Thursday, February 28, 2008
Tennessee vs. Kentucky
In a way, it's fitting that the game on Sunday has gone from "a nice capper to our SEC Championship season" with a win to a do or die scenario where the Vols can either put themselves in great position to win the regular season title, or hand the keys to the Cats and let them drive for awhile. Kentucky continues to live up to their defensive name, beating Ole Miss 58-54 last night, and moving to 10-3 in the SEC. At this point, win or lose on Sunday, you have to start putting UK in your bracket projections.
Speaking of, let's take a look at the SEC standings with three games to play for all involved:
1. Tennessee 11-2, 25-3
2. Kentucky 10-3, 16-10
3. Vanderbilt 9-4, 24-4
4. Florida 8-5, 21-7
5. South Carolina 4-9, 12-15
6. Georgia 3-10, 12-14
1. Mississippi State 10-3, 19-8
2. Arkansas 7-6, 18-9
3. Ole Miss 4-9, 18-9
4. Auburn 4-9, 14-12
5. Alabama 4-9, 15-13
6. LSU 4-9, 11-16
Right now, you'd say that the Vols, Vandy, and Mississippi State are locks to go dancing. And while the Gators could use one more win to secure themselves, it'll be hard to come by: the Gators finish with Mississippi State, Tennessee, and a trip to Rupp Arena. So it's a risk-reward situation for Billy Donovan's kids, who can greatly improve their situation and could even still move up to #2 in the SEC East and get a first round bye in Atlanta, but could also be sliding hard to the Georgia Dome and find themselves sweating it out on Thursday to try and find that one last win.
Still, I think those four will get in. Ole Miss has now played themselves out of the conversation, and Arkansas is in danger of doing the same thing after losing to Alabama last night. They've got an all-important home date with Vanderbilt on Saturday, which would look good for posterity, before finishing the regular season with a trip to Ole Miss and a home date with Auburn. 8-8 in this year's SEC may not be enough.
So we come back to Kentucky. If they finish at least 11-5 in the SEC, shouldn't that be enough to get them in? That'll be a conversation for people who know more about this than me, but I'd think they need to find just one more win to wipe the sweat off their brow...
...but again, they can do more than that. Winning at Thompson-Boling on Saturday would give them the inside track to the East Division, and would also put Mississippi State back in the SEC Championship conversation (who beat Kentucky earlier this season). But since that loss and the loss to the Gators afterwards, UK has won 9 of 10, the only blemish that embarassing 41 point L in Nashville.
This Kentucky team is the definition of gritty. Of those 9 wins, the largest margin of victory is 10 points against Alabama. In those 9 wins, they've held the opposition to 70 points or less every single time. Whether it's the UK players finally buying into Billy Gillispie's system or something else, outside of one anomaly in Nashville, the Cats have locked down the competition.
They've done it to the Vols once already, holding Tennessee to 66 points and 39% from the floor, 27% from behind the arc. They also drained 24 of 28 free throws in that first contest and are the last team to outrebound the Vols. Don't come to Knoxville on Sunday expecting up and down excitement.
In fact, you haven't seen much of that recently regardless of the opponent. Whether it's been the official's whistle or the opposing defense, Tennessee hasn't really been able to get up and down in their transition offense in their last two games. The Vols average 83 points per game, but have scored in the 60s against both of their in-state rivals, and had the aforementioned 66 against Kentucky the first time around. Whether it's in transition or in the half-court, the Vols will need good shots and good offense to get past UK's defense.
On the other side, the Vols will need big post presence against Patrick Patterson, who really hurt the Vols in the first meeting and is averaging 16 points and 8 boards per. And with Joe Crawford, Ramel Bradley and Jodie Meeks, the Cats still have plenty of scoring options to hurt you. There should be no more disrespecting Kentucky - those vibes of "this is our best team and their worst team, let's finish them off!" from the first time around are completely gone, and replaced with what a Tennessee-Kentucky game is supposed to be: winner take all. The next chapter of this rivalry will play out Sunday at high noon from Knoxville, in Chris Lofton's potential last chance against the Cats, with Ernie & Bernie and a capacity crowd on hand (a pair of lower level seats are going for at least $250 on ebay this morning). I'm taking one of my three annual Sundays off to be there. I'm sure it won't disappoint.
CollegeFootballNews.com's Top 40 2008 Non-Conference Games
Hey, look at that, we didn't start with Tennessee Football.
But that doesn't mean we won't still talk about it. You can read more analysis of each of these games at CFN's site, but here's the list of their best non-conference matchups for the 2008 college football season:
40. Fresno State at Kansas State, Sept. 6
39. North Carolina at Rutgers, Sept. 11
38. Texas Tech at Nevada, Sept. 6
37. Oregon State at Utah, Oct. 2
36. BYU at Washington, Sept. 6
35. Kansas State at Louisville, Sept. 20
34. UCF at Miami, Oct. 11
33. California at Maryland, Sept. 13
32. Oregon at Purdue, Sept. 13
31. Southern Cal at Virginia, Aug. 30
30. Iowa at Pittsburgh, Sept. 20
29. South Florida at UCF, Sept. 6
28. Oklahoma at Washington, Sept. 13
27. Fresno State at UCLA, Aug. 30
26. Notre Dame at Boston College, Nov. 8
25. Michigan State at California, Aug. 30
24. Oregon State at Penn State, Sept. 6
23. Kentucky at Louisville, Aug. 30
22. Wisconsin at Fresno State, Sept. 13
21. West Virginia at Colorado, Sept. 18
20. Boise State at Oregon, Sept. 20
19. Miami at Texas A&M, Sept. 20
18. Utah at Michigan, Aug. 30
17. Cincinnati at Oklahoma, Sept. 6
16. Notre Dame at Southern Cal, Nov. 29
15. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 29
14. Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 13
13. UCLA at BYU, Sept. 13
12. Virginia Tech at Nebraska, Sept. 27
11. Arkansas at Texas, Sept. 13
10. Kansas at South Florida, Sept. 13
09. Tennessee at UCLA, Sept. 6
08. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 29
07. Georgia Tech at Georgia, Nov. 29
06. Miami at Florida, Sept. 6
05. Alabama vs. Clemson (Atlanta), Aug. 30
04. Georgia at Arizona State, Sept. 20
03. Auburn at West Virginia, Oct. 13
02. Illinois vs. Missouri (St. Louis), Aug. 30
01. Ohio State at Southern Cal, Sept. 13
Bill Simmons on Sam Cassell to Boston?
From today's basketball-centric mailbag...
After watching Cassell up close for three years, I can report the following certainties: He's not washed up; he hasn't slipped so much defensively that he's a complete liability; he works the refs better than anyone in the league; he's a charismatic presence on and off the court; and he can still catch fire during games and carry a team for small stretches. It's hard to imagine a better fit for the Celtics, especially when you factor in his relationship with KG, the way he matches up against bigger, more physical guards like Chauncey Billups (the real reason the Celts passed on Damon Stoudamire), his knack for hitting big shots (which they need), and the fact Boston's big guys could protect him against quicker guards. And he would add one more super-competitive guy to an already super-competitive team.
So those are the good parts. On the bad side, Cassell's arrival could ruin Rajon Rondo's confidence, which is already in the process of being battered by Doc Rivers' penchant for yanking his minutes around. (The way Rondo was buried in Phoenix last week, when he was the only Celtic who could defend Steve Nash and make him work defensively, was an unequivocal disgrace.) By December, when it became established the Celtics were destined for a top-two seed, their only two goals should have been to keep Ray Allen, KG and Paul Pierce rested and healthy for the spring (somewhat of a failure so far) and building up Rondo's confidence even at the expense of a couple losses (a total failure so far). So the thought of bringing in Cassell scares the hell out of me. Can Rondo handle it? Hard to say.
