Jerry Tipton: Fans make neutral sites feel like home

Harrellson: UK crowd 'changes everything'

Herald-Leader Staff WriterMarch 20, 2011 

Auburn and Georgia, the two closest Southeastern Conference schools to Atlanta, played the opening game of the league tournament this month. Kentucky fans outnumbered fans for the two teams combined.

What better testament to the fact that Kentucky seldom if ever plays on a true neutral-court setting?

"I believe that's 100 percent true," UK big man Josh Harrellson said in Tampa last week. "Everywhere we go, our fans always outnumber anybody else's fans. Sometimes our fans outnumber fans for everybody else in the tournament."

That might not have been true in the NCAA Tournament pod in Tampa. But it was close enough to true to mean Kentucky enjoyed a home-court advantage in the St. Pete Times Forum.

"With our fans, there's really not a neutral site," Harrellson said. "I really think we have the advantage everywhere we go. I think that takes the other team out of the game. It might psych 'em out a little bit."

Harrellson noted how Kentucky fans can impact the Cats and the opponent.

"It changes everything," he said. "It makes us more confident. It makes us feel we're playing in Rupp Arena."

Cheers encourage the UK players and, perhaps, give the referees something to think about.

As for opponents, Harrellson suggested a deflating feeling gets imposed.

"It might take the other team out of their element, seeing all our fans," he said. "The crowd gets into it and it can play mind games on (an opposing) player. You don't get as confident. You don't get as happy. You don't play as hard. It's harder to get motivated when you're not playing in front of your own fans."

When he coached for South Carolina, Dave Odom lamented the overwhelming majority of Kentucky fans at the SEC Tournament. Odom believed a league tournament setting should at least approach an equal distribution of fans for all teams.

Florida Coach Billy Donovan not only accepts that Kentucky fans will fill the arena for the SEC Tournament, he admires that kind of interest.

"It doesn't really bother me at all," he said. "I respect that. I respect somebody being that passionate about a team and a program that they're willing to go to that extent to follow them."

Donovan called Kentucky's support "unmatched" in college basketball.

"I really applaud their fans for the way they come out and attend this event and what they do," he said at the SEC Tournament. "It really is remarkable. It's an incredible scene."

Donovan echoed Harrellson's belief that Kentucky fans can impact a game.

"In Atlanta, it's a huge effect," the Florida coach said last week. "You're talking 25, 30,000 people. Of those 30,000 people, 95 percent are Kentucky fans.

"So they're playing a home game. It's a huge effect. I mean, that would be us playing the SEC Tournament championship game in Gainesville. It would be a huge advantage."

Donovan called the Georgia Dome a "bigger version" of Rupp Arena.

For Donovan, who began his coaching career as an assistant on Rick Pitino's UK staff, the Kentucky fans are aware of their influence their presence can have on a game.

"I think the fans do that because they realize there is something to be said for that," he said. "And they realize there is an advantage."

Snooze alarm

After Terrence Jones made just three of 17 shots at North Carolina, UK Coach John Calipari scolded the freshman for taking a nap the morning of the game.

So imagine the surprise last week when a story in The New York Times lauded the benefits of a pre-game nap.

"If you nap every game day, all those hours add up and it allows you to get through the season better," NBA All-Star Steve Nash said. "I want to improve at that, so by the end of the year, I feel better."

The Times story suggested that napping is a ritual in the NBA.

"Everyone in the league office knows not to call players at 3 p.m.," Adam Silver, the league's deputy commissioner, told The Times. "It's the player nap."

When told about The Times' story, Jones said he made a mistake by sleeping too long. He had to be awakened to get on the bus taking the UK team to UNC's Smith Center.

"It's OK to take a nap," Jones said. "But you're supposed to get up a certain amount of time before the game."

Dr. Charles Czeisler, the director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, is known in the NBA as the sleep doctor. He has consulted with several teams about the benefit of sleep. Napping plays a prominent part in his presentations.

Players who get the proper rest react quicker, remember plays better and generally are healthier, he said.

"Sleep is critical to maintaining performance, particularly reaction time," Czeisler told The Times.

Luckless 'Hugs'

West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins recalled being with former Louisville coach Denny Crum at a Final Four speaking engagement.

"We were doing questions and answers, and the guy asked Denny, 'What does it take to win a national championship, seeing that you've won two?' " Huggins said. "And Denny said, 'You have to be lucky and you can't be unlucky.'

"And he looked at me and he said, 'That's the most unlucky guy that I've ever seen in coaching.' "

Huggins then reminded reporters that his Cincinnati team had to be a favorite for the 2000 national championship, then Kenyon Martin broke a leg late in the season. In the mid-1990s, Cincinnati was a Final Four contender, but lost in the Elite Eight after Keith LeGree broke a foot.

Of course, a knee injury to Da'Sean Butler in last year's Final Four killed West Virginia's chance for a championship.

Clemson travel

Clemson's hectic schedule called for a late game in Dayton Tuesday night and a noon game Thursday in Tampa.

