College Basketball Nation: Tennessee Volunteers
The University of Tennessee fired coach Donnie Tyndall on Friday, a preemptive strike that will allow the school to part ways with Tyndall before the NCAA hammer drops.
That, at least, is a smart move.
It also is the only smart move Tennessee has made in the past year.
Dave Hart’s decisions, indecision, actions and inaction have otherwise been a bumble-filled festival that now has Volunteers basketball players about to meet their third head coach in as many years. That’s an excellent boost to the welfare of student-athletes, isn’t it?
How did the school get here?
It wanted to be quick, but in actuality was in too much of a hurry.
In the wake of the Bruce Pearl mess, Tennessee hired Cuonzo Martin and then essentially ran him out of town, despite a Sweet 16 appearance. Fan outcry and frustration practically put an unwelcome mat at the coach’s front door, and he wisely opted to leave before he was asked to, bolting to California.
That left the school under intense heat to find the right guy.
The pressure is real these days. We live in a world where there is somehow less transparency yet more information, or at least misinformation. Planes are tracked, rumors given wings.
Where once a backroom conversation between a candidate and a school might never be made public, today every overture is common knowledge.
The heightened scrutiny turns athletic directors, and even at times university presidents, into terrified teenage boys, afraid their potential prom date is going to say no to the offer.
Public rejection dovetails into public ridicule, with every no devaluing the worth of not only the job but the school.
Well, Tennessee got jilted. Louisiana Tech’s Michael White turned down the chance to lead the Vols and quickly -- like knee-jerk quickly -- Hart offered the gig to Tyndall.
And that’s where it all went south.
Was Tyndall properly vetted? Did Hart check every box to see if Tyndall was clean? Did Tyndall tell the truth?
Only Hart can properly answer those questions, but really there’s no good answer for the AD here.
Either he knowingly hired someone under an NCAA cloud, not a terribly good choice for any school but particularly for one under its own NCAA scrutiny post-Bruce Pearl; he simply didn’t do his homework; or best case, he was blindsided like poor Doc Sadler at Southern Miss.
Or perhaps even D, all of the above.
Hiring the right person isn’t meant to be a race. The winner isn’t the person who makes the quickest hire, but the one who makes the right one.
And that can take time and yes, even a few rejections.
Today’s ADs, for the most part, aren’t the athletic department bosses of yore. They aren’t grizzled veterans with a wish list of future coaching candidates stuffed in the top drawer of their desks. Search firms handle that, giving everyone plausible deniability.
But that doesn’t excuse the bosses from doing their jobs and part of that job is to not succumb to public pressure.
Let’s be clear. The real troublemaker in all of this is Tyndall. The simplest way to avoid this mess: Follow the rules. Tyndall didn’t, not at Morehead State and not at Southern Miss, and now he’s left a trail of dust bigger than Pigpen’s stretched across the South.
But ultimately this will rest on Hart’s desk. A revolving door of coaches isn’t a good look and hiring one with an NCAA mushroom cloud, and firing him before the cloud bursts, is an even worse one.
Dave Hart wanted to make the quick hire.
Instead he was in too much of a hurry.
The pairings for the 2014 SEC/Big 12 Challenge were announced Wednesday afternoon.
In the event’s second year, it will again offer a variety of intriguing matchups. The Big 12 won the first Challenge last year by a 7-3 margin, and the Big 12, a league that sent seven teams to the NCAA tourney last season compared to the SEC’s three, has the edge again.
Here’s a ranking of the 10 games in this year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge (Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Alabama and Georgia will not participate this season):
1. Texas at Kentucky: Call your friends. Get your popcorn ready. This will be phenomenal. Well, at least it appears that way right now. When Myles Turner, the nation's No. 2 prospect in the 2014 ESPN 100, picked Texas, he transformed the Longhorns into a Big 12 title contender and potential national power. The Longhorns had a solid stable even before Turner's decision. Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes helped the Longhorns orchestrate one of the most surprising runs to the NCAA tourney in the country last season, considering all the departures from the previous season’s team. It’s fitting that Texas' ridiculous frontcourt will face the “Voltron” of college basketball frontcourts. Kentucky will be a problem for the rest of the country. Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee would form the nation’s top frontcourt without any help. Add blue-chip recruits Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. and, well, you can see this is a rare pool of NBA prospects in one frontcourt. Plus Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back. And a couple McDonald’s All Americans will come off the bench. Is Texas a legitimate contender? Is Kentucky the top team in America and the national title favorite? This matchup could answer both questions.
2. Florida at Kansas: Bill Self just lost two players, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, who could be the top two players selected in this summer’s NBA draft. But this is Kansas. Hit reset and continue to win Big 12 titles. That’s just what they do in Lawrence. The Jayhawks will reload with Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, a couple McDonald’s All Americans who will fill the voids. Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and a starting-point-guard-to-be-determined will be on the floor too. Point guard is not an issue for the Gators with Kasey Hill returning. They have lost the senior crew that helped the Gators beat the Jayhawks in Gainesville during last season’s Challenge, though. That is an issue. But this is a good barometer for both programs, which will each rely on youth. Billy Donovan’s 13th-ranked recruiting class, per RecruitingNation, will have to mature fast and help Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Frazier II, Chris Walker and the rest of the roster challenge Kentucky at the top of the SEC next season. Walker will have to be a primary piece of the offense, not a sub at the end of the bench. But Kansas’ edge in experience and overall talent could be the difference. Look for Selden to have an All-America moment or two in this matchup.
