk, that's a great poster and desktop wallpaper. Gerald Green was deserving, he just regressed as the night went on, which usually doesn't happen. Either way, something good happened to Boston! Hooray!
Next year, I want to see Green and Robinson again, and maybe Howard, but let's get some big draws in there. Up the ante. You can afford it.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
On a full scope, you can't judge the strength of a draft class after only one season - you need 3-5 years to see who's really got staying power and how truly deep a draft year is going to end up to be. However, based on the only information we have at present - the 2006 season - I can't remember a more productive rookie class ever taking the field, which potentially sets the stage for the '06 class to become historic. Was this the best rookie class ever? Ehhhh....but as far as production in their first season, you'll find it hard to argue against the '06 bunch.
Reggie Bush - RB - Saints (1st Round - 2nd overall pick)
Every bit as exciting as advertised, Bush led all NFL RBs in receptions and benefited greatly from playing with Drew Brees and Deuce McAllister. Even though he wasn't the starting running back or the focal point of the offense, Bush is a gamechanger and makes you want to watch him, even when he's on the receiving end of one of the most memorable hits of the year in the playoffs. Made big noise in the NFC Championship Game, and is already one of the league's 10 most marketable stars. Said recently, upon losing the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award to Vince Young, "I think I'm going to be competing with Vince for awards for lots of years to come."
Vince Young - QB - Titans (1st Round - 3rd overall pick)
Once given the keys, proved he can drive it - led the Titans to six straight wins and the brink of the playoffs, 8-5 overall as a starter. Produced the highlight reel runs he was known for at Texas, including the game winner at Houston in overtime. Made the Pro Bowl and took offensive rookie of the year honors. Like Bush, he plays with supreme confidence, and like Bush, he is infinitely marketable.
THE IMPACT PLAYERS
AJ Hawk - LB - Packers (1st Round - 5th overall pick)
Started every game and got his money's worth - 119 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles - and has his own look and style to also be marketable on the Green Bay defense. Should be a mainstay at LB for years to come.
Matt Leinart - QB - Cardinals (1st Round - 10th overall pick)
Got 11 starts and had a very decent year for the Cardinals with some highs and lows. Finished the year with a 74.0 QB rating, 11 TDs to 12 INTs. The Cardinals have the pieces for one of the most explosive offenses in the entire NFL if they can get some help on the line, but Matt is going to have a chance to lead this team for the forseeable future if he can continue to be productive.
Jay Cutler - QB - Broncos (1st Round - 11th overall pick)
Like Leinart, has a chance to lead this team down the road, except he plays for a year in, year out contender. Had a better QB rating than Leinart (88.5) and was on the verge of putting his team in the playoffs. Both of these guys can become household NFL names in the next five years if they stay consistent.
Haloti Ngata - DT - Ravens (1st Round - 12th overall pick)
If you can start every game for Baltimore's defense as a rookie, you're getting it done. Playing on this unit will make him more and more recognizeable as long as he continues to produce.
Kamerion Wimbley - LB - Browns (1st Round - 13th overall pick)
11 sacks and 3 fumble recoveries in 15 starts, and got better as the year went on. Cleveland will have to get better for him to become a household name, but he's got the tools necessary.
Tamba Hali - DE - Chiefs (1st Round - 20th overall pick)
Here's another guy who started every single game - 8 sacks, 5 forced fumbles.
Laurence Maroney - RB - Patriots (1st Round - 21st overall pick)
The guy everyone wanted to pick up in fantasy ball the week before the season started, Maroney is in a crowded class of excellent rookie RBs, and like all of them he meshed very well with veteran talent around him. Combining mostly with Corey Dillon, Maroney had 745 yards and 6 TDs, as well as 22 receptions. His production was slower in three playoff games, but certainly has the talent to be NE's back of the future.
Santonio Holmes - WR - Steelers (1st Round - 25th overall pick)
Will find his way up the fantasy draft board come August, finishing the year with 49 catches for 824 yards, and has all the tools to become a great NFL receiver in what was a very weak class for WRs.
Joseph Addai - RB - Colts (1st Round - 30th overall pick)
Proved that Addai + Rhodes > The Edge, as Addai rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored 7 TDs in the regular season, then carved up Kansas City in the Wild Card game for 122 and a touchdown to go with 7 receptions. With Rhodes seemingly satisfied as a career backup, and with one Super Bowl ring already on his finger, the sky is the limit in Indianapolis for this one.
DeMeco Ryans - LB - Texans (2nd Round - 33rd overall pick)
Guess which Texans draft pick won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year? Not #1 overall Mario Williams, but Ryans, who had 156 tackles and 3.5 sacks and started every game...which probably only makes life even more difficult for his teammate Williams. Still, Ryans is a major player.
Marcus McNeill - OT - Chargers (2nd Round - 50th overall pick)
Among several rookie offensive linemen who had good seasons, McNeill is the only one headed to the Pro Bowl. Blocking for LT will do that for you.
Devin Hester - CB - Bears (2nd Round - 57th overall pick)
Going back and reading the immediate post-draft analysis on Hester, he was labeled as the biggest boom or bust pick in the entire draft by ESPN.com. And the Bears are hearing dollar signs right about now - although Hester played little to no defensive snaps all year, he was worth every ounce in the return game, erasing all memories of Dante Hall and others and becoming the very, very best return man in the NFL. The Super Bowl kickoff return cemented it, and the fact that he doesn't play hardly any defensive snaps is the only thing keeping him from joining Reggie Bush and Vince Young as the headliners of this class.