And then there's this: Sam isn't a coach-killer, but he's a significant presence who could undermine a coach simply because his teammates respond more to him than anyone else. I've been to games in which a Clipper would run over to Sam for instructions as Mike Dunleavy was vainly trying to wave the same Clipper over. (You always hear the phrase "he's like a coach on the floor," but Sam really is a coach on the floor -- back in 2006, I devoted an entire column to Sam potentially becoming the first successful NBA player-coach since Lenny Wilkens.) So his coach needs to be secure enough to handle him ... and poor Doc is already wound up tighter than a kite string. By the time the playoffs roll around, he's going to look like he's passing a kidney stone while getting a colonoscopy at the same time. Could he handle Sam on and off the court? Would he feel threatened by him? Again, hard to say.
Finally, at this point of Cassell's career, his biggest strength doubles as his biggest weakness: His gigantic, absurdly large, gravity-defying balls in big moments. This is someone who would absolutely take the series-deciding jumper in a Game 7 against Detroit or Cleveland and not think twice. Do you really want a 38-year-old guy with a bad back deciding your season? The X-Factor is the Celtics don't have a money-in-the-bank crunch-time scorer -- Pierce is good but not great, Allen is pretty spotty at this stage of his career, and Garnett relies exclusively on turnarounds and fadeaways for whatever reason. That's my biggest fear about a potential Cleveland series, that no Celtic can match baskets with LeBron in the final two minutes of a close game. So Cassell fixes that problem a little, and I'd certainly rather have Sam shooting crucial 20-footers than Rondo.
The best-case scenario would be the Rondo-Cassell tandem working like Tony Parker and Speedy Claxton in the 2003 playoffs. Remember, the '03 Spurs were pretty flawed -- they had Duncan in his prime, Robinson at the end of his career, a not-quite-ready Manu Ginobili, a hit-or-miss second-year point guard (Parker) and a bunch of role players. If not for Claxton's ability to right the ship during Parker's off-nights, the Spurs wouldn't have won the title. (Don't forget, Parker was so up-and-down the Spurs pursued Jason Kidd right after the season.) Rondo's 2008 playoff experience will inevitably play out like Parker's did -- some good games, some stinkers -- and when he committed those two last-minute brain farts in Golden State last week, it was a grisly reminder that young point guards can self-destruct at any time, especially on the road in big moments. I like Rondo -- actually, I really like Rondo -- but you can't expect a 21-year-old point guard to play consistently well for two straight months in the playoffs. Over everything else, that's why the Celtics need Cassell and his gravity-defying testicles.
The Road to WrestleMania XXIV
Alright, here's the current lineup for the biggest night in sports entertainment, five Sundays away on March 30 from the Citrus Bowl in Orlando:
WWE Championship - Triple Threat Match
Randy Orton vs. John Cena vs. Triple H
World Heavyweight Championship
Edge vs. The Undertaker
Career Threatening Match
Shawn Michaels vs. Ric Flair
Big Show vs. Floyd Mayweather
Money in the Bank Ladder Match
Jeff Hardy, Mr. Kennedy, Shelton Benjamin, Chris Jericho
(4 additional spots to be determined)
Raw vs. SmackDown Match
Umaga vs. Batista
Now, there will be more pieces to this puzzle...four more names in the ladder match, some sort of stipulation on how Mayweather is going to fight the 7'0"+ Big Show, some sort of angle with Vince McMahon/JBL/Finlay...but okay, is this going to earn your $$$?
It's WrestleMania, so I like many feel compelled to watch it. But...well...
The main event is nice, but it doesn't feel like a WrestleMania main event. The company suffers from the lack of a great heel, and their three best heel candidates on the roster (Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Chris Jericho) are all faces at the moment. What you hear more and more when it comes to John Cena are women screaming when he takes his shirt off, followed by a chorus of boos. Triple H will be the overwhelming favorite - or at least he should be - to win his 12th world title and carry the ship for a little while, whether they turn him heel or not.
WrestleMania is also the only time The Undertaker is compelling in my mind, because he's 15-0 there. I'm a fan of Edge and like what he can bring to the table, because you need superior wrestlers to make 'Taker look good, but I'm not sure the general public will agree.
The money is well spent, in my mind, for Shawn Michaels vs. Ric Flair alone, simply because it is widely believed that this will be Ric Flair's final match. He's 59 years old and they've been running this "lose and you'll retire" angle all fall/winter, but you have to believe that if you're Flair, at this point you have some level of creative control over how you go out, and right now there's no better stage than WrestleMania, and no one who can make you look better at the end than Shawn Michaels, who has turned in the best performance of the night at several WrestleManias, and the best match of the opposition's career several times. He's done ladder matches, iron man matches, passed the torch to Steve Austin with a crippled back, then returned five years later to have the match of the night with Chris Jericho, participated in Chris Benoit's championship match at WrestleMania XX, stole the show again with Kurt Angle the next year, and carried John Cena in the main event last year. Shawn Michaels is the best and only way Ric Flair gets home, and that for me is worth seeing.
Before and after that, it's "meh". The Floyd Mayweather annual WrestleMania publicity stunt will surely be more compelling than Donald Trump was last year, and how they'll actually pull a "match" off with Big Show will be interesting - and credit Big Show for letting Mayweather legitimately land 3-4 shots on him at No Way Out - but I'm not sure that's going to put a dent in the buyrate. Next year being WrestleMania 25, I hope they pull off something better...and I think this will end up being more solid than last year's edition, but that's not saying a whole lot either. Still, it's WrestleMania. I'm sure there will be a few more surprises along the way between now and then.
In the meantime, adding to the growing list of ways to waste several hours on YouTube with old wrestling stuff, here's a great piece of nostalgia I found with every single final elimination in the 20 year history of the Royal Rumble:
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
But moving forward is what we do, so it's on to Kentucky. And while you have to credit Vanderbilt for the win, and for taking away our opportunity to win the SEC Championship against the Cats on Sunday, the game suddenly takes on an importance of a different kind.
If Kentucky beats Ole Miss tonight (Rupp Arena, 8:00 PM, ESPN Full Court & Raycom on local listings), the Cats will be only one game behind the Vols in the SEC East race and the race for the overall SEC Championship. Given that UK already beat the Vols in Lexington, if Kentucky wins again in Thompson-Boling - which as any Vol fan who didn't jump on the bandwagon this season will tell you, it wouldn't be the first time - the Cats would own the tiebreaker over the Vols, and Tennessee would then need to win out (at Florida, vs. South Carolina) and hope the Cats lost one of their last two (at South Carolina, vs. Florida).
Tennessee can't win the SEC on Sunday, but they can definitely make life easier for themselves. Beating Kentucky would mean that the Vols would only need to split their final two games to win the SEC Championship outright. And a tie would still be possible, but as Bruce Pearl will tell you, you want the outright title - the Vols shared a conference championship as recently as 2000, but it's been 41 years since the Vols stood alone. That's still the goal, and that's still fully attainable and in our own hands.
We'll look more at Kentucky after their performance tonight - though I will say that UK and Ole Miss are two sides of the same coin, with the Rebels starting the season 14-0 and now standing at 18-8, 4-8 in the SEC, while the Cats started the season 7-9 and now stand at 15-10, 9-3 in the SEC. And the Vols will certainly use the rest from Tuesday night to Sunday at high noon.
Again, credit Vanderbilt, who's no slouch. Bruce Pearl makes no excuses and neither will I, and it's not rocket science to say that if you shoot 33% on the road in the SEC against a Top 15 team, you're not going to win. And while I do wish that announcers and pundits would stop calling Vanderbilt our archrival - because we'll see them Sunday - I've got to give Kevin Stallings credit as well for saying and doing all the right things, before, during, and after the game. It's not that Pearl got outcoached, it's that Vanderbilt brought their A game and it showed. So that puts the Dores on the list of teams I'd like to see again in Atlanta, to break the season tie...
...but, one thing at a time.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Saturday, February 23, 2008
The day has been long. When you take all the feelings of a bigtime football game, and then you realize that there's not any other bigtime college football games on television during the afternoon to take your attention, or that you usually don't have to wait until 9:00 PM for them, the hours pile on. The week has been long.
I've done visitation today, which I usually don't do on Saturdays. I watched Kentucky and Arkansas battle to the final moments, before my local affiliate here in southwest Virginia cut to Duke and St. John's with under a minute to play. Then I read about Kentucky moving to 9-3 in the SEC. I played Call of Duty 4 for hours and hours and hours. Nothing has made it better, nothing has taken this away. And I love it.
