UK basketball notebook: No tourney goliaths this year, not even Gators

Herald-Leader staff writerMarch 15, 2014 

Something seemed missing as Florida rolled to a No. 1 ranking while making history with the Southeastern Conference's first 18-0 regular-season record. Oh yeah, what was missing was dominance.

Although running the SEC table, the Gators did not overwhelm opponents so much as subdue them. In what might be a record for an undefeated league champion, Florida had a stretch of six straight games in which it did not lead at halftime. Eight of its 18 SEC victories came by single-digit margins. UF repeatedly played with fire, but vast experience with combustible elements made the telling difference.

"We're not an overly talented team," Coach Billy Donovan said a couple weeks ago. " ... I think sometimes when you see a team with a high ranking, you're thinking they're dominant. You think they blow everybody out. That's not what we are or who we are."

That's good news for teams wanting to win the NCAA Tournament and fans who want to watch compelling post-season basketball. On this year's Selection Sunday, there's no big favorite like Kentucky two years ago or an earlier North Carolina team with Tyler Hansbrough or Duke with Christian Laettner.

When asked last week whether parity will complicate the seeding/bracketing process, NCAA Tournament Selection Committee chair Ron Wellman said, "I'm looking at some of the committee members right now and they're all shaking their heads yes. ...

"But we say this every year, so maybe there's more and more parity in college basketball every year. This year is unlike any of the five years that I have seen. There is an awful lot of parity and balance in the game which will make it more challenging for the committee, but should produce a really exciting tournament as well."

Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, whose team preceded Florida at No. 1, said the Orange resemble the Gators: Solid on defense with the knack for making clutch plays on offense.

"There's nobody that good," he said. "And if you're a little off your game, you can lose. That's really what I think it boils down to now."

ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg noted the shortcomings of top teams; Florida's lack of depth in perimeter shooting, Arizona's overall shooting.

"Every team in college basketball is vulnerable," he said. "There's a very small margin of error."

This season brings to mind 2010-11. Kentucky labored through the regular season, then got in sync in March. A few clutch shots (Brandon Knight against Princeton and Ohio State) and — say what? — the Cats were in the Final Four. Other Final Four teams that season were Connecticut, which enjoyed an even better stretch run than UK, Virginia Commonwealth and Butler.

"There's no clear-cut (team)," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said, "that you'd say automatically is going to be a heavy, heavy favorite."

Oh those refs

In lobbying for more tightly called games, UK Coach John Calipari reminded reporters (and referees) of the reward for lessening physical play and increasing scoring by calling more fouls. Those referees will get more NCAA Tournament games to call.

True enough, said John Adams, the national coordinator of men's basketball officials.

How well officials adhere to the so-called "new" rules will be "part and parcel" of the evaluation process for NCAA Tournament assignments, he said.

Adams plans to meet with conference coordinators on Tuesday to review how games should be called in the NCAA Tournament.

On a roll

Tennessee beat South Carolina 59-44 Friday for its fifth straight victory. The last four victories had come by an average margin of 27 points.

Afterward, South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said he would have preferred to play any team other than Tennessee in the SEC Tournament.

"We're playing well," Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin said. " ... We'll fight to the end. Whatever happens, you're trying to win ball games. You're trying to compete."

Cuonzo Martin voiced confidence in the Vols receiving a bid to the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Tennessee fell to 21-12 by losing to Florida on Saturday.

"I felt that way before we came to Atlanta," he said. "I really did."

Auburn search

Having announced the firing of Tony Barbee within hours (minutes?) of an SEC Tournament loss Wednesday, Auburn now looks for a new coach. An interesting convergence appears.

A name being bandied about is Bruce Pearl, who staged a remarkable resurrection of Tennessee basketball before crashing in a spectacular fashion when caught being less-than-truthful to NCAA investigators. If Auburn wants to hire Pearl, the school will know thoroughly Pearl's demise at Tennessee.

An Auburn associate athletics director for compliance, Dave Didion, worked the Pearl case as a staffer for NCAA Enforcement.

Another name being mentioned for the Auburn job: former Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury.

Attendance figures

It's all but official, now. Syracuse will supplant Kentucky as the nation's leader in home attendance.

Syracuse averaged more than 3,000 fans more than Kentucky at home games this season.

According to its website, Syracuse averaged 26,253 fans for its games in the Carrier Dome. Kentucky averaged 22,964 for home games.