Maurice Jones-Drew - RB - Jaguars (2nd Round - 60th overall pick)
Another fantasy alert, the dimunitive superstar in the making scored 15 total TDs including 13 on the ground to go along with 941 yards, and made all those with Fred Taylor on their roster kick themselves (including me). If he proves to be durable, he's got all the potential in the world and plays for a good team. Look out.
Stephen Gostkowski - K - Patriots (4th Round - 118th overall pick)
Replacing the greatest clutch kicker of all time and doing it by going 20 of 26 with a long of 52, and 8 of 8 in the playoffs, will put you on this list.
Mark Anderson - DE - Bears (5th Round - 159th overall pick)
The biggest defensive steal of the draft, Anderson led all rookies with 12 sacks and was 4th in the NFL with that total, and was a major factor on the NFC Champion defense.
Marques Colston - WR - Saints (7th Round - 252nd overall pick)
The biggest offensive steal of the draft, taken with the third to last overall pick, Colston benefited from Joe Horn's injury and Donte' Stallworth's departure, and made the most of his first big opportunity with 7 balls for 97 yards in the Week 3 Monday Night return to the Superdome. Finished with 70 catches for over 1,000 yards and 8 TDs, and played well in two playoff games. Destroyed the integrity of any fantasy football league that listed him as a tight end (thanks Yahoo!).
THE JURY'S STILL OUT
Mario Williams - DE - Texans (1st Round - 1st overall pick)
D'Brickashaw Ferguson - OT - Jets (1st Round - 4th overall pick)
Vernon Davis - TE - 49ers (1st Round - 6th overall pick)
Michael Huff - CB - Raiders (1st Round - 7th overall pick)
Donte Whitner - S - Bills (1st Round - 8th overall pick)
Jason Allen - S - Dolphins (1st Round - 16th overall pick)
DeAngelo Williams - RB - Panthers (1st Round - 27th overall pick)
Marceded Lewis - TE - Jaguars (1st Round - 28th overall pick)
Mathias Kiwanuka - DE - Giants (1st Round - 32nd overall pick)
Danieal Manning - S - Bears (2nd Round - 42nd overall pick)
Roman Harper - S - Saints (2nd Round - 43rd overall pick)
LenDale White - RB - Titans (2nd Round - 45th overall pick)
Greg Jennings - WR - Packers (2nd Round - 52nd overall pick)
There are a handful of other players who could fit into this list - some of these guys had solid seasons, some were hurt at times, but for one reason or another, they didn't have a big breakthrough but are still capable of doing so. Again, the real measuring stick will be if we're talking about these guys in 4-5 years - for guys at the top like Mario Williams, they either begin to live up to their billing or start making "Top 10 NFL Draft Busts of All Time" lists. For guys like LenDale White near the bottom, their opportunities are becoming more limited by the snap in training camp and preseason, so they've got the talent but their time must be now.
Reggie Bush and Vince Young are already superstars. The guys in the next set are both making an important impact on their team and have a chance to do so in the future, and can open doors for themselves to join Bush and Young amongst the elite. And maybe some of the guys in the third set will join the conversation as well.
Was this the most productive rookie class of all time? If they are, some of that has to do with the rise in play at the college level - when Vince Young is making comparisons between the NFL and the Big 12, you know the gap has closed. At running back, you had four players taken in the first two rounds who all played and all split time with veterans - none of them were drafted to fix an immediate problem, but they all wound up making big contributions. You've got offensive guys in Leinart, Cutler, Maroney, Addai, Jones-Drew, Holmes and Colston who can represent the future in the NFL. Or they could fall off the map in 2007. And on defense, you've got potential true stars in AJ Hawk, Mark Anderson, DeMeco Ryans and even Devin Hester, with a slew of other guys who look like solid starters for years for their respective franchises. At the very least, rookies got more opportunities than ever before in 2006, and these guys made the most of them.
Was this the greatest rookie class of all time? Again, we'll see, and the next two years will be really telling as these guys compete with a whole new class of youngsters coming in in April. But those guys - without the flash of Young, Leinart and Bush coming into last year's draft and thus without the assumed potential - will find the bar set high for rookie production.
But I'm sure you'll still be scratching your head come fantasy draft day, wondering which one to roll the dice on, and which one of this year's class will keep the pace in 2007. Such is the nature of the beast - even Vince Young and Reggie Bush aren't sure things just yet. But any way you slice it, the '06 class has been the most productive in recent memory, and produced some of the best moments and most marketable young stars out of the gate in the history of the NFL.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Now that the Vols have sent the blue faithful home unhappy for the first time since 2002, and with Bruce Pearl now 2-2 against Kentucky, the conversation centers on the fact that Tennessee has a chance to move from the bubble to the upper tier of the bracket.
The Vols' RPI is currently 11 - and it was the high RPI that did the most work in helping the Vols secure the "holy @#$!" 2-seed in last year's tournament. ESPN.com's Bracketology has them as a 7-seed right now, but if the season ended today I would be stunned if it wasn't higher.