Besides the players, other people affected included:

■ The Clemson pep band. Assistant director of bands Tim Hurlburt said the musicians traveled with the team. Unlike the players, the musicians had a day of rest Wednesday after arriving at the team hotel at 5 a.m.

Asked what the band members did that day, Hurlburt asked the questioner to look at their faces. "Most of them are sun-burned," he said.

■ The media. Bart Wright, a columnist with The Greenville News, decided to drive, "rather than wait for the office to figure out flights," he said.

So Wright drove three hours from Greenville, S.C., to Knoxville Monday night. Then he drove four hours-plus from Knoxville to Dayton on Tuesday. After Clemson won Tuesday, he drove 138 miles south of Lexington on I-75.

Wright added 10-plus more hours to Tampa on Wednesday.

"It wasn't all that bad," he said before adding, "I wouldn't want a steady diet of it."

If Clemson had won two games in Tampa, Wright planned to fly to Newark, N.J., for the next round. West Virginia made that a moot point by beating Clemson on Thursday.

'Coach Cal way'

Writing in The Washington Post, sportswriter John Feinstein said of Kentucky and Coach John Calipari:

"Kentucky should get to the round of 16 — although the over-under on Princeton backdoors against the Wildcats is 11. And a made-for-TV rematch of last year's Kentucky-West Virginia region final would be fun to watch. Kentucky's certainly improving, but is probably a little too young to beat Ohio State. Although it will probably be younger next year. That's the Coach Cal way."

No. 4 seed

Kentucky made no secret that it believed the Selection Committee made a mistake by giving the Cats a No. 4 seed. After all, UK won the SEC Tournament earlier Sunday.

Maybe that was the problem.

"I think the biggest part of it is having our tournament (finals) on Sunday," UK Coach John Calipari said. "Things are done before the game is even played, in my opinion. I'm not saying change the date, I'm saying that's a fact."

An SEC Tournament finals on Sunday afternoon gives the Selection Committee too little time to consider the result in assigning seeds.

"They're not like, 'Let's rework the board,' " Calipari said. "They're in there for a week. Their nerves are frayed."

College basketball's TV masters want the SEC Tournament final game on Sunday. It will be played on Sunday.

Regrets for Arkansas?

When Arkansas fired John Pelphrey last week, Florida Coach Billy Donovan came to the defense of his protégé.

"I do think John Pelphrey being a young, young guy, there will be a point in time in the future that Arkansas will say, 'Wow, we had this guy as a coach and look at what he's doing now,' " Donovan said on an SEC teleconference Monday. "I think sometimes when these situations arise, sometimes something turns out to be maybe better for John than where he was at."

Arkansas improved to 18-13 this season after going 14-16 and 14-18 the previous two years. And Pelphrey signed a highly rated recruiting class in November.

Decreasing attendance was a factor cited when Arkansas fired Pelphrey's predecessor, Stan Heath, as well as the UK Unforgettable.

"I understand fan bases, I understand enthusiasm, excitement and passion. But at some point, if you look at their program the last 10 years, it's not because of the coaches," Donovan said. "Nolan Richardson is a great coach. Stan Heath is a very, very good coach and John Pelphrey is a very, very good coach.

"I hope at some point they realize that whoever is in that position, you need to be given time. You're not taking over a top-10 program. And as much as they think they are, they're not."

Donovan predicted Arkansas will regret firing Pelphrey.

"I can say this because I've been around him enough, that John Pelphrey is a heck of a coach, he's a heck of a person, and I think that Arkansas just lost out on a great, great opportunity for him to build [the program]," Donovan said. "I really think Arkansas may have set themselves back even further with the decision on John."

Pelphrey, 42, was 69-59 at Arkansas, including 27-43 against SEC teams in regular-season and tournament play. He was 80-67 in five seasons at South Alabama, with one NCAA Tournament appearance, before coming to Arkansas.


Michigan State began the season highly rated and seeking a third straight Final Four appearance. The Spartans endured a difficult season and ended with a first-game defeat in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.

"It's brought some humility to everything," Coach Tom Izzo said, "and it's made you appreciate things a little bit more."

Injuries and disciplinary action contributed to Michigan State's difficult season.

Was the injection of humility a good thing in a sport where coaches talk about wanting their players to play with swagger?

"You also hear coaches say he's too cocky," Izzo said. "Then they say I want them to be cocky. That shows you ... just how screwed up we are. But this game kind of does it to you once in a while. I do think you have to have that subtle confidence."

Izzo emphasized that he had not asked the players to do something they weren't capable of doing.

"You've been there, you've done it," he said. "It's not the same as begging someone to do something they haven't done."

Almost heaven

Kevin Jones, who attended high school in Mount Vernon, N.Y., acknowledged an adjustment going to West Virginia.

"The culture shock was everyone is so polite and nice to us," he said. "I wasn't used to that, being from New York. New York is more aggressive, and a more in-your-face style."

Happy birthday

To former UK big man Sam Bowie. He turned 50 on St. Patrick's Day.

Jerry Tipton covers UK basketball for the Herald-Leader. This article contains his opinions and observations. Reach him at

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