The Vols are going to win or lose, but the season will go on. But right now, I just want to take this moment to document the unique environment that has surrounded this thing all week, leading up to tonight and right now. ESPN GameDay has documented it well today. And you've seen more layers to Bruce Pearl - no matter how hated in the SEC and in Memphis, I will tell you that you never saw Steve Spurrier cry. Say what you will about Pearl, but love him or hate him you can't deny that he genuinely cares.
Rece Davis is reporting that Pearl told a group of Tennessee supporters earlier today that the Vols were going to "tear down the wall around this city and kick some Tiger ass." And I've never loved him more.
Dickie V is here. Peyton Manning is here. My family in Memphis is still sitting on its high horse, for at least another hour. I'm in Ceres and if anyone drives by this house in the next three hours, I'm not answering the door.
Win or lose, it's an incredible feat to be at this point and be feeling these feelings. The University of Tennessee has arrived, and can take another step forward tonight before continuing down that path in March. Tonight, this is what it's all about.
Let's kick the tires and light the fires.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Thursday, February 21, 2008
John Adams: UT Football Needs a Change at the Top
The University of Tennessee football program desperately needs new leadership. And I’m not suggesting that the next quarterback needs to be more vocal or the team captains need to be more demonstrative.
UT’s leadership problem is at the top.
Maybe you’re way ahead of me on this. Maybe you realized as much after Florida beat the Vols by 39 points last September, and a mediocre Alabama team beat them by 24 in October.
Memphis Commercial Appeal sports columnist Ron Higgins didn’t need to see the Alabama game. After the Florida game, he wrote that longtime UT football coach Phillip Fulmer should be fired.
Was his assessment premature? Maybe.
Was it wrong? No.
I reached the same conclusion Sunday night for a different reason. It’s not just about the won-loss record. It’s about the arrest record.
More significantly, it’s about how Fulmer has responded to the arrests of his players.
In the last six weeks, eight UT players have either been arrested or disciplined for breaking team rules. The most recent crime involved punter Britton Colquitt, who allegedly hit a parked car while driving under the influence. To make matters worse, police also say he left the scene of the accident.
Fulmer’s response was swift and soft. He suspended Colquitt for the first five games of the 2008 season.
Keep in mind this wasn’t Colquitt’s first brush with the law. Or second. Or third.
How could Fulmer not dismiss Colquitt from the team after what could be fifth alcohol-related offense?
Answer: Colquitt is a starter.
Remember a couple of years ago when three UT players were arrested following a disturbance at a local bar? The two backup players got one- and two-game suspensions. Arian Foster, the starting tailback, was suspended for half a game.
Fulmer’s explanation: Foster served as a peacemaker. But that’s not what the police report said.
What kind of message does that send? It sends the same message that Fulmer sent with his disciplining of Colquitt: “It’s what you do on the field that matters.”
Fulmer can’t stop his players from breaking the law. But he can stop them from doing it more than once.
After an incredible run of arrests in a six-week span, Fulmer could have said the next player found guilty of a crime — no matter what it is — is off the team. Ah, but that wouldn’t be fair to the guilty player, would it?
Forget the player. Think about the program.
Fulmer’s program is out of control. Again.
There’s a Web site called fulmercup.com, which keeps a running score of off-the-field transgressions of college football players. Schools are awarded points for each offense; the greater offense, the more points. At the end of the year, the points are totaled up and the winner is awarded the Fulmer Cup in honor of you know who.
That’s the perception of UT football under Fulmer. It’s “Rocky Top,” the checkered end zone and “one more for the road.” Make that “a double.”
Two years ago, USA Today did an in-depth story on the off-the-field problems of UT football players in 2005. But the same story would have been as relevant in the mid-1990s.
It would be just as relevant today.
Bottom line: UT has surpassed Miami as the poster team for bad behavior in college football. It’s the college equivalent of the Cincinnati Bengals.
And when some of the bad Vols leave, they move on to bigger and badder things, carrying their UT affiliation right along with them.
In the last 10 years, two former prominent UT football players have killed people. How sobering is that?
Dwayne Goodrich, who starred in UT’s national championship game victory over Florida State, is in prison for criminally negligent homicide after running over two people on a Dallas freeway in 2003. Police estimated his car was going 110 miles per hour when he struck and killed two motorists who were trying to rescue a man from a burning car.
Leonard Little, another former UT player, capped off a drunken birthday bash in 1998 by crashing into and killing another motorist. He served only 90 days in jail.
Former UT players don’t have to kill anyone to make national headlines.
Jamal Lewis, an NFL star and former UT running back, served time in federal prison for his involvement in a drug deal. Travis Henry, another former UT and current NFL running back, has distinguished himself by fathering nine children by nine different women. Former UT player Albert Haynesworth was the talk of the NFL in 2006 when he stomped on a Dallas player’s face during a game.
You can’t blame Fulmer for the crimes committed by his players and former players. But he is responsible for disciplining players while they’re on his team.
And he has failed miserably at that.
Two different people have e-mailed me in the last week and wrote that they will no longer donate money to the program because of the succession of embarrassing off-the-field incidents. Maybe they’re serious; maybe they were just venting.
But it’s just a matter of time before a major contributor decides he has had enough and refuses to throw good money after bad players.
When a football program is winning big, virtually everything is forgiven. This just in: UT isn’t winning big. It hasn’t won an SEC championship since 1998. It hasn’t been to a BCS bowl since 1999. It hasn’t finished in the top 10 since 2001.
Combine that with what’s happening off the field, and it’s apparent UT needs to make a change. Athletic director Mike Hamilton and Fulmer should work out a deal by which the coach resigns after the 2008 season.
Fulmer has had a good run. He has won a national championship and two conference titles. In 15 seasons, he has won fewer than eight games only once.
But when you weigh what he’s done against what’s going on now, the conclusion is obvious. UT football has a serious image problem, which will affect fundraising and recruiting. If you want to change that image, you need to change the coach.
Many UT fans get squeamish at the thought of hiring a new coach. They’ve seen other successful programs drop off significantly after changing coaches. They’re afraid they might get the wrong guy.
In fact, they already have the wrong guy.
Phillip Fulmer: A Coach's First Job is as Educator, Mentor
Most college football fans visualize the head coach pacing the sidelines on Saturday afternoon. But the truth is that our hardest work is done far from the view of fans, sportswriters, or television cameras.
In my 30 years of coaching, my proudest victories have come in places much quieter than Neyland Stadium - they've come when departing seniors stop by my office the day before graduating or when mothers send notes of thanks, acknowledging that the immature boys they sent to Knoxville have come home as responsible young men.
Those are the moments that are the greatest moments in coaching and the importance compels me to do something I have never done in my career - respond directly in writing to a negative column in the newspaper.
In Tuesday's Knoxville News-Sentinel, you may have seen John Adams' column attacking my character and my leadership. We live in a free country, and Mr. Adams has built a successful career speaking his mind - that's his right. But the readers of the News-Sentinel have a right to know what Mr. Adams doesn't know, as well.
Mr. Adams has never sat next to me in a prospect's living room, looking his mother or grandmother in the eyes and promising to treat the young man like he was my own child - giving him tough love when necessary and an opportunity to straighten up when that's in order. It is a promise I take seriously and will never abandon to please any columnist.
My first job as a coach is to be an educator and a mentor. That's why I have dedicated my professional life to football on the college level and my private life to charities like the Jason Foundation that prevents teen suicide, and the Boys and Girls Club that touches the lives of today's youth at a very early age.
At the flagship university in my home state, I am expected to run a program that succeeds on the field - but I am also obligated and committed to doing my best to help every player become an educated, responsible adult. We don't win every game and we don't succeed in grooming every young man, but make no mistake that my first and foremost priority is the growth of our young men as well as winning football games.
Unfortunately there is no template for helping young people grow to be well-adjusted, responsible adults. I have four children of my own, including a varsity athlete, and like any parent can tell you, each child is unique and each one requires different parenting. The same is true of our football players. The vast majority of our players come to UT and have a great experience, enriching our campus community, and leaving it better than they found it. They all have needs along the way - in the case of a very small number of them, they need a good dose of discipline and accountability.
