Sidelines with John Clay

As SEC executes a banner NCAA start, two coaching tenures end

Reid Travis thinks Kentucky stepped up without PJ Washington

Kentucky forward Reid Travis talks to the media after UK’s 79-44 win over Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Jacksonville, Fla. Travis had 18 points and nine rebounds.
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Kentucky forward Reid Travis talks to the media after UK’s 79-44 win over Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Jacksonville, Fla. Travis had 18 points and nine rebounds.

Updated with news that Bryce Drew is out at Vanderbilt.

Thursday was a very good day for the SEC, with two exceptions.

The league burst out of the blocks in the NCAA Tournament, going 4-0 on the first day of play. Kentucky beat Abilene Christian. LSU beat Yale. Auburn held off New Mexico State. And Florida knocked off Nevada.

From Tuscaloosa and Nashville, however, come reports that Avery Johnson is out as the head coach at Alabama and Bryce Drew is out at Vanderbilt.

Thursday night brought reports that Alabama is negotiating a buyout with head coach Avery Johnson, whose Crimson Tide lost to visiting Norfolk State 80-79 in the NIT on Wednesday night.

“The Avery Johnson era appears to be ending at the University of Alabama,” reported Michael Casagrande of AL.com. “The school and Johnson are currently negotiating a buyout that would be a mutually agreed upon paring of ways, AL.com learned Thursday nigh. The discussions remain active a day after the Crimson Tide ended in the NIT.”

Johnson went 75-62 overall and 34-38 in the SEC as the Bama coach, including an 18-16 mark this year. His team reached the NCAA Tournament once. That was last year when Bama was bounced in the second round. Last season was also Johnson’s only 20-win season.

Wrote Rainer Sabin in AL.com, “The downfall of Avery Johnson’s tenure as Alabama’s basketball coach was precipitated by the absence of the very same characteristics he promised would define the program he had been hired to lead four years ago.”

At his hiring Johnson had said, “Our fans can expect a team . . . that’s well-prepared and plays with passion, with high energy.”

Where might Alabama turn next? There’s already plenty of openings on the job market, including Texas A&M, UCLA, Temple, UNLV, Saint Joseph’s and Washington State. Nebraska Coach Tim Miles is also believed to be on very thin ice.

Then Friday morning Vanderbilt announced that Drew would not return as the Commodores head coach. Drew lasted just three seasons, including a disastrous 9-23 record this season. Drew was 40-59 overall and 16-38 in his short Music City stint.

Now back to the good news, starting with LSU’s 79-74 win over Yale here in Jacksonville. The No. 3 seed in the East Region, playing without suspended head coach Will Wade, put four players in double figures, led by Skylar Mays’ 19 points. Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams each recorded double-doubles. Reid had 14 points and 10 boards. The underrated Bigby-Williams went 10 and 10. Next up for LSU is Maryland, which squeezed past Belmont 79-77.

[NCAA Tournament bracket]

Auburn did nearly everything it could to give the game to New Mexico State before surviving 78-77. “Sometime it’s better to be lucky than good,” Tigers’ coach Bruce Pearl admitted afterward, as star point guard Jerod Harper led the way with 17 points but also made some bonehead plays down the stretch. The No. 4 seed in the Midwest, Auburn gets Kansas on Saturday. Kansas destroyed Northeastern 87-53 to pull one win away from heading to Kansas City for the Sweet 16.

The No. 10 seed in the West, Florida held Nevada to 34.5 percent shooting in a 70-61 win. Mike White’s men can play some defense. Shooting has been the Gators’ banana peel, but Florida shot a respectable 45.3 percent from the floor. Kevarrius Hayes scored 16 points on five-of-six from the floor. Next up for Florida is Michigan, which handled Montana 74-55 on Thursday.

Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson talks to the media after scoring 25 points in UK’s 79-44 win over Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. UK advanced to Saturday’s second round in Jacksonville, Fla.

As for Kentucky, the Cats easily put away Abilene Christian 79-44. Without PJ Washington (sprained foot), Kentucky held the Southland Conference Tournament champs to just 13 points in the first half, the fewest in a first half by a UK foe since that 38-1 team in 2014-15 led UCLA 41-7. Afterward, Kentucky coach John Calipari told ESPN he didn’t “think” Washington would be available Saturday, “but it’ll be a hard game either way.”

It’ll be Wofford, which put Seton Hall away 84-68 with a late run. The Terriers went 13-of-28 from three-point territory with noted marksmen Fletcher Magee making seven of his 12 three-point shots. My colleague Mark Story wrote about the Terriers and their three-point threat.

As for Friday, South Region No. 8 seed Ole Miss takes on Oklahoma at 12:40 p.m. on TruTV. Tennessee plays Colgate at 2:45 p.m. on CBS. The Vols are the No. 2 seed in the South. The No. 5 seed in the East Region, Mississippi State plays Liberty at 7:27 p.m. on TruTV.

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