The Vols have five regular season contests remaining before heading to Atlanta for the SEC Tournament. What you've got is total gridlock in the Eastern Division, where everyone but South Carolina has a better record than the entire Western Division. Out West, Alabama appears to be the only remotely safe bet for the NCAAs, with Arkansas hovering dangerously close to the edge (in ESPN.com's "Next Four Out" right now) and LSU - currently 3-7 in the SEC - essentially needing to win every remaining game to even get back in the conversation. In the East, Florida is king and then everyone else will be scrapping for position - both for March Madness and for seeding in the SEC Tournament - for the next three weeks.
Kentucky is in second place at 7-4 right now, with the Dores (6-4), Vols (6-5), and Dawgs (6-5) right behind them. Kentucky and Tennessee are going to play in March unless they have a total collapse between now and then, while Vandy (16-8) and Georgia (14-9) have work left on the table.
Finishing second in the SEC East means you don't play on Thursday in the SEC Tournament, and it also puts you on the opposite side of the bracket from the Gators, if you fancy having a shot to win it. 2007 is an especially good year to be the 2 seed in the East, because it means you're going to play the winner of South Carolina and whichever average West team finishes 3rd in the second round, which should be a relatively easy victory.
For the Vols, they have to take care of their own business and see where everything else shakes out. That starts on Saturday at South Carolina (ABC - 3:30 PM), with the Vols currently 0-5 on the road in the SEC. Tennessee cannot afford to finish 0-8 on the road in the SEC, that's a good reason to leave them out of the Dance. Tennessee must continue their momentum swing by beating a South Carolina team that they should beat.
From there, the Vols host Alabama next Wednesday, and it seems like the Crimson Tide are always built to give Tennessee teams trouble. Both the Tide and the opponent after them, Arkansas on the road next Saturday, will be playing for their NCAA Tournament lives, and it was under those circumstances that the Pigs became the first team to beat Bruce Pearl at Thompson-Boling Arena last season.
Tennessee will then finish with another Tuesday nighter with the mighty Gators in two weeks, and will close with a road trip to Athens after that. The Vols last year were playing on empty after the division-clinching win in Gainesville, coming home to lose to Arkansas and Kentucky, falling behind double digits before responding to beat Vanderbilt in Nashville, then losing in their first game in the SEC Tournament to South Carolina. Even in the NCAAs, they weren't playing their best basketball against Winthrop and Wichita State. Will this younger team stay fresh to the end? Will Pearl make coaching adjustments against this? Will the Vols play their best basketball as the season progresses?
Let me also say this - I don't want to underestimate the worth of Dane Bradshaw and what he's done for this program and this team, both in 2007 and in the past. What he brings to the table is unique and irreplaceable.
But the Vols are going to be frightening in 2008.
You can see Ramar Smith and Wayne Chism - who went toe to toe on several attempts and scored on Randolph Morris last night - are superstars in the making. Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith will be back for their senior seasons. The role players will return. And I still think that Duke Crews has tremendous upside that's yet to be revealed. The 07-08 Vols will be the most talented team that's taken the floor in Knoxville since 99-00, if not more talented than that group (Tony Harris, Vincent Yarbrough, Isaiah Victor with the freshman class of Jon Higgins, Ron Slay, and Marcus Haislip among others). And they will certainly be better coached.
The reality is, however, that this team is good enough to beat anyone they play right now. They're still young, but they've gotten older every week. And they have that feeling like they're built to succeed in March, even if Pearl didn't intend to recruit that way. All the major analysts will tell you that the NCAAs are all about guard play, and right now I'll take Smith, Lofton and Smith to the bank. If the Vols get (stay) hot, look out boys and girls...
For now, the fact that they beat Kentucky at home, and have split the last four overall with them, is enough cause to celebrate. UT must keep going at Columbia on Saturday. Much will change between now and the SEC Tournament, and between now and Selection Sunday. But each one still counts. And the Vols are right there, truly capable of winning them all.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
I started following Vol Basketball at the beginning of the Wade Houston era - which isn't the best place in the world to start - but even flowing through the Kevin O'Neill days, not only did the home date with Kentucky mean you suddenly cared about basketball, even if just for one night a year, it also meant you got a chance to see some of the best college basketball teams that have ever been assembled. The talent gap between the mid to late 90s Kentucky teams and the Vols was staggering. Under both Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, the Cats would send future NBA stars onto the floor that played a "come fly with me" brand of basketball that the Vols had no answer for. Names like Derek Anderson, Keith Bogans, Tony Delk, Jamal Mashburn, Jamaal Magloire, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer (especially despised by Vol fans), Nazr Mohammed, Scott Padgett, Tayshaun Prince, Wayne Turner, and Antonie Walker dominated Tennessee on a routine basis, with the Cats winning National Championships in 1996 and 1998 and were an overtime against Arizona in 1997 away from a three-peat.
Tennessee scored home upsets over UK in 1990, 1992, and 1993, with two dramatic finishes and a blowout inbetween. Kentucky would continually dominate in Rupp Arena, and on the heels of UT's 78-77 win over #2 Kentucky in February of 93, the two met in the second round of the SEC Tournament, which was held in Lexington in 1993. The Blizzard of 93 hit Knoxville that day, meaning that few and far between knew of the 101-40 revenge beatdown the Cats gave the Vols.