Since I have been the head coach at UT, I have learned a great deal about mixing "tough love" and encouragement. The hundreds of players we have graduated will gladly attest to both - they have all loved and despised me at different points in their college days. I have kicked some of our most talented athletes off the team when I thought it would do them the most good as individuals or they were damaging our goals as a team. I have taken the heat from partially-informed pundits when I gave others a second chance. I accept that role with honor and humility; it's what an educator does.
It is on this point that I feel most compelled to take issue with Mr. Adams' column. He is certainly free to criticize my football strategy - during my tenure our program has won more games than 95 percent of all other major college programs, but his criticism on that is fair game. He is free to critique our team's appeal with our fans - we have ranked no worse than fourth in attendance in the nation every year I have been head coach, but he's within his rights to chastise us for that too. He is free to say that my best days are behind me - our most recent team finished first in what was the toughest SEC East in two decades, but I accept his criticism on that as well. What I will not accept is Mr. Adams questioning my integrity, my sense of fairness, or values as a man.
At no time in my tenure has a player's football skill or athletic success been a factor in the way he was disciplined. Never. Our internal discipline is based on one factor alone: the course that is most likely to help that individual young man make amends and get his life straight. We make these decisions after much deliberation and with the input of administration, professional staff, counselors, and when necessary, law enforcement. This is not the easy way to mete out punishment. It requires judgment and leadership to keep the entire team focused and respectful of rules and basic morality, but it is the method that best serves the interest of our young men. In my 15 years, I've undoubtedly made some mistakes, but I try to do what I think is in the best interest for each young man.
It should be noted this is not the first time Mr. Adams has raised this complaint with limited perspective. Thirteen years ago I suspended a young man for two games based on a troubling off-the-field incident and Mr. Adams wrote that I should have kicked him off the team instead. I knew that young man better than Mr. Adams did, and today he is not only a UT graduate, but a sergeant with the Knoxville Sheriff's Department, putting his life on the line for all of us everyday.
Our program, like almost any student group at any major university, has had more students find trouble than any of us in collegiate administration desire. As a parent myself, I routinely lose sleep worrying about the 100 or so young men put in my care. And like any educator, I want all our students to succeed all the time. I'm sure Mr. Adams wants that, too. But from inside the university halls looking outward, that job is a lot different than it looks from the press box where Mr. Adams sits.
So...what do you think?
If you know me or you've spent any time here at all, you know that I'm generally more positive than negative, which means generally I fall on the opposite side of John Adams. I do think Adams is good at his job, and he does write very good columns at times - his piece on Erik Ainge facing the media like a man after the SEC Championship Game loss is my most recent favorite. He's also written some things that I've had incredibly strong feelings against, most notably in 2002 when the Vols were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and his column the next day seemed like it wanted to make sure you knew more than anything else that he picked against the Vols in his bracket.
And I do like Phillip Fulmer. I think what he's done here, both in recruiting and on field product, has been good from start to finish. I did write on this blog that change might be what's best following the Alabama loss this season, but also encouraged everyone to wait for the whole season to play out - a formula I'll prescribe in any sport in any season - and after having seen the whole instead of just the parts in 2007, I think he did a great job and the majority of Vol Nation seems to agree. Winning games makes the head coach popular; the Vols went 6-1 down the stretch so Fulmer's obviously more liked now. And I also think Phillip Fulmer is a man of character, which is what he clearly defends in his column and what he takes most exception to in Adams'.
Look, we could debate for days about the proper way to punish student athletes in cases like this one, but what's fact is that you have to know that the head coach knows more about what's going on than a columnist or you and me in all situations football related. There's a certain level of trust that's at stake in these things - the same way you trust Bruce Pearl with your life right now - but even when the on field product isn't what you'd like, with no SEC Championships since 1998, that doesn't mean the level of trust errodes completely. I trust Fulmer to do what's best in situations like this, and I trust that he knows more about what's going on than I do.
Sometimes that trust is abused - see Jerry Green, who was fired after four straight 20 win seasons, unprecedented in Knoxville, but it became clear in the aftermath that he had no control over his players or his program. I trusted Jerry Green because we were winning, which helps earn trust more than anything else. I was wrong.
I trust Phillip Fulmer now. And we're not winning as much as we used to. But I still trust him. And look, a slap on the wrist isn't a five game suspension. This means Britton Colquitt will miss UAB, UCLA, Florida, Auburn, Northern Illinois. If the suspension had been two games, I'd have raised my eyebrows. But it's not like Fulmer turned a blind eye.
On the other hand, it does look bad when the headlines on ESPN.com read something like "Tennessee's Coker dismissed after fourth failed drug test" or "Tennessee's Colquitt suspended after fifth incident". That would make anyone question. But Fulmer here clearly says that he does not discipline based on talent. And I believe him. Because he's never given us reason not to. He's earned our trust, whether you're happy with 10-4 or not.
That old saying about how 10% always love you and 10% always hate you, and you work the other 80% will ring true here. If you go on govols.com and read the comments on both columns, those who support Adams are all over his page, and those who support Fulmer are all over his page. And there are idiots on both sides, as always.
Questions like these are the nature of the beast when you're big time college football like the Vols are. They're louder when you're not winning as much as you used to. And, as always, the truth is somewhere in the middle - the 10% that think Fulmer's an idiot and doing a terrible job are wrong, and the 10% that think everything is rosy and perfect are also wrong. The arrest records are factual. So is the 2007 Eastern Division Championship. This is where the Vols are today. And I trust Fulmer to make the best decision for his football team, on and off the field.
I do think John Adams is doing his job to raise this question. I don't think he's necessarily doing it well the way he raised it. I think Phillip Fulmer is a man of integrity who's defending his name and his program.
And I think we should be talking about basketball instead.
UPDATE Friday 4:02 PM
It's now a handicap match, with AD Mike Hamilton joining Fulmer's corner.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
The Vols are three days and 40 minutes away from being the number one team in the nation. There's no poll watching, no debating, none of the above. If the Vols can knock off the lone remaining unbeaten in college basketball on their home floor on Saturday night in Memphis, Tennessee will stand alone at the top. And while I realize that college basketball polls mean exactly squat at any time of year, and that it's really a bigger deal that the Vols are now 11-1 in SEC play and precious steps closer to claiming their first outright championship of my lifetime, and that the Vols have been #1 in the RPI for weeks now and are locking on to a number one seed for the dance, which is infinitely more important than anything else...you'll have to forgive me if for the next three days, I really don't care. About anything else.
It's not just that #1 is on the line. It's not just that it's a historic 1 vs. 2 showdown. It's Memphis. And if there's a program in college basketball that respects the University of Tennessee less, I'd love for you to show it to me.
We've taken our beatings from Kentucky but we've also dished out enough to hold our heads up and at least demand respect, especially under Bruce Pearl. And on a national level among the elites, like UCLA and the state of North Carolina, it's not that the Vols are disrespected, we're just not thought of year in and year out. Which is what we're working to rectify.
Memphis knows about us. We share borders and not much else. And even though the Vols dished out an 18 point beat down of Tiger High last season in Knoxville, the dominant feeling I get from West Tennessee is still general disrespect and misplaced elitism. Memphis Basketball is like Georgia Football on steroids, without the SEC to stand on. I hate these guys and I cannot wait for Saturday.
Memphis is very good - I'd love to start disrespecting them for a change, but it'll have to wait til Sunday. 18 point beat down aside, when you look at a starting five of Willie Kemp, Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Robert Dozier, and Joey Dorsey, it reminds me of what it's felt like to play the Florida Gators the last two season. You don't just need the A+ game from Lofton and the Smiths to win. You need it from every single cog in the wheel. If the Vols disrespect Memphis the way the Tigers disrespect us, we're going to get beat Saturday night.
But make no mistake - even playing in a hostile environment (though you'll see some orange at the FedEx Forum), the Vols are 100% capable of winning this game, and a loss by any margin will be a disappointment. Memphis isn't so much better than us because this year, nobody's so much better than us. Tennessee can beat anybody they face, including undefeated #1 Memphis on their home floor.
