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SEC Notebook

December 12, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

SEC Notebook

by Matt Jones

For confirmation of the ever-changing world of college basketball, look no further than the past week’s strange events. In the course of five days, we saw not one, but two No. 1 ranked teams defeated by supposedly inferior teams.

Although we will later deal with No. 1 Florida (school motto: Please don’t ever rank us higher than No. 2), the Stanford-Kansas game showcased how the brave new world of college basketball has changed the game. No. 7 Kansas came in, on paper, with an enormous edge in talent, and No. 12 Stanford’s best player, Josh Childress, did not even play. The Jayhawks were coming off a series of impressive victories, including a win over Michigan State.

Nevertheless, Stanford controlled the play on both ends and proved that the gap between the top teams in college basketball is not what it once was. With the reduction in scholarships and the proliferation of media coverage of the sport, the top schools can no longer horde all of the top talent or claim exclusive rights to national television broadcasts. Thus a kid like Kris Humphries can stay in Minnesota and play for his state school, be on ESPN a number of times and set himself up perfectly to play at the next level. Had he gone to his initial choice, Duke, he might be languishing on the bench or struggling to adjust, like another stud high school recruit, Shavlik Randolph, has at Duke.

As the seasons go on, college basketball parity will continue to increase and the games will become even more difficult to predict. I for one like that and think it makes for greater interest for the sport.

Also before I get into the SEC news, it is imperative that I make clear a comment from last week’s column. It was written here that I hoped that the Florida State basketball players would not “get jiggy with it” on the Ole Miss basketball logo. At the risk of sounding like Charles Barkley and claiming I was misquoted in my own column, I must make it clear that this particular phrase was inserted by my editor. I have not, nor would I ever, seriously use the phrase “getting jiggy with it.” I find Will Smith and his music to be only a half step ahead of Yoko Ono, Bill Walton and Rush Limbaugh in terms of people that annoy me, and I do not want you, my readers thinking otherwise.

Moving forward…

A sad day for college basketball

There was not a great deal of attention paid to the news that former Florida Gators coach Norm Sloan passed away this week. That is a shame, but was representative of a career that was amazingly successful, but often underappreciated. Sloan coached the Gators in the 1980s and was never truly able to build the program into the national powerhouse that it has now become.

However Sloan’s legacy will be as the coach of the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the 1970s, where he won a national championship in 1974. Most people remember that Wolfpack team for the amazing talents of David Thompson, who is arguably one of the five or six best college players of all time, but few even remember that Sloan was the team’s highly regarded leader. Not only did he win the championship that season, but the year before the Pack went an astounding 27-0, but were ineligible to compete for the national championship. That two year run in 1973-74 represents one of the best non-UCLA periods in college basketball history, and Sloan deserves much of the credit.

However coaching in the Triangle always left him in the shadow of Dean Smith in Chapel Hill. When Jim Valvano took over for Sloan in 1980, legend has it that he went to a barber on the NC State campus to get a haircut. While there, the barber said to the new coach, “I hope you will be able to do better than the last guy we had here.” Valvano was a bit surprised by this comment and said, “Well actually, Norm Sloan did pretty well, didn’t he? I mean he won a national championship and went undefeated one year.” The barber huffed and replied, “Yeah, but imagine if Dean Smith had been coaching that team.”

Norm Sloan never received the credit he deserved, but the college basketball world will sorely miss him.

Another ONE bites the dust

Speaking of the Florida Gators, if there is one thing that we can now be sure of, it is that they may be the worst team to play with No. 1 rankings in history. Last year, the Gators were placed at No. 1 in January, only to travel to Lexington, Ky., and get absolutely leveled by the streaking Kentucky Wildcats. However most observers, including this one, had the same belief this week as those who go to see Eddie Murphy movies in the theaters again: It can’t be that bad again.