The 71 point spanking was a hint of things to come, as it was the first of 11 straight Kentucky victories over the Vols, including five straight at Thompson-Boling from 1994-1998. In those 11 games, Kentucky won by 71 in the 93 SEC Tournament, 19 in Lexington in 94 before escaping 77-73 in Knoxville the same year, won by 19 in Lexington and 20 in Knoxville in 95, won by 17 in Lexington and then dusted the Vols 90-50 in Knoxville in 96, turned around and won by 34 points in Lexington and then 10 points in Knoxville in 97. Kevin O'Neill did not like playing Kentucky.
I remember the 97 game in Knoxville as being the first time I had actually ever made it through an entire UT-UK game without leaving early. The usual routine had been show up with wholly unrealistic expectations about an upset, then watch us get dunked on for 15-20 minutes inbetween turnovers off the press, then head home. The Vols were actually in the 97 game until the final minutes, and I remember thinking "this must be what Kentucky feels like when they almost beat us in football" as I left the arena, sad we'd loss but elated at the "progress" we'd made. That a 10 point loss felt that great was both a snapshot to Tennessee's futility and Kentucky's success in the mid-90s.
Several details made this rivalry boil for many Vol fans. The personality of Rick Pitino didn't help for starters, but the key factor wasn't just the scoreboard, but the horde of UK fans who annually make the three hour drive from Lexington to Knoxville, who filled the upper deck in the mid-90s and drowned out the home crowd with "C-A-T-S CATS CATS CATS!" It was the only basketball game that felt like a football game, which at this point was the only thing we knew how to do well. When Ron Mercer was decked on a hard screen in one particular game in Knoxville, Vol fans erupted and Kentucky fans were hot. UK, of course, went on to blow out the Vols in style. But it made you so badly want to give them a piece of your mind when they came to Knoxville...but alas, you kept having to wait...
Jerry Green shows up with lots of young talent, and suddenly things get more interesting. The Cats still won by 18 points in Knoxville in 1998, but in his second meeting with UK, Jerry Green's squad almost pulled off an upset in Rupp Arena, falling six points short. This was the first time since 1989 that Kentucky didn't beat Tennessee by double digits at Rupp Arena.
When the 1998-99 basketball season rolled around, the Vols were coming off their first NCAA Tournament bid in forever and were actually ranked 9th in the preseason polls, fielding a starting five of Tony Harris, Brandon Wharton, Vincent Yarbrough, CJ Black and Charles Hathaway with Isaiah Victor, Aaron Green and Torrey Harris coming off the bench in prominent roles. The Vols fell out of the Top 25 after losing the season opener to Arizona at the buzzer, and getting beat by Wally Sczerbiak's Miami (OH) team on the road. Tennessee also got drilled in their SEC opener at Auburn in the Tigers' most recent spurt of good basketball, but then beat LSU by 35 and South Carolina by 29 at home. Everyone knew this team was talented, but everyone also knew how young they were. So it was that we can start chronicling the Tennessee victories over Kentucky in the last few years:
(thanks to bigbluehistory.net for filling in some gaps...)
1999 - Tennessee 47 - #6 Kentucky 46 (Lexington)
A Tuesday night, 9:00 PM ESPN game...as you can see, the score wasn't indicative of the brand of basketball that either team usually played. UK was the defending National Champion, and Tennessee had only won once ever in Rupp Arena (1979). It was ugly basketball from the start - the Vols led 25-21 at halftime with both teams unable to hit water falling out of a boat. In the second half, seized as much as a seven point lead, but Kentucky kept hitting shots in key moments to pull it back. Kentucky led 39-38 before Tony Harris and Brandon Wharton both drained 3s on either side of two Kentucky free throws to put the Vols up 44-41. But back came Kentucky, as they were in the habit of doing, and after a score and a stop, Scott Padgett buried a three to put UK up 46-44 with under 2:00 to play. Back on the other end, Brandon Wharton had a long three as the shot clock expired that was missed, but the Vols grabbed an offensive rebound and fired right back to a now wide open Wharton, who buried this one to put the Vols up 47-46. From there, no one could score - Kentucky had the ball last but failed to get off a good look, and suddenly Tennessee had not only broken UK's 11 game winning streak - they'd done so in the holy of holies, Rupp Arena.
1999 - Tennessee 68 - #13 Kentucky 61 (Knoxville)
The victory at Rupp came eight days after Tennessee's football National Championship. This win in Knoxville was the final piece in the greatest stretch of dominance and excellence in the history of Tennessee athletics. What Florida is enjoying now has got to be sweet, but this stretch comes close. Starting with Peyton Manning's senior season and the 1997 SEC Football Championship, through the Lady Vols winning their third straight National Championship, and doing so by going undefeated in April of 1998, the football Vols responded by winning the National Championship on January 4, 1999. With John Ward retiring, the Vols sent him out in style by beating Kentucky on the home floor for the first time in six years, and capturing the SEC Eastern Division title in the process. The Vols - and their fans - knew that beating UK was possible having just done it weeks before, but now we all wanted to see it with our own eyes. With 23,000+ on hand in Knoxville, the Vols built a halftime lead, watched Kentucky retake the lead in the second half, but finished incredibly strong with inside play from the young Isaiah Victor, who joined Harris and Wharton in double figures. When it was all said and done, fans rushed the court (count me in on that one) and Tennessee cut down the nets as SEC Eastern Division Champions. This is probably the most fun I've ever had at a UT basketball game.