This feels like fall. Seriously, it feels like Wednesday night before the Florida game. And I love that. Never would've thought it ever possible...but here we are. Bruce Pearl deserves his own street right about now.
This will be but game one of a brutal four game gauntlet, sandwiched between tonight's big win over Auburn, and the senior day regular season finale against South Carolina on Sunday, March 9. Inbetween are the four biggest games of the season: at Memphis on Saturday night, then a five star trap game on Tuesday night at Vanderbilt, which is only even labeled as a trap game because it falls between the biggest game in the history of the program at Memphis, and then the return bout with our archrivals in Kentucky next Sunday. Vanderbilt, I'm sure you're aware, hung a 40 point spanking on the Cats in Nashville last week, and are a little bitter I'm sure about playing so poorly in Thompson-Boling last month. Kentucky is Kentucky and always will be, and that little home date is followed by a trip to Gainesville two weeks from tonight, to play a Florida team that will be looking to get a resume win, and the Vols are certainly good enough to provide it. Welcome to high stakes, high intensity college basketball. It doesn't get any better than the next two weeks.
Win or lose at Memphis, the Vols can lock up a first round bye in the SEC Tournament with one more conference win. The Vols are now two games up on Mississippi State for the overall title, plus own the tiebreaker, which means the Vols will have a chance to lock up the SEC Championship at home against Kentucky, which would be ideal. This season, and really the last three, have been a living dream...and it ain't over yet...but Saturday night will be special and in a class of its own. We'll win the division, the conference, and go on to Atlanta and then March later on. Right now, it's just Saturday. It's only Memphis.
The Vols are 11-7 all time against the Tigers, and the two teams have split the last two meetings since the series was renewed in 2005-06. John Calipari, who is fast becoming a threat to Rick Pitino as my most hated coach in college basketball, is on record repeatedly as saying he either wants to discontinue the series or move it to Nashville. Many, many folks speculate that Coach Cal doesn't want the Big Orange Nation coming into his talent-rich city and doing anything to establish a stronger recruiting base, even though Calipari is also on record as saying the Tigers are going to get the kids they want to get.
There's animosity from the football series, which the Vols absolutely own and use to keep the basketball series contract alive, that make Memphis fans think that this rivalry is a dual threat - as in, Tennessee wins in football, Memphis wins in basketball. But again, let's be clear - Tennessee owns the all-time series lead 11-7, and all but one of those games have been played since 1988, so it's not old stats skewing the viewpoint. Memphis only thinks they're the best basketball program in the state, though they've got an inferior conference and no National Championships to back up their argument. Like I said, Georgia in football on steroids - they disrespect us with no real reason to. They want to sit at the big boy table and they don't have the rings to get in. And in basketball, neither do the Vols...but if you're a Tennessee fan and you've been taking crap from a Memphis fan, stop it. They've got no ground to stand on, and the imaginary place in their heads where they're better than us can be fully eliminated on Saturday night. I guarantee you Bruce Pearl knows this.
Right now, I'm doing that thing where I'm too excited and filled with righteous anger that I'm typing too fast for my own fingers to keep up. The next two days are going to be straight torture, son. The Vols have never been in a 1 vs. 2 game. But to get the chance to do so against Memphis...this ain't heaven, but it's close.
Bruce Pearl said tonight in the postgame that it's step up time - for himself, for the players, for the fans, for everyone. And he's right. This is uncharted territory and holy ground. And yeah, losing, by 1 or 100, won't mean the end of anything and would be used as education and motivation for later. Being the #1 team in a college basketball poll is only good for recruiting. But right now, none of that matters. Right now, it's three days and 40 minutes from glory, and only Tiger High stands in the way. So much can be made right in one night. I. cannot. wait.
Monday, February 18, 2008
Most will agree that while the ratings pinnacle of NBA basketball was the Jordan era Bulls - the four highest rated NBA Finals are Jordan's second three plus the 93 Bulls/Suns - the absolute best time to be an NBA fan was just before, in the mid to late 80s and the early 90s. What Jordan and the Bulls had in dominance and supremacy they lacked, obviously, in competitive balance. And competitive balance, as the commissioners of every major sport will tell you, is the key to the kingdom.
Sure, it was fun to watch Jordan play - but did you ever really think that the Lakers, Blazers, Suns, Sonics or Jazz had any real chance to beat them? Or anyone in the Eastern Conference along the way for that matter? And while there was something so great about Jordan that it made the vast majority like him - witness Tiger Woods today, who's hated by few and loved by most - when you see this played out in other places, continued dominance by one team is bad for the sport. The New York Yankees bred hate and contempt for Major League Baseball. And nobody likes Notre Dame for similar reasons.
Here's another good example - was the SEC more fun when Steve Spurrier was at Florida, or today, when every single Saturday is another run through the gauntlet and anybody can win? The lack of certainty and the pressure cooker of every single Saturday will not create new dynasties, but it will generate excitement and good football every single time. The SEC today is the ideal, not the one where Florida is first, Tennessee is second and everyone else is just hanging around.
You can also tell how good sports are by the popularity of their video games. Seriously. The greatest hockey game of all time is NHL '94 - immortalized in Swingers - but also because that's when the quality of play was highest, you had great competitive balance, you had superstars on every team, and the NHL was filling Jordan's void while he was playing baseball. If I owned a Sega Genesis still, I'd pick up NHL '94 right now and play with Adam Oates and the Bruins. Same way I'd play Madden '92 with the Cowboys and 49ers.
Apparently, the early 90s were a pinnacle for sports, because the best NBA video game of all time is was and shall forever remain Bulls vs. Lakers and the NBA Playoffs.
The game capitalized on the success of its predecessor, Celtics vs. Lakers and the NBA Playoffs, by upping the ante from 8 teams to 16 to include all the playoff contestants from the 1991 NBA season. It included actual NBA rosters and 16-bit likenesses of all 16 teams, and included superstar move sets for the best player on each team. And it gave the feeling that you could pick any of the 16 teams and win with them because of that - which really mirrored what was happening in real life at the time.
During this time period, you had classic competitive balance. And even casual fans could tell you about it. The East was run by Boston, Chicago and Detroit. You could play as Boston's Big Three of Bird, McHale and Parish. You could play with Jordan's Bulls. Or you could be the Bad Boys. Other teams like the Knicks, with Ewing, Starks and Oakley were in the fray. And even in the absence of great cohesive units, you could pick up Barkley's Sixers, 'Nique's Hawks, or Reggie's Pacers and be competitive. There weren't just one or two great teams, there were several. And that's just the East.
While the Showtime Lakers were in their final days out West, you also had the rise of Stockton and Malone in Utah, Gary Payton and the Rain Man in Seattle, Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers in Phoenix, and the electric Run TMC offense in Golden State. The Dream and The Admiral were leading their teams. Portland would go to two Finals in three years. This is when basketball was good.Great teams, great players, competitive balance and every game counts. The league lost this with the rise of Jordan, then lost itself completely, it seemed, when he retired (from the Bulls). When the Lakers tried to be captivating, the Eastern Conference couldn't appoint a successful challenger. When the Spurs kept winning, they did so in "boring" fashion. A full decade removed from Jordan's last title this season, we've seen ten years of "almost".
But I believe now that time is about to end.
It's one part Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in Boston. It's one part what Golden State did in the playoffs last year, to prove that every game and series counts. It's one part to the trade deadline, and the major moves made by Phoenix, LA, and potentially Dallas. And though this generation lacks a Jordan, that might be for the best.
One other iconic NBA video game came a few years later, when NBA Jam was released to arcades. What EA Sports did with Bulls vs. Lakers (the series that would become today's NBA Live) was aim for accuracy to the real thing, while Midway's NBA Jam went for pure fun, in a two-on-two format with insane dunks and "he's on fire!" shooting. And in that context as well, you needed just two superstars on each team. It was easy to do in the early 90s. And now, it's become easy to do again.