Well, unfortunately for the Gainesville, Fla., faithful it was. Maryland overcame a sorry shooting second half to pull out the huge upset 69-68 win in overtime. After the game, coach Billy Donovan used the line that has become a virtual requirement for all coaches when they lose, “That is what happens when you are a young team.” Is there any way to stop coaches from saying this? Every team in college basketball is young now, including Maryland which has only one junior or senior among its top eight players.

Maryland won this game with a gritty performance and by showcasing exactly what it takes to beat the current mold of Florida teams – strong half court defense and toughness inside. For all of Florida’s strengths, the team never plays with the reckless abandon of a team coached by Gary Williams or Tubby Smith, and thus they often struggle in these matchups. Donovan’s group has the talent to win a title, but they must overcome their inability to finish against grind-it-out teams, as proven by tournament losses to Michigan State and Temple.

Ashton Kucher move over

If you thought that nothing could top the media’s new love affair with Ashton Kucher and his show, “Punked,” aka “Candid Camera for teenage girls”, then you might be surprised by the continuing rising tide of celebration of the Vanderbilt Commodores. I know when I began writing this column, I did not think that two of my first three entries would deal with the floppy haired boys from Nashville, but they continue to excel.

As Andy Katz, Pat Forde, Clark Kellogg and other media types try not to pull their hamstring jumping onto the Vandy bandwagon, which is driven by yours truly, the Commodores just keep on winning, including an impressive 83-63 win this week over Michigan. Although most believed the game against the Wolverines would provide a true test for senior forward Matt Freije and his band of merrymen, the game was actually almost never in doubt. Vanderbilt took control with the combination of outside jumpers and the inside play of Freije, and rolled over coach Tommy Amaker’s club.

As has been said multiple times in this column, there is a very strong chance that Vanderbilt will begin SEC play undefeated. The only question I have is, when will this national media attention and praise actually lead to Vanderbilt being ranked in one of the polls. They are close to moving into the Hoopville Top 25, and if the attrition that continues to plague the top teams continues, it could be party-time (milk and cookies all around!) in the classrooms, libraries and chemistry labs of Vanderbilt University.

Who’s next, Sonny Smith?

There are lots of groups in America that make their presence felt by grassroots activism and participation. Whether it is the Sierra Club, the Christian Coalition or the Clay Aiken fan club, many segments of the population take their interest and dedication to an issue and transform it into a concerted effort to influence the hearts and minds of others. After the events of last week, the Auburn basketball fans need to be added to that mix as well. Last week in this column, I criticized the Auburn program for its awful non-conference scheduling and its seeming unwillingness to ever play a program of any prominence during the opening months of the season. The Auburn faithful became agitated and upset as if they were President Bush and I had taken away the teleprompter.

I got a host of emails, and I thought it would be good to respond to some of the concerns expressed (at least those that I can print).

Matt wrote:

“Dude you are a moron. The same Miss St. team that you praise for beating Western Kentucky by six, guess what Auburn played and beat them already. Auburn played College of Charleston, another Tourney team from last year and you’d never guess it but they beat them too. Granted its not UNC, Duke or Virginia but come on its easy to slam every team this time of year by picking a few teams from their schedule, but at least be fair and look at the overall before you go off slamming a team you know absolutely nothing about.”

Now Matt does make a couple of good points. I did praise Mississippi State for beating Western Kentucky, but what Matt does not mention is that I thought it was impressive they beat them on the road, ending a 37 game home winning streak. Auburn played them at home. College of Charleston is a good win, but it represents the best of the non-conference home schedule. Charleston is a goodteam on a schedule but should not be the best team for a program that wants to be a top contender.

Blake wrote:

“Your latest article is a glaring display of biased journalism. While I’ll grant your point that Auburn hasn’t played anyone of significance on the road this year, you blast Auburn’s schedule despite the fact that they have now beaten three NCAA tourney teams from last year by an average of 19 ppg. Auburn will be playing UNLV on December 20 in Las Vegas. You can see the game on ESPN2 at 12:30 that night.”