2000 - #7 Tennessee 74 - #18 Kentucky 67 (Knoxville)
Tennessee's best basketball squad since Ernie & Bernie was humbled at Rupp Arena earlier in this season 81-68, but the Vols responded in Knoxville en route to the SEC Championship and a sick 24-5 regular season, which set the tone for a run to the Sweet 16. And on some other day, maybe in a couple weeks, it's worth it to go back and chronicle the two UT-Florida games from this year, with the Vols winning in double overtime in Gainesville and in one overtime in Knoxville. Anyway, Kentucky started the game on a 6-0 run and then watched Tennessee reel off a 27-9 run that ranks as one of the most enjoyable ten minutes of basketball I've ever seen. It got more fun in the second half, as the words "Tennessee is blowing out Kentucky" were uttered for the first and only time in my entire life. The Vols built as much as a 16 point lead before Kentucky fought back, putting a scare in the Vols by cutting it to five with over a minute to play. But Tennessee made their free throws and secured the victory 74-67.
(For the true Vol fan who follows both football and basketball, there was nothing more painful than the 2001 basketball season. Not the 2005 football season, not anything related to Wade Houston, nothing. In 2001, the Vols started the season ranked #9, rose as high as #4 in the midst of a 16-1 start that included a blowout win at Syracuse and a spanking of Alabama at home to open the SEC slate 3-0. Then the Vols got too big for their britches and went to unranked Kentucky and lost by 10. By the time the Cats returned to Knoxville, the Vols had lost five of seven and fallen to #15 in the polls, but the growing sentiment was "we just need to get back home to win", which set up the infamous "NOT IN OUR HOUSE" three game homestand, where the t-shirts given to the student section were worthless in about two hours, as the Vols lost to Kentucky by eight, Florida by six, and Georgia by an inexplicable 12. Ron Slay at this point was quoted as saying something like "It's like we're just out there messing around and then we look up with five minutes left and we're losing and it's like #%!#" Tennessee ended up losing five straight and seven of nine, needing to put together four straight wins over lesser opponents at seasons' end to squeak into the dance, where they were eliminated in the first round and Jerry Green had gone from savior to outcast in record time.)
That was 2001. Onward to Buzz Peterson and...
2002 - Tennessee 76 - #7 Kentucky 74 (OT) (Knoxville)
Half the roster graduated or left the program, and anyone who had high expectations based on four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament was rudely awakened by a 1-2 trip to the Great Alaska Shootout. This team was snakebitten the likes of which I've never seen - some say that if not for this incredible stretch of last-second losses, Jon Higgins' surprise dismissal and the subsequent snub by the NCAA Tournament committee the following year, Buzz Peterson would've gotten one more year following 2005. Which would mean no Bruce Pearl. I'm just saying.
The Vols lost three straight games on last second three pointers against stiff competition in Louisville, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Then they lost to Florida at home in overtime, lost to Georgia by three and Mississippi State by one in overtime. But the Vols rebounded to win five of six, including a home win over #8 Syracuse, when Kentucky came calling.
Kentucky started out of the gate hot, opening a 13 point lead before the Vols battled back. The game, in fact, should've never gone to overtime, but when UK hit back to back 3s at the close of regulation to send it there, the "here we go again" feeling was tangible. But in the extra frame, the Vols came up huge, and Marcus Haislip tipped in his own miss to put the Vols ahead 76-74, and Tayshaun Prince misfired, giving the Vols the win. Tennessee was a heartbeat away from winning in Lexington as well, but UT blew a big lead and UK held on 64-61.
Then, we go back to heartbreak and blowouts. In 2003, the Cats won 74-71 in Knoxville and blew out the Vols in Lexington. In 2004, the Cats used a miracle to get the game to overtime and then won it 69-68 before going old school in a 32 point beatdown in Rupp. In 2005, the Vols regressed: 22 point loss in Knoxville, 12 point loss in Lexington, 14 point loss in the SEC Tournament. Eight straight Kentucky wins. Buzz Peterson, you're fired.
2006 - #11 Tennessee 75 - Kentucky 67 (Lexington)
Enter Bruce Pearl and Chris Lofton. Lofton went to Lexington as the Vols were surging, but many were still unsure that this story wasn't simply too good to be true. The result? 31 points from Lofton, including 7 3s. Tennessee made the stops it had to make, hit the free throws they needed, and won for only the third time ever in Rupp Arena.
The return match in Knoxville was one of the tougher pills to swallow in recent memory, with Ray Mears and John Ward in attendance and the crowd all dolled up in checkerboard splendor, the Vols opened a can on Kentucky in the first half, and then turned Rajon Rondo into a draft pick in the second half when they let Kentucky (and mostly Rondo) shoot around 80% in the second half. CJ Watson's three at the buzzer rimmed out, and Kentucky stole the show from the Vols. The matchup earlier this season in Lexington - sans Lofton - went from a Tennessee lead at halftime to a 19 point Kentucky win.