In 2008, the two best records at the all-star break belong to the Eastern Conference - Boston and Detroit. From there, the West contains the next nine best records before we fall to Orlando, Cleveland and Toronto. Which means the first round of the playoffs in the East will probably not be very exciting. But the second round and beyond, with a mixture of Boston, Detroit, Orlando and LeBron, certainly can be.
And out West...
If the season ended today at the All-Star break, here's how the Western Conference playoffs would shake out:
1. New Orleans
2. Phoenix (-0)
3. LA Lakers (-1.5)
4. Utah (-3)
5. San Antonio (-2)
6. Dallas (-2)
7. Golden State (-4.5)
8. Denver (-4.5)
9. Houston (-4.5)
That's sick, right there. Sick.
Houston is 32-20 and out of the playoffs. The feel-good Trail Blazers are -8.5.
And what's more, all of these teams - plus the big four in the East - are entertaining and have name recognition value. If you were playing NBA Jam or NBA Live, you could bank that more of today's young demographic knows the names and faces than at any point this decade. And it runs deep.
You've got KG, Pierce and Allen in Boston. You've got more or less the same Detroit team that's been winning for half this decade. You've got the slam dunk champion and perhaps the next new face of the NBA in Dwight Howard playing for a good Orlando team. And yeah, you've got LeBron, if all four make it to the second round (and Toronto isn't bad).
Out West - especially with the trade machine working - it's an all-star game every night, which was the same thing you felt in the late 80s/early 90s before the Heat, Hornets, Raptors, Grizzlies and Bobcats diluded the water. Even though New Orleans is quietly on top, Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler, Peja and David West will soon become household names at this pace. Phoenix will now suit up Nash, Amare and Shaq. The Lakers are the Lakers again, more than just Kobe's team, now that Gasol and Bynum are rolling (or will be by playoff time). Utah has a new Stockton-to-Malone combo in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. San Antonio - still the current dynasty - still has Tim Duncan, Manu and Tony Parker. If Jason Kidd goes to Dallas, he'll join Dirk and a host of other stars. Baron Davis made a name for himself last season in the playoffs, and there's no reason he can't again this season. AI and Melo in Denver, T-Mac and Yao in Houston. That's insanely good basketball every night out West, and more often than not in the East.
So yeah, you need the Celtics in the Finals to get the ratings draw probably, though LeBron might still get some drawing power if he's not playing San Antonio. But some combination of Celtics/LeBron vs. Phoenix/Lakers is $$$. And once again, don't get me started on Celtics/Lakers...
If you turned a blind eye to the NBA when Michael Jordan retired, now's a great time to look back. The Western Conference will be an absolute dogfight to the finish, and a good team is going to be left home. The Eastern Conference can field an entertaining final four, and a potential old school dream matchup between the Celtics and Pistons in the conference finals, who might be the two best teams in the NBA period. And while there's still only one Jordan, with Nash & Shaq, LeBron, Kobe, the Boston Three Party and everyone else in play...the NBA is fun again.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
On a night where all five Duke starters fouled out, which I'm not sure I've ever seen before on any level, Wake Forest beat #2 Duke 86-73 in Winston-Salem. Combined with #3 Kansas' loss to Texas earlier in the week, the #4 Vols should have every opportunity to vault to #2 in the polls tomorrow, which would be the highest ranking in school history. What's more, this should cement a #1 vs. #2 showdown six days from now, when the Vols travel to Memphis. There's a (non-televised) home date with Auburn inbetween on Wednesday night, but the college basketball spotlight is about to shine on Big Orange Country like never before.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
As I sit here sick in Virginia, the Vols are up 83-57 on Arkansas with 5:00 and change left at Thompson-Boling Arena. This win will make them 22-2, 9-1 in the SEC. As the regular season moves closer to the finish, with tonight's win the Vols can now start to put some realistic focus on their goals.
Tennessee will be up 2.5 games in the SEC East, and a game and a half on Mississippi State (whom they've beaten) for the overall conference title race. The Vols could lock up a first round bye in the SEC Tournament as early as next week.
The Vols are ranked #4 in both polls and #1 in the RPI. They're now a projected one seed in most brackets. And with the date at Memphis coming up on Feb. 23, they'll have a shot to play "name that region"...
...Steven Hill just airballed a free throw...
...with only one really favorable tournament draw in the Charlotte region, otherwise the Vols would have to travel to Houston, Detroit or Phoenix to play in the Sweet 16/Elite 8. If Duke slips up between now and then and both in-state teams keep winning, the Memphis/Tennessee game has a shot to be a 1 vs. 2 showdown...which means if the Vols won it, they'd be the #1 team in the nation.
Let's just take a second and let all that sink in.
I remember on the postgame show after Kevin O'Neill's first win in Knoxville, way back in 1994, one of the first callers asked O'Neill how soon he thought he could get the Vols back in the Top 25, and O'Neill laughed. It took his recruits and Jerry Green's fingerprints to put the Vols there four years later, and in 1998/99 the Vols opened the season as a preseason Top 10. We went to the Sweet 16 the next year. We've had our moments, which will be remembered again when Ernie Grunfeld's number is retired on March 2 against Kentucky.
But you ain't seen this before.
Tennessee is good enough to win the National Championship. This isn't like last year, when the Vols were scrappy and could beat anybody if Lofton and friends were hot. This isn't like the year before, when the Vols were a cinderella disguised as a 2 seed. This isn't like 2000, when the Vols got an incredibly favorable draw in the Sweet 16 (and still couldn't capitalize). And this isn't like anything Allan Houston or even Ernie & Bernie gave us.
The Vols aren't taking advantage of circumstances or streaky. The Vols don't need upsets. They're not untested. And while they can be scrappy - see LSU - they can also be brutally effective - see tonight. Tennessee will close out a 93-71 win over an Arkansas team that had won four straight and two by 20+ points against Florida and Ole Miss. The Vols will have won 29 straight home games, second longest streak in school history.
Lofton, JaJuan and Tyler Smith are All-SEC first team material. JaJuan pours in 32 tonight, tying his career high. And every single body that comes onto the floor for the Vols - even Steven Pearl, regardless of what my sister says - is valuable and contributes. Pearl says the Vols are at their best when everyone contributes, and at this rate the best is only getting better. The Vols are deep, and they're good all the way down. Very deep, and very good. I'm telling you, we're not fully appreciating this while it's happening.
And sure, Memphis will be a challenge, the conference is never easy, the Vols are still human and everyone in college basketball is susceptable to the upset. Down the line, you desperately want to see them play well in the SEC Tournament (especially if you're laying down the $260.00 to go for the third straight year...). And if this thing carried into the tournament, the Elite Eight is uncharted territory, as would be the Final Four. And yeah, guys like Tyler Hansborough would give the Vols real trouble.
But Tennessee is good enough to win it all. No ifs, ands or buts. Tennessee is good enough.
Everyone needs to understand what they're seeing is incredibly rare. It won't be this way next year - next year we'll go back to being scrappy and still be good. But not like this. Tennessee is good enough to win every time they step on the floor, regardless of opponent or location. Kansas, UCLA, Duke and Carolina, and especially Memphis - it doesn't matter. Tennessee is good enough. You've seen it now for 24 games, and that's enough proof for the moment. As we wind down the regular season and gear up for tournament play, I'm not sure when you'll see this again. The Vols are moving from quite outsiders to serious players to potential favorites. Tennessee could be the best team in the country in two weeks. No exaggeration, no speculation, and all good things.
And just like football season...all you have to do is win.
And this year, winning is what we do.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Notice how the clock "mysteriously" freezes at 0.2 just long enough for the official to call the foul. That's how we do it on Rocky Top. Scott Van Pelt tells me that the clock at TBA is tied into the official's whistle. The one who called the foul does so after a second plus had ticked off the clock with it still frozen at 0.2. So perhaps not only can Coach Summitt freeze time, she can also produce whistle-like sounds out of thin air.
Coming off a dramatic week that included the 22 point win over the Gators on Tuesday, and a "thrilling" defensive struggle that ended with JaJuan Smith's steal and score against LSU in Baton Rouge on Saturday, Tennessee finds itself at #4 in both the AP and Coaches polls this afternoon. With a big week ahead, including the home date with Arkansas on Wednesday that suddenly has SEC Championship implications, let's hope the Vols play better with a top five ranking than they did last time, when they ascended to third and promptly lost at Kentucky.