Blake, I will be watching that game, and as a matter of fact, if they win that game, that will be my headline story in the next week’s article. But I will not pronounce the Tigers a quality team until they leave the friendly confines.

Finally, Mal wrote:

“Little Matthew, have you ever worn a jock? Did you ever play basketball past the 6th grade? (if you did I bet it was at an elitist private school).

Mal actually, I am wearing a jock right now. I did play basketball past the 6th grade, but I have to admit when I play against 8th graders now, they are quite good, so I usually stick with the 6th graders.

Thus I do appreciate the fact that Auburn fans seem so passionate. I have always been under the impression that basketball was of no real importance to the Tiger fans, and they have proven me wrong. Now it is up to them to prove me wrong on the court and in the scheduling office. Here is hoping they do both.

BasketBowl 2004

This week brings us one of the most anticipated events of the 2003-’04 season. At Ford’s Field in Detroit, Mich., the No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats and the No. 20 Michigan State Spartans will play Dec. 13 in front of an estimated 78,000 people. If the attendance is as expected and breaks the 75,000 barrier, it will be the most watched basketball game in the history of organized athletics.

That is an amazing and somewhat unbelievable statistic. Now for those of you that are history buffs, I am sure that you know that the previous record was set when 75,000 people packed into a stadium in Berlin – Nowitski field? – in 1951 to see the Harlem Globetrotters play. Getting over the amazing fact that the Globetrotters played in Berlin in 1951, it is also quite surprising that no one has attempted to break this record since. LSU and Notre Dame played in 1990 in the Superdome in front of 60,000 folks, but no other two teams have attempted to create the history that will occur this weekend.

After the turnstiles however, it is unclear that the game itself will be all that historic. The Spartans are coming off two difficult defeats, including a humiliating loss to Duke in East Lansing, Mich. Coaches Tom Izzo and Tubby Smith both have a defense-oriented style that tends to produce low scoring games and poor shooting. This should only be magnified if the Wildcats that showed up Dec. 6 in the win over UCLA, with only 27% from the field, take the court this Saturday. With the added factor of a virtual impossible sense of depth perception for the teams shooting in such a cavernous stadium, there is a good chance this could be a “Linda Tripp” special of a game (guess what that means). However, it very well could be record-breaking and for that reason alone, you should watch it instead of Celebrity Poker on Bravo.

The Week Ahead

Due to time constraints, and a lack of interesting games – not counting, of course, Mississippi State and Louisiana-Monroe – I will not be doing a team by team notebook this week. I will resume this feature next week, but there are a couple of things worth noting.

• Georgia’s loss to Winthrop 80-60 is a real step backward for this team. Coach Dennis Felton knew he would have a mixed bag of a year, but could not have imagined the team would follow up a close overtime loss to Gonzaga by getting blown out at home by the Flying Eagles. It will be interesting to see how they come back against Clemson Dec. 13.

• Things do not get any easier for the traveling boy band from Florida as they have road games coming up with No. 25 Louisville and West Virginia. Louisville is beginning to come around and West Virginia recently defeated Maryland, thus giving Donovan the very real possibility of a three game losing streak.

• Watch out for the now 8-0 South Carolina Gamecocks. They have gone on the road and won a series of games in the past week and play Temple Dec. 15. If they can pull a win off in coach John Chaney’s backyard, they become a team that should be noticed around the country.

• Alabama got a nice win this week over Charlotte and followed that up by beating a decent Austin Peay squad. Their early season loss to Providence looks better now that the Friars have begun to show some muscle. Thus we may have spoken too early when we downplayed the possibility of the Tide making some noise in the SEC West.

Game of the Week

Since I already spoke about the BasketBowl and the two big Florida struggles, I will go out of the way a bit and say Tennessee at Nebraska on Saturday. If the Vols win, they too might go into SEC play undefeated. However I think John Turek and the Cornhuskers will pull out a close one in Lincoln, Neb.

Enjoy the week, and if you get a chance go see Mystic River. Best movie I have seen in a number of years.


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