UK Men's Basketball

Jerry Tipton: Dropping divisions solves many problems

LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal towered over UK’s Richie Farmer in 1991 at Rupp Arena. But the Cats won 93-80.
LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal towered over UK’s Richie Farmer in 1991 at Rupp Arena. But the Cats won 93-80.

The big news out of last week's Southeastern Conference Spring Meetings was the vote to do away with two divisions in men's basketball. This puts the SEC in line with other major conferences such as the Big 12, Atlantic Coast and Pacific-10.

That new Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson came from the Big 12 (Missouri) and Louisiana State Coach Trent Johnson had coached in the Pac-10 (Stanford) helped provide the momentum for an 11-1 vote among coaches to do away with two divisions. A year earlier, the vote was 6-6, which left the two divisions in place.

The switch to one-league-one-champion might rob the SEC of some excitement in the regular season. If, say, Kentucky has a three-game lead for the championship in mid-February, there's no Western Division title available as a consolation prize.

But of what value is a divisional title? The last two Western Division champs failed to receive bids to the NCAA Tournament. Three seasons ago, South Carolina did not get an NCAA Tournament bid despite sharing the Eastern Division title.

"We want to get more teams in the (NCAA) tournament and make sure our best teams have high seeds," UK Coach John Calipari said in Destin, Fla. "It's about the SEC winning national titles. We've got to make sure the top four teams in our league get high seeds. Our goal is to have eight teams every year in the discussion when the NCAA Tournament selection committee starts choosing teams."

The one-league format does away with the possibility of the third-best team not receiving a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. The vote to do away with divisions vindicated the position held by former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl.

"Times have changed because we're the only BCS league that has divisions in basketball," Mississippi Coach Andy Kennedy said. "It used to be if you won a division championship, then you were put on the NCAA Tournament board by the selection committee."

The big question left unanswered is how to schedule. With no more divisions, how often does Kentucky play each of the other 11 schools?

Perhaps with tongue in cheek, Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings suggested a double round-robin schedule, meaning 22 SEC games.

"Some of us are in favor of that," Johnson said.

But UK officials surely recoiled in horror. If anything, the Cats would want fewer than the present 16-game league schedule to play more made-for-TV matchups, plus the needed confidence-building patsies. A 22-game SEC schedule plus rivalries with Louisville, North Carolina and Indiana would be too much for any team, let alone a freshman-oriented team at UK.

With scheduling for next season well under way, the SEC will consider changing the format beginning with 2012-13. Commissioner Mike Slive favors a change from a 16- to an 18-game schedule. A committee of coaches and athletics directors is expected to come up with a recommendation by December.

As for other leagues, the ACC plays 16 conference games. In the past few years, it has considered expanding to 18 games. Two coaches balked.

"I think you know who they are," said longtime Atlanta-based sports reporter Tony Barnhart, presumably meaning Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and Roy Williams of North Carolina.

The Pac-10, which played an 18-game double round-robin with 10 teams, will continue to have an 18-game conference schedule with the addition of Colorado and Utah this coming season, spokesman Dave Hirsch said. The Pac-12 schedule will have seven home-and-home series with single games against four other league members. Each team will have one permanent home-and-home rival.

The Big 12, which played 16 games when it was a 12-team league, drops to 10 teams in 2011-12. It will play an 18-game, double round-robin, spokesman Rob Carolla said.

Sharing the wealth

The SEC announced Friday that it will distribute a record $220 million to its member schools. That bounty for 2010-11 represents a 5.3 percent increase from the $209 million distributed to the schools in 2009-10.

The $220 million breaks down like this: $113 million from football television, $31.3 million from bowls, $15.3 million from the SEC football championship, $31.1 million from basketball television, $5 million from the SEC men's basketball tournament and $24.3 million from NCAA championships.

The average amount distributed to each school was $18.3 million.

Faculty members Ernie Yanarella and Joe Peek have implored the UK athletics department to share a greater amount of its money with the school's academic side. Here's how the two reacted to the announcement of record riches from the SEC:

■ Yanarella: "This news confirms my position that UKAA is one of the few growth industries on campus, and points again to the need for UK sports to step up and come to the aid of the University and its general fund."

After a recent UKAA Board of Directors meeting, retiring UK president Lee T. Todd Jr. cautioned against asking too much of the athletics department. Yanarella did not agree.

"Asking UK athletics to increase its contribution to the general fund in no way is risking 'killing the goose that lays the golden eggs,' " he wrote in an email. "It is simply a means for one of the most notable and visible stakeholders in the university to bear its fair share of the sacrifices that have been shouldered disproportionately by the faculty and staff in the way of salary increases deferred and benefits scaled back. ...

"Put simply, UK has far more pressing needs in its academic program than for UKAA and its athletics director to be working up blueprints and scale models for a new baseball stadium for the women's softball team, as pleased as we may be that the attention of Big Blue Nation on UK women's sports has been momentarily diverted to another gender."

■ Peek: The faculty representative to the UK Board of Trustees questioned Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's contention that his department's annual donation to the school compared favorably with other big-time athletics operations. Barnhart said reports that suggested UKAA was relatively miserly with its donation misrepresented the support shown.