An interesting observation about Bruce Pearl: is there such a thing as too much honesty? One of the things you like about Pearl is how there appears to be very little facade to him, and you hear it in the postgame interviews on the Vol Network quite often. He's like Kevin O'Neill, with personality. After busting Florida by 22, Pearl spoke for a couple of minutes about how he shouldn't have to fight his team to listen to him, especially at this point in the season, referring to the Vols' hesitance in jumping out on screens. After squeaking past LSU 47-45, Pearl opens the show by saying "This isn't going to be a very good interview", because he's upset with his team's performance, especially on offense. Part of me really likes this about him - I think transparency is one of the greatest compliments you can give - and the rest of me isn't sure if I should like it or not.
As a pastor, I strive for a level of transparency. I want the people in my congregations, in my community to know that I have questions, that I struggle and wrestle with things, and that I am just as much in need of a savior as they are. I don't want to play behind the curtain and I don't want to put on a happy face on Sundays when it's not there on Saturday night. Something real is what people are looking for, which is what we like about Pearl.
But there are also things, here and there, that need to go on behind closed doors. And I'm sure that's still the case with Pearl, who in my opinion usually does an excellent job of using the media and the fan base to his advantage without making himself bigger than his team, which no doubt is a temptation, or falling victim to it unintentionally (which is why he walked away from the Duke/Lady Vols game last year after it started). Keep this in mind tonight when he promised to wear all pink for the "Think Pink" cancer awareness showdown between the Lady Vols and Rutgers in a National Championship rematch (7:00 PM, ESPN2). Insert your Don Imus joke of choice here.
You believe in Pearl, and you believe that he knows best for the Vols. And the Vols are 21-2, 8-1 in the SEC and in the driver's seat, and as we said, #4 in the nation. They're blazing a new path and are in uncharted territory, and we love him for letting the fans get a greater sense of the heartbeat of the team. As this season progresses, hopefully that heartbeat will get stronger and stronger through competition and ups and downs, and Pearl will continue to get the very best out of his team, while letting us come along for the ride.
Make this make sense...
It's not that I'm confused by the logic, it's just that I don't agree with it. In the same way that it just feels wrong when I hear my Republican friends talk about voting for Clinton or Obama instead of McCain because they think the country's going in the toilet either way, so a Democrat might as well take the blame - and Pastor Will is a registered independent, in the interest of full disclosure - I caught the tail end of something J.A. Adande said on Around the Horn today, in discussing the Washington Redskins' hire of Jim Zorn as their new head coach. To paraphrase him - and again, I only caught the tail end and the TiVo couldn't go back - but he was saying that if you couldn't go out and get a name guy like Bill Cowher, why not give a minority candidate a chance, why not give someone a brand new opportunity?
Again, it's not that I'm confused by the logic, it's just that I don't agree with it. And this isn't a blanket statement on affirmative action or anything like that, this would be one example of a case by case study that policies like that ideally need. But as the saying in that argument goes, why not just give the job to the best possible candidate? If the Redskins believe Zorn is the best possible candidate - and if you're looking for some evidence to support the other side, it would be Zorn's masterful performance at his introductory press conference, where I'm sure he was told soon after that black is not one of the Redskins' team colors - but if you're an NFL team, you go after the best possible candidates, no exceptions. There are only 32 human beings on the planet who currently have that opportunity, and so you've got some choices but you always want to make the best possible hire, which should be the case no matter what the occupation, but here it's easy to make that not just good theory but good practice. Interview everyone you can, including minority candidates, sure. But in a sense, isn't saying "if you can't get somebody great, you might as well hire a minority?" an insult? Doesn't this just seem wrong? Maybe it's just me...
The Boston Celtics are still great
It's getting old, I know, but at least the Patriots took all that negative energy that was building up against the city, so the Celtics don't have to face "the Red Sox won, the Patriots won, can the Celtics get it done?" in the playoffs. Sitting pretty at 39-9 (though the Detroit Pistons continue to show that they'll be game throughout, at 37-13), Boston is 5-2 without Kevin Garnett and his abdominal strain, which will also keep him out of the All-Star Game this weekend. However, two of those five victories have come against Dallas and San Antonio, which makes the Celtics 16-0 against the Western Conference this season.
And in even better news, the LA Lakers are title contenders again. Because my earliest childhood basketball memories include Magic Johnson's sky hook in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals, and hating the Lakers ever since. I was too young to remember Boston's win in the 84 Finals against LA, so in Will's mind there's been no vindication, and Boston hasn't been a serious title contender since. Part of what made Boston's 2002 run to the Eastern Conference Finals so special was the opportunity to see the Lakers in the Finals again, which the Nets would deny. As Bill Simmons wrote during the Fall of 2004, you can win the World Series any year. But it's not every year you get a chance to beat the Yankees.
For Boston, they'll certainly have their shot in June. But now that LA's got Gasol, they've got their shot too. Is it too much to ask for, a Boston-LA Finals? Well, one thing at a time...but at least now, it's a realistic possibility. More on all this as we go to the All-Star Break later this week...
Speaking of politics, here's a good question: which do you think would be potentially more damaging to my ministry here in Ceres: endorsing a political candidate for tomorrow's Virginia primaries, or doing what everyone here really wants, and endorsing a driver for Sunday's Daytona 500?
Friday, February 08, 2008
So while LSU plays out the string - and it'll certainly be interesting to see what happens tomorrow afternoon in their first response - and the Tigers will probably look to become the next team to get a hot hand in April by picking whichever mid-major coach does well in March - it's a good time to do a reality check on the head coaches in the SEC.
Here are the teams: can you name the head coaches without looking them up?
On first pass, I got 9 correct and had the right last name for the guys at Arkansas and Mississippi State, and couldn't remember the guy's name at Georgia. As in any major collegiate sport, longevity becomes an issue; with Brady going down, take a look at the names and tenures of each of the current head coaches in the SEC:
Alabama - Mark Gottfried (10 years)
Arkansas - John Pelphrey (first year)
Auburn - Jeff Lebo (4 years)
Florida - Billy Donovan (12 years)
Georgia - Dennis Felton (5 years)
Kentucky - Billy Gillispie (first year)
LSU - Butch Pierre (interim)
Ole Miss - Andy Kennedy (2 years)
Mississippi State - Rick Stansbury (10 years)
South Carolina - Dave Odom (7 years - retiring at end of season)
Tennessee - Bruce Pearl (3 years)
Vanderbilt - Kevin Stallings (9 years)
Brady's removal leaves Stansbury and Gottfried as the veterans of the conference behind Billy Donovan, but it also means that half the conference has had a coaching change in the last four seasons. Which, as we said, is a bit of the nature of the beast. But still - the football overtones bleed over clearly when Brady gets the unkind axe two years removed from the Final Four, and he was clearly upset about it at the press conference.
But LSU moves on, starting with the Vols tomorrow. We won't know how the Tigers will truly respond until we see it, but no matter what Tennessee gets, the Vols should be able to handle it. Like we say, never a dull moment...
Thursday, February 07, 2008
In Joe Lunardi's latest bracket projection, only the Big East has more teams in the field (8) than the SEC (6) - each representing half of their respective conference field. The Vols, at 20-2 and 7-1 in the conference, appear to be headed for no worse than a 2 seed, barring a significant collapse. Tennessee is a legitimate threat for a 1 seed, holds a two game lead in the East Division, and is up one game on Mississippi State for the overall race - whom the Vols have already beaten.
None of the other March contenders are rated higher than a 6 seed in Lunardi's current projection, and while the Vols are the only true lock for March at this point, what the conference is missing at the top, they make up for in depth.
The Baby Gators are 18-5, 5-3 in the SEC. The two time defending National Champions should get in easily at this pace, and will only get better. Having already secured wins over Kentucky and Vanderbilt, Florida has the inside track on second place in the East Division and a first round bye in Atlanta.