Which brings us to today. Lofton is back and the Vols have won two straight, improving the resume to 17-8, 5-5 in the SEC. Kentucky is ever dangerous, having just stood toe to toe with Florida despite shooting 3 of 22 from 3 point range and missing nine free throws on the home rims. However, if Tennessee wins on Tuesday night, they're suddenly just one game back from second place in the SEC East and the coveted first round bye in the SEC Tournament. Florida won't be caught in the East, and neither will Kentucky if they beat the Vols.
Some of Buzz Peterson's famous last words were that the Kentucky game was special, but the only way to make it a true rivalry was to beat them. Bruce fired the first shot last year, and Kentucky answered in Knoxville. Now, with Lofton back, the Vols and Cats stand poised to play another game of conference and national importance. And it shouldn't be any other way.
People talk about Florida and the hatred that exists there in both sports, and they're right. But in football, there's something about coming out of the entrance ramp and seeing the field for the first time on the Third Saturday in October, where the mix of orange and crimson in the stands and on the field reminds you of all the reasons why this is right.
In basketball, there's something about looking around the arena and still seeing shades of blue here and there - though Bruce Pearl has stepped up the defensive efforts on the home front, and we'll be painting the town orange on Tuesday night in an effort to silence the Cat faithful. I'll be making the first ever road trip from Virginia for basketball, because there's something about seeing Tubby Smith and that certain shade of blue on those uniforms. And there's something about Chris Lofton lining it up against these guys. And I still have my memories of watching Ron Mercer dunk on us and hearing those same Kentucky fans who say "wait til basketball season" about two minutes into every one of the last 24 football meetings roar just above me from my season tickets on the second row of the upper deck, and I still want the opportunity to turn around and give them a piece of my mind when the scoreboard has a chance to reflect it. And Bruce Pearl has given us that chance again - what Jerry Green maintained for two seasons, Pearl has a chance to rekindle. Green got lucky with a talented group of players for two seasons. Pearl and the Vols now have a chance to stand toe to toe with Kentucky and hold their own, punch for punch. And there's no one you'd rather hit in the mouth than Kentucky.
The Kentucky game is special, and it's unique. It's all we've got when it comes to true rivalry in basketball. No one has beaten UK more than UT. And five years in Knoxville is long enough.
Saturday, February 10, 2007
This list represents my opinion on the best players at every position on the field in the NFL right now. This isn't a list of the most productive fantasy players, nor does it take into account some ficticious salary cap or anything like that. It also does not take into account the scope of an entire career - these are the 22 men (and two kickers) I'd want to have on the field on gameday right now. These are, in my opinion, the very best at what they do.
QB - Peyton Manning (Colts)
At last, there's no reason - at least not a logical one - to go anywhere else with this choice. As stated, the list is for now, not over the course of one's career, so no Brett Favre. And now that Manning has his ring, the cries for Tom Brady are much quieter. You say you'd rather have a mobile quarterback? Well let me turn that ring argument around for the very first time, and say that until Donovan McNabb gets a ring (because he's the only mobile QB with the experience to even be in the discussion) you can't even consider going anywhere else than Manning. Simply put - and you can read the how and why of this a bunch here and a million other sites elsewhere - there is no quarterback in the NFL right now who is on Peyton's level.
RB - LaDainian Tomlinson (Chargers)
Another easy choice. When you go back and watch film of Barry Sanders and see him do incredibly sick things, and then you remember he never sniffed a championship and you start thinking about how Barry could've become the undisputed best running back of all time if the Lions had ever gotte him to the stage necessary to validate such claims...and then you remember every time you see LT do something crazy and break another record that the Chargers had the best regular season record in the AFC and could've easily made it to the Super Bowl this year, and any conversation about 2007 will include them...much like Manning, LT is a ring away from being in the best running back of all time conversation, if not in front of it. There are other great backs in the NFL right now, but none with the combination of skills and highlight footage that this guy carries. At the very least, will go down as the greatest fantasy football player of all time.
FB - Mack Strong (Seahawks)
As the Mike Alstotts and Lorenzo Neals of the world are getting older, it would be easy to try and look to some younger guy to fill the void. But you'll still find no better bruiser at the fullback position than Mack Strong. He doesn't get many carries, though Matt Hasslebeck throws his way every now and then. No, Strong is a fullback's fullback, lowering and booming in front of Shaun Alexander every snap and clearing the path for Alexander's record setting performances in 2005, and another Pro Bowl selection this year. If you're looking for someone to clear the path, this guy will get it done.
WR - Steve Smith (Panthers)
For the last two seasons, no receiver in the NFL has been able to affect the impact of a game more by himself than Smith. Smith doesn't play with one of the NFL's five best quarterbacks or five best tailbacks, and he is often the primary focus of the opposition. He doesn't have a Reggie Wayne or TJ Whosyourmomma to draw equal concern from the opposition like other elite receivers. And none of that hasn't slowed him down - even missing the first two games of this season due to injury, Smith finished in the top ten in receiving yards, and was third in the NFL in yards per game. Smith probably isn't one of the five most talked about WRs in the NFL, but he's without a doubt the best.
WR - Chad Johnson (Bengals)
There are lots of choices after Smith - Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt, or even someone like Andre Johnson who doesn't play in an overly explosive offense and still gets it done. But 85 - at least so far in his career - has carried just enough flash and arrogance to help him instead of hurt him. He doesn't have the off-field problems of many of his Cincinnati teammates, he doesn't show up teammates and cause locker room cancer the way T.O. does, and his calling out of opposing DBs is just brash enough without crossing the line - you need that kind of confidence in your #1 wide receiver, and this combined with his end zone celebrations make the NFL better, not worse. "If I did that in public, I'd fine myself."