"There is, and should be, a strong synergy between UK athletics and UK academics," Peek wrote in an email. "I do not know the facts about exactly what contributions are made by the athletics associations of our competitors. Mitch Barnhart keeps saying that comparisons with other universities are flawed because different universities count things differently. It would be useful if he would produce data for UK and its competitor institutions that do consistently measure revenues and expenditures across institutions, rather than simply saying that we are not comparing apples to apples.

"I am sure that some sensible comparisons could be made. For example, at the UKAA board meeting, he argued that UK football is supported more than it appears because of the inconsistent reporting across institutions. That is, UK is supporting its football program similarly to other SEC schools. If that statement is correct, then he must have some comparable data across institutions upon which to base his conclusion. So let's see that comparable data (on donations to the academic mission)."

Shaq remembered

Shaquille O'Neal's retirement as an NBA player last week caused a flood of memories. As a player for LSU, he had many memorable moments that enlivened or affected Kentucky basketball:

■ Fourteen points and 21 rebounds can't remove a freshman's frustration as Pitino's Bombinos beat a star-studded LSU team 100-95 in Rupp Arena.

■ Gulliver-on-Lilliput as UK breathes life into the old joke about a box-and-one defense with the box on one player. Despite surrounding O'Neal with four defenders, UK still lost at Baton Rouge.

■ A near-fight with Tennessee's Carlos Groves in the 1992 SEC Tournament. This led to O'Neal's suspension from the next day's semifinal game against UK, thus paving the way for the Cats to win the tournament.

In five games against Kentucky, O'Neal averaged 21.8 points and 17.8 rebounds.

"Definitely the biggest and most dominating player and force inside I ever played against," Deron Feldhaus recalled last week. "We always wanted to keep a body on him. He was just a giant. You didn't want to get too close to him because you're going to get knocked out of the way."

Feldhaus remembered O'Neal once attempting to save a ball, turning as he went out of bounds and firing it off Feldhaus' side.

"I looked down," Feldhaus said. "Did that ball go through me?"

Fortunately, O'Neal was a friendly giant.

"He always had a smile on his face," Feldhaus said. "He was always talking and grinning."

Kentucky held its own against O'Neal. The Cats won both meetings in Rupp Arena and got blown out in the three games in Baton Rouge.

Although only 6-foot-7, Feldhaus averaged 17.0 points and 8.4 rebounds against O'Neal and LSU. At the Kenton Station Golf Course he co-owns, Feldhaus hung a photograph of himself scoring a left-handed hook over O'Neal. It's his father's favorite photograph.

"Just because it's Shaq," Feldhaus said. "I guess I was being smart, using the rim to shield him off.

"At our golf course, a lot of people will say, 'Who's that?' I'll say, 'Shaq.' 'Oh, that's pretty good.' "

Knight time

A Sacramento Bee blog noted that former UK guard Brandon Knight will work out for Toronto this week. Toronto picks fifth, two spots ahead of Sacramento, for which Knight worked out Thursday. Knight is expected to be drafted with one of the first five picks, so why work out for the Kings?

"You never know," Knight told The Bee. "Sacramento's a great city. I know some guys that play on this team, and you never know. Just in case. You come here and work out because you never know where you might slide."

The Kings are supposedly looking for a point guard to play alongside Tyreke Evans.

"Knight may not be that pure point guard, but he does know how to lead a team, run an offense and play defense," Ryan Blake, the NBA's co-scouting director, told the Bee.

The Bee noted how Knight's tutelage under John Calipari and the success of Calipari point guards in the NBA (Derrick Rose, John Wall and Evans) gave credence to the belief that Knight could help a team immediately.

Knight has said that Calipari can be especially hard on his point guards.

"I think that's why his point guards are so successful," Knight told the Bee. "The preparation he puts them through. I think his expectations are very high, so once guys reach those expectations, it becomes a lot easier for them."

Kentucky connection

The Kentucky connection to the NBA Finals extends beyond Dirk Nowitzki's recruiting visit to UK in 1998. Scott Tomlin, who heads the Mavericks' public and media relations department, is a native of Maysville and a 2002 UK grad.

Tomlin, who graduated from Mason County High in 1998, coordinates interviews and public appearances for Mavs players, coaches and owner Mark Cuban. He began his college experience as a psychology major. Friends in UK's Sports Information Department led him to volunteer as a freshman. He got a student-assistant job as a sophomore. After working for the New Orleans Hornets and Denver Broncos, he joined the Mavs in 2003.

As a Mavericks insider, Tomlin could confirm a blog item from the Dallas Morning News, circa 2009. That blog reported that upon hearing UK hired John Calipari as its new coach, Nowitzki yelled, "We're back, baby!"

That kind of exuberant possessiveness seems unlikely from a German-born player who visited UK for 48 hours more than 10 years earlier. But Tomlin confirmed the report. It happened in the visiting locker room in Minnesota during a pre-game media-availability period.

When asked whether Nowitzki was kidding with this over-the-top reaction to UK hiring Calipari, Tomlin paused and then said, "He's a playful guy. Unfortunately, the media doesn't get to see that."

That said, Tomlin added, "He enjoyed the visit. I think he's taken an interest in Kentucky and the program."

Happy birthday

To Dick Vitale. The ebullient one turns 72 on Thursday.