Vanderbilt blistered out to a 15-0 start, but is playing .500 ball in the conference at 4-4. What's more, their four SEC wins are against South Carolina, LSU, Auburn and Georgia - the four worst teams in the conference. After losing to Kentucky in double overtime, Vandy lost to Tennessee by 20, Florida by 22, and Ole Miss by 16. Granted, all four of those losses were on the road. So the Dores are a bit of a quandry. Beating Georgia and SCarolina again would get them to 21 total wins, but the selection committee is going to need to see something more from Vanderbilt. They'll get the home return matches with Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida, plus a visit from Mississippi State, while traveling to Arkansas and Alabama. An 8-8 finish would mean Vanderbilt probably got two wins out of that six game stretch, which would get them to 23-8 heading to Atlanta, which should get them in. And the Dores are both talented and experienced enough to push Florida and Kentucky for the #2 seed in the SEC East. Falling back on the 15-0 start should make it easy for Vandy to playin March.
Out West, a 13-0 start from Ole Miss has had a similar turn, as the Rebels are 3-4 in the SEC. Unlike Vanderbilt, they're much more difficult to really figure out. They came to Knoxville and played the Vols to the final possession, beat Florida in Oxford, and blasted Vanderbilt. But they've also lost to Auburn and South Carolina, and were destroyed by Mississippi State in their first meeting. 20 wins isn't going to do it for most of these teams - you're going to have to find at least 7 and probably 8 wins in the SEC at the end of the day. Andy Kennedy's squad is talented enough to do it, if they can play with greater consistency.
Battling atop the SEC West standings are Mississippi State (15-7, 6-2) and Arkansas (16-5, 5-2) who've gone the opposite route of Vandy and Ole Miss, writing their tournament resumes in conference play, which will ultimately work in their favor if they can keep pace. State rebounded from a two game losing streak to beat Alabama last night, while Arkansas somehow lost to South Carolina and Georgia...but responded by beating Mississippi State and Florida by a combined 39 points. Both teams were expected to be at or near the top of the conference race this season, and at this pace both will be playing in March.
No matter how weak some of these teams may sound at times, all six of the aforementioned SEC teams are currently IN on Lunardi's projection, with none of them even making the "Last Four In" category. And between Vandy & Ole Miss' nonconference record and Arkansas & MSU's conference run, don't be surprised if all six end up making the field.
And then there's Kentucky. The nonconference slate is ugly, we all know that. The Cats are only 11-9, but they're now 5-2 in SEC play with the huge marquee win over the Vols. If Kentucky can keep pace and get to 10 wins in the SEC, that would put them at 16-13 heading to Atlanta. And they'd be a fascinating case study, because a 16-13/17-12 team is really unattractive, but how could you go against a 10-6/11-5 SEC team? Plus, they're Kentucky, and don't think that's not a factor. It's wait and see with the Cats...but don't be surprised when they're in the discussion when Atlanta rolls around.
What that also means is that you could have an incredibly tense SEC Tournament, with as many as four teams potentially feeling like they have to win a game or two to make the dance. Right now, I'd say the only teams that feel really safe are Tennessee, Florida and Arkansas. This should make for high drama and again, "every game counts", from here to the finish.
At the halfway point, Will's picks for the All-SEC Team:
G Devan Downey, South Carolina
G Chris Lofton, Tennessee
F Tyler Smith, Tennessee
F Jamont Gordon, Mississippi State
C Richard Hendrix, Alabama
G Nick Calathes, Florida
G Marcus Thornton, LSU
F Shan Foster, Vanderbilt
F Patrick Patterson, Kentucky
C AJ Ogilvy, Vanderbilt
G Chris Warren, Ole Miss
G JaJuan Smith, Tennessee
F Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State
F Marresse Speights, Florida
C Dwayne Curtis, Ole Miss
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
First, an open request to SEC officials: please, please don't do that ever again. 51 total fouls. A game that tips off at 9:00 and doesn't go into overtime ends at 11:20. Part of it was almost admirable - "Well, we started calling that ticky-tack stuff in the first few minutes, we might as well call it the whole game" - but only almost. Neither team could establish any real rhythm, because we were always stopping play. And by the way, if the coaches' box is a point of emphasis this season, and Bruce Pearl already ate a T for being just barely over the line at Xavier, it boggles the mind how you can let Billy Donovan camp out a good two feet from the box all night long, without even as much as a warning. Maybe they were blinded by his two championship rings.
And second...none of that even mattered.
Florida shot 54% from the field, 21 of 27 from the free throw line, scored 82 points with four players in double figures.
And they lost by 22 points.
One of the most obvious differences in this year's team and the last two was felt when Florida took an early 16-3 lead. At times last year - most notably in the SEC Tournament against LSU - the Vols would get behind or just generally struggle, and you began to feel like at the grind it out pace, if Lofton didn't catch fire, the Vols were really going to struggle and would probably lose. That sometimes it just wasn't their night.
This year, every night is our night. Including nights when Florida puts up those numbers and takes an early 13 point lead. Who was worried? We don't worry. We just wait.
And you didn't have to wait long. After 16-3, the Vols outscored the Gators 27-14 to tie it at 30. When the whistle wouldn't let the Vols build rhythm, they just kept pace. And we were patient. And then finally, with the Vols ahead and Florida still a threat, the whistles ceased for a brief moment, and that was all she wrote. The Vols kicked in that "screw you, we're blowing you out and scoring 100 points along the way" mode and went from up eight to up eighteen in a literal heartbeat. When Lofton and JaJuan are on opposite sides of the floor and Tyler Smith is in the paint, my are we dangerous. Tyler scored 21 points...in the second half. All three of them scored 20+. Tennessee blew the doors off Florida.
And Florida was game. The Gators are always well coached, clearly came to play, and should be a handful in Gainesville on March 5 and should we meet again in Atlanta. Florida is only getting better. But right now...it doesn't seem to matter.
We may not get a full taste of it for another three weeks, until the Memphis game that deserves one of those "Countdown to Armageddon" clocks on ESPN's Bottom Line. Between now and then, the Vols go to LSU, home against a suddenly lively Arkansas team, to Georgia, and home with Auburn. None of them will be free, but outside of Pig Sooie, the Vols should be huge favorites, and Pig Sooie is at home...where the Vols haven't lost in almost two years. Tennessee is 20-2, 7-1 at the halfway point of the SEC season. No worries. Only waiting...waiting for the next opportunity to see this special team. Waiting for a chance to bust up Memphis' perfection and silence their disrespectful coach. Waiting for revenge on Kentucky. Waiting for something good to finally happen in the SEC Tournament. Waiting for the tournament, where we'll finally see if this team truly does have what it takes to carry it forward to the Final Four. Like me and Eli Manning, the Vols are living the dream.
Friday, February 01, 2008
That's the thing about this Patriots team: The players honestly don't care who gets credit, just about doing their jobs and winning games. And, over everything else, that's why the Pats are two days away from their chance to finish 19-0. You know who epitomizes this team? Kelley Washington. Signed to compete with Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney for the No. 3 receiver spot, Washington ended up flourishing on special teams and made a gigantic play in the Chargers game when he downed a punt inside the 5-yard line. Here's how many balls Washington caught this season: Zero. Did he give a crap? No.
Here's what Washington told the Boston Globe after blocking a Jets' punt in Week 15: "I know there are only so many balls to go around, and there are other plays that you can help the team win [with] on special teams. ... All the attributes you have to have to play offense or defense you have to have on special teams. I love it, and I'm going to continue to do it. I'm just loving being a part of this team."
That's all you need to know about the 2007 Patriots.
What?! Are pigs flying?
What happened to The Future? And where was this revelation when he said "I didn't come to Tennessee to catch three passes for 13 yards" after the Syracuse game in 2001? Or when he called himself the best wide receiver in college football before the 2002 season, before he turned into a guy who catches no passes in the NFL?
Hey, remember cheering for Jamal "Oops we lost to Florida, now I'm done running hard" Lewis when he played in the Super Bowl?
Here's some false hope that Gibril Wilson comes up with a game winning interception. And here's one last week where I can say " The Patriots suck!" without being declared totally insane.