TE - Tony Gonzalez (Chiefs)
All of a sudden, there are a wealth of great tight ends in the NFL - this spot could easily go to Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey, Alge Crumpler, Kellen Winslow, or Jason Witten. Gonzalez and Gates both play with outstanding running backs who are the focus of their offenses, and Gonzalez had a slow 2005, but bounced back in 2006 with a strong year as the Chiefs made the playoffs. You could flip a coin between the two of them, but Gonzalez plays with worse wide receivers than Gates (but not by much), so I'm going with him. Bonus points when he does his Tony Montana impersonation during the starting lineups.
OT - Jonathan Ogden (Ravens)
OT - Walter Jones (Seahawks)
OG - Steve Hutchinson (Vikings)
OG - Will Shields (Chiefs)
C - Jeff Saturday (Colts)
These five represent offenses that are balanced and protect the quarterback well (especially if you go back to 05 with the Seahawks for Hutchinson), guys with experience who know how to get it done.
DE - Jason Taylor (Dolphins)
In a time where speed rush defensive ends seem to come and go, where there's a new "might be the greatest defensive end since Reggie White" every two seasons, where the progression has moved from Jevon Kearse to Dwight Freeney to Julius Peppers to Mario Williams being taken first in the draft, you won't find a more consistently great DE this millenium than Jason Taylor. Taylor grabbed 13.5 sacks in 2006 and forced a ridiculous 9 fumbles. This might be the best defensive player in the NFL.
DE - Julius Peppers (Panthers)
Among the Freeneys and Kearses of the world, I'll take Peppers over any of them. Right there with Taylor with 13 sacks, Peppers has the game to be one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL for years, and a great combination of size and speed.
DT - Warren Sapp (Raiders)
There's still plenty of room for this veteran on my defensive line. Some of the younger guys are making the Pro Bowls now days, but you're still hard pressed to find a defensive tackle who's consistently as productive as Sapp, and no one has done it as well for as long as he has. Plenty of fuel still left in the tank, I'd have him on my front.
DT - Richard Seymour (Patriots)
In October of 2000, the biggest reason that the Georgia Bulldogs ended a ten year reign of dominance against the Vols were two guys named Stroud and Seymour. Six years later, Seymour is still flat out getting it done, with three rings to boot.
OLB - Terrell Suggs (Ravens)
Not the most famous Baltimore linebacker, but Suggs is just as valuable as Ray Lewis to the Baltimore defense. These two and Adalius Thomas form the best linebacking corps in the NFL today.
OLB - DeMarcus Ware (Cowboys)
Using the same speed and pursuit that guys like Dwight Freeney are known for and using it at outside linebacker, Ware is a game-changer on defense. Watch a Cowboys game, and you'll hear "the offensive linemen have to find a way to block DeMarcus Ware" in the first five minutes.
MLB - Brian Urlacher (Bears)
It's rare that the two guys who are considered the best and most important players on both Super Bowl squads turn in equally impressive games. Urlacher had 10 tackles in the Super Bowl, and he simply doesn't miss. The heart and soul of the Super Bowl defense, and always lives up to the billing. The best in a crowded MLB field.
CB - Champ Bailey (Broncos)
The fact that he was traded straight up for Clinton Portis shows how valuable he is. Lots of guys get the "shutdown corner" label, but few live up to it like this guy, and...
CB - DeAngelo Hall (Falcons)
Put these two guys out there against any two receivers, and I bet the defense wins.
FS - Ed Reed (Ravens)
There's a reason Baltimore's defense is continually feared. Reed has been getting it done and leading the way on defense since his days at Miami, and anchors the back end of the best defense in the NFL.
SS - Troy Polamalu (Steelers)
Exactly what you want from a strong safety - big, fast, hits you when he gets there and hits you hard. Like Reed, has a Super Bowl ring to pad the resume.
K - Adam Vinatieri (Colts)
Going for the thumb in 2007. Hall of Fame soon after.
P - Mat McBriar (Cowboys)
What, you didn't know who the 2006 net punting champion was?
Sunday, February 04, 2007
"I just thought you'd want to tell your grandmother goodbye, because I might not survive this tonight."
She took blood pressure medication after the AFC Championship Game. Let's hope we've all got a dose or two close by tonight...
After all the hype, speculation and breakdown, here's what it comes down to for me:
The Bears are more dangerous than anyone is giving them credit for. Sure, Rex Grossman could implode and Indy could win by three touchdowns. But Chicago is equal parts good, confident, and underdog, which is more often than not a lethal combination. This isn't a ragtag cinderella who miracled its way through the regular season and playoffs. They're not intimidated by Indianapolis, who just four weeks ago couldn't play defense. And they're confident, especially because of their defense, not needing the seven point spread to motivate them - it's just fuel on the fire. This team was 13-3 in the regular season. These guys are good, they know they're good, and they're especially motivated because no one is giving them a chance because they're not sexy and they're Manningless.
And I've had my heart broken by Rex Grossman twice already. Which is more than enough.