Kentucky's average home attendance decreased ever so slightly from an average of 23,099 last season and 23,721 from the national championship season of 2011-12.

If only counting tickets scanned as fans entered Rupp Arena, Kentucky's average home attendance was 18,652, according to numbers received through Open Records requests. The average announced attendance was about 23 percent greater and reflected an estimate of everyone (media, cheerleaders, band members, etc.) who were in Rupp Arena.

The fewest number of ticket holders to attend a home game was 15,407 to see Kentucky play Mississippi. Of UK's 18 home games, 12 had a "scan count" of less than 20,000. But the announced attendance was always greater than 20,000 with the largest crowds for games against Florida (22,745) and Louisville (22,699).

Positive thinking

Although LSU finished 9-9 in the SEC for a second straight season and went into this weekend facing the prospect of no NCAA Tournament bid for a fifth straight year, Coach Johnny Jones noted the progress the program had made.

"We had so many positives," he said. "You can't lose sight of that. That's important, especially this time of year."

After a long season, all teams need a can-do feeling going into post-season play. Certainly Kentucky coaches have been accentuating the positive for several weeks.

"Any time you have negative thoughts running through your mind, you set yourself up for failure," Jones said. "In the end, that's not what we're in the business of."

Court presence

The SEC frowns on the idea of fans rushing a court. The league fines member schools when it happens, as it did South Carolina last month when mostly students came onto the court to celebrate a victory over Kentucky.

But last week Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal applauded the idea of fans rushing the court after a victory.

"College sports have done an alarming job of taking the college out of sports and making them feel more and more like a slick, cold-hearted business," he wrote. "Storming the court is one of the messy rituals that makes it feel like school."

So, Gay concluded, "Storm happy. Storm safely."

'Stiff rims'

Before the SEC Tournament began, Missouri players noted what they called "stiff rims" on the baskets in the Georgia Dome.

"There's going to be a lot of long rebounds," Earnest Ross said. "We just have to play."

When asked what he thought about his players talking about stiff rims and long rebounds, Missouri Coach Frank Haith all but rolled his eyes.

"I don't want our guys worrying about missing shots," he said.

Through the first 10 games of the SEC Tournament (through Friday night's session), teams had made 42.2 percent of their shots, 35.6 percent of three-point attempts and 68.4 percent of free throws.

Important victory

Mississippi State snapped a 13-game losing streak by beating Vanderbilt 82-68 on Wednesday. Although the Bulldogs lost the next night to Mississippi, Coach Rick Ray saw significance in the opening-night victory.

"It's important because you don't want to answer the question the whole off-season about the ... losing streak," he said. "So now you can go in with a positive note."

Ray said he could handle the scrutiny that comes with a long losing streak.

As for his players, "You want to make sure that they have an incentive to work in the off-season and get better," the State coach said.

Book note

Sportswriter Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News is the renaissance man of press row. Between games and during timeouts, he will put down his pen and pick up a book to read.

(Full disclosure: It was a bit distressing to see him not touching his book during Wednesday night's first-round games at the SEC Tournament. Instead he checked an iPad for tweets.)

The book Hurt brought to this year's SEC Tournament was Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink. Subtitle: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.

It's the story of a New Orleans hospital trying to cope during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Stat of the weak

Credit Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News for this statistical gem:

Alabama's loss to LSU on Thursday completed a historically bad season. The Tide fell to 0-15 in games away from Tuscaloosa this season. That's 0-11 on the opponents' courts and 0-4 at neutral sites.

That marked the first time since 1960 that Alabama did not win at least once away from home. Even C.M. Newton's 4-20 team of 1968-69 won once away from Tuscaloosa:

Good luck/get well

Former Alabama Coach Wimp Sanderson is scheduled to undergo back surgery Monday in Birmingham.

Happy birthday

To Patrick Patterson. He turned 25 on Friday. ... To Sam Bowie. He turns 53 on Monday. ... To Jim Master. He turns 52 on Sunday. ... To Patrick Sparks. He turns 31 Monday. ... To Bruce Pearl. The former Tennessee coach turns 54 on Tuesday. ... To Cory Sears. He turns 34 on Wednesday. ... To former U of L commentator Jock Sutherland. He turned 86 on Friday. ... To Mississippi Coach Andy Kennedy. He turned 46 on Thursday, the night his Rebels beat cross-state rival Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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