Peyton Manning has to play within himself. Which, again, is not to say that Manning's not capable of putting a 375 yard, 4 TD performance on the board even against this defense. But David Cutcliffe was quoted in the News-Sentinel today about how he allowed Peyton to get too wound up when he played Florida as a senior. It's his first Super Bowl, he won't know what to expect other than he knows it's the biggest game of his life. If Manning plays within himself, he'll be a great quarterback making smart decisions and leading his team to victory. If Manning doesn't, he'll be a head case quarterback forcing bad decisions and a headline for a Chicago victory.
Put Marvin Harrison - notoriously under the radar in the playoffs, which is being nice about it - in this category to a lesser degree.
Potential X-Factors: Cedric Benson & Thomas Jones, Adam Vinatieri, Bears' Secondary (especially Devin Hester)
In a perfect world for Chicago, the defense will do the lion's share, and Rex Grossman won't have to win it by himself, getting good field position and strong running from Benson & Jones. In a perfect world for Super Bowl history, Vinatieri will have a say in its finish again. But there's no player on the field - even in potential rainstorms - more capable of changing the entire game around in one moment than Devin Hester. Chicago's secondary will be tested by Manning, but Hester has a chance to shine on both sides.
Key Stat: Turnovers
Which is generally true in every football game played on every level, from Pop Warner to your XBOX 360. "The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win."
As a Titans fan, and as someone with no feelings of malice towards the Bears, everything I think is centered, obviously, around Manning. There are two scenarios I'd love to see. One is the
"name it" scenario where Manning throws for 500 yards and 5 TDs, Indy scores 50 points and wins huge, and Manning wins the MVP and it goes down in history as one of the best Super Bowl performances of all time.
It may or may not be more entertaining than a "last play of the game" scenario - which is what the fans of the other 30 teams are hoping for right about now - where Manning throws a laser-efficient TD pass on the final play for the win. This, no matter what anyone tells you, would be more satisfying than seeing Vinatieri do what he always does.
However, I think you're going to get something in between. I think Manning will play smart, and thus he'll play well. I think Chicago's defense isn't going to be able to dictate field position well enough to keep the Colts off the board early, and I like enough of what I've seen of Indy's defense the last few weeks to slow down a sporadic Chicago offense. Grossman will make some mistakes, but he'll get some plays as well. So will Manning. In the end, however, I'm taking Indianapolis to grind them out in the second half and build a two possession margin that will force Grossman to the air more often than not, which should work to solidify an Indianapolis victory. And I'm taking me to never have to answer questions about Peyton Manning again.
Will's Pick: Colts 27 - Bears 17
Saturday, February 03, 2007
The proudest franchise in the NBA is two consecutive losses away from having one for each of their record 16 championship banners. Seriously, it's hard to lose 14 games in a row these days in the "everybody makes a run!" NBA. But here we are - and it doesn't look promising down the road, with a road trip to Detroit followed by home dates with the Heat and the Nets.
But perhaps, things aren't so bleak after all. If you've been watching college basketball (and the Vols have seen this first hand), Greg Oden and Kevin Durant (who had 37 points and 23 rebounds against Bobby Knight earlier this week) are playing like the two surest things in the NBA Draft since Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal.
Now, representing the "let's pull for Boston to lose every game" point of view: Bill Simmons.
Now, there's precedent for this: when the young Timmy Duncan was terrorizing the ACC at Wake Forest, and the Celtics were being led by the towel-waiving M.L. Carr, Boston finished with the worst record in the league, and also had another top pick through a trade. Essentially, the Celtics were supposed to have the first pick, and had a legitimate shot and taking the first two (which were widely agreed to be Duncan and Keith Van Horn at the time). Instead, the ping pong balls fell in the worst possible way for the Celtics, leaving them with, instead of 1 and 2 (or really, 1 and anything else would've been fine because it meant Tim Duncan), picks 3 and 6, which turned into Chauncey Billups (who matured about six years and three teams later) and Ron Mercer (oops). And the fresh-faced Rick Pitino was longing for his old Kentucky home.
In 2007, a fair share of Boston's struggles are due to the injury to Paul Pierce, who hasn't played in almost two months. When #34 is in the lineup, being that the C's still play in the East, Boston is at least a threat. Boston also has young, raw talent - Al Jefferson is foremost among them, but Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, and Tony Allen among others aren't bad. And who led the C's in scoring in their latest loss? Rookie Rajon "I shoot 80% from the floor in Thompson-Boling" Rondo, in his first start.
If you threw Oden or Durant into this mix (especially Oden, because even if Durant is more talented overall, you simply cannot overstate the importance of a dominant big man), it would give the stability and hope the Celtics need to continue to bring Jefferson and Green along. I've read on three different websites this week, as Boston continues to lose, that a potential front line of Pierce, Jefferson and Oden would instantly be one of the top two or three in the Eastern Conference. And they're right.
There are also rumors floating around that the Celtics will trade Al Jefferson and/or the draft pick for a sure thing like Pau Gasol. Which might be a good, safe move, and if the lottery doesn't fall your way and you miss out on both Oden and Durant, you're in big trouble again. But my oh my, with both of these guys on the board, and with Jefferson getting better with time, don't you want to roll the dice?
For now, I just can't fully condone Simmons' "let's root against the Celtics" stance - it just feels wrong. But I understand it. And if May rolls around, and the Celtics find themselves with more ping pong balls than anyone else...I won't complain.