3. Arkansas at Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg signed former UNLV star Bryce Dejean-Jones to play for the Cyclones. Add him to a squad that also features Monte Morris, Naz Long, Dustin Hogue and Georges Niang and the Fighting Hoibergs should be Big 12 contenders again. Arkansas swept Kentucky last season, but the Razorbacks struggled on the road. And Hilton Coliseum gets rowdy. Can Arkansas handle that environment? Bobby Portis is one of three top scorers from last season returning for the Razorbacks. Four-star point guard Anton Beard could make an immediate contribution too. This should be a solid matchup, especially as both squads are figuring things out early in the season.
4. LSU at West Virginia: Prior to last season, both LSU and West Virginia looked like programs that would turn the corner in 2013-14. Although both improved, they still missed expectations. So this is a statement game. If they are serious about securing NCAA tourney bids, then they have to win games like this. Juwan Staten anchors a West Virginia team that returns most of the talent from a season ago. On the other side, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will be joined by four-star recruit Elbert Robinson in a strong frontcourt that must carry LSU this season. This is one of those matchups that might mean a lot more on Selection Sunday than it will in December.
5. Oklahoma State at South Carolina: Travis Ford and Frank Martin are in similar positions. They both need one player on their respective rosters to have a breakout season. The Cowboys are deeper than the Gamecocks, but there is a lot riding on Le'Bryan Nash. If South Carolina plans to make a move in 2014-15, talented sophomore Sindarius Thornwell will have to orchestrate that evolution.
6. Baylor at Vanderbilt: Two teams with interesting outlooks. Scott Drew lost every meaningful member of last season's Sweet 16 squad other than Kenny Chery, Rico Gathers and Royce O'Neale, and he didn’t sign a stellar recruiting class. But he does have a bunch of reserves who have been waiting to prove themselves. For Vanderbilt, Kevin Stallings will get Kedren Johnson, who missed a year due to suspension, back in the mix and add a recruiting class ranked 28th nationally by RecruitingNation. This could be the season Vandy rises in the SEC. Johnson vs. Chery will be one of the best matchups in the Challenge.
7. Missouri at Oklahoma: Ryan Spangler and three other starters return for Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma squad. Plus, he will add a couple top-100 recruits. New Missouri coach Kim Anderson will need youngsters Johnathan Williams III and top recruit JaKeenan Gant to step up after the Tigers lost their top three scorers from last season.
8. Kansas State at Tennessee: Marcus Foster should be the early favorite to win Big 12 player of the year honors. He’s the reason Bruce Weber’s team shouldn’t be dismissed as a threat in the conference. Donnie Tyndall doesn’t really have a roster right now, so this one is difficult to gauge. But if the young men who have requested releases from their scholarships come back to Knoxville, then this one will be more intriguing than it appears to be right now.
9. Auburn at Texas Tech: This game won’t feature the most talent from either league. But this will be Bruce Pearl’s first season at Auburn, where he’s blessed with great facilities and an administration that seems determined to make a stand in the SEC. Tubby Smith didn’t turn the Red Raiders into world beaters during his first season in Lubbock, but a few surprises -- upsets over Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas -- were promising. Nothing wrong with a matchup between a couple of veteran coaches who are trying to rebuild in unique locations.
10. TCU at Ole Miss: The Marshall Henderson era is over, so Andy Kennedy will try to rebuild around Jarvis Summers, incoming young players and junior college transfers. TCU coach Trent Johnson lost talented guard Jarvis Ray. Both squads will start at the bottom and probably stay there all season. This isn’t the Challenge’s sexiest matchup.
The three SEC programs that did, however, thrived. Tennessee began in the First Four and made a run to the Sweet 16. Florida, the top team in the country for a chunk of the season, was the favorite to win the national championship but fell to Connecticut in the Final Four. Kentucky, after a turbulent season, rode a postseason burst all the way to the national title game.
Only three of the league's 14 members secured NCAA tourney bids and all three were fabulous.
What about the other 11, though?
That's the challenge here. The NCAA tournament is the ultimate chapter of each college basketball season. Because the bulk of the attention the game attracts each season arrives in March, its postseason is largely viewed separately from the regular season. The latter means little to most because so many squads -- 19 percent of the 351 Division I teams -- have a chance to win it all.
If that's true, then the SEC had a banner year. But it's also not that simple.
The late-season highs were impressive. But the overall SEC picture was rarely pretty.
What we saw this season: Everything about the SEC was connected to Kentucky before the season began. John Calipari signed six McDonald’s All Americans. Kentucky was ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, but the Wildcats didn't live up to the hype until the NCAA tournament began. They faced multiple Top-25 teams in the nonconference season but beat only rival Louisville.
Their finish, however, was remarkable. Somehow, this young Kentucky team defeated Kansas State, undefeated Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to reach the national championship matchup. Yes, the Wildcats lost. But they recorded one of the season's most impressive finishes in college basketball.
Florida, the first 18-0 team in SEC history, didn’t experience those struggles. The Gators were unstoppable once they got healthy. They dealt with injuries and suspensions at the start of the season, but won 30 consecutive games as a mostly complete unit, even though McDonald’s All American freshman Chris Walker didn't play most of the season. They didn't capture the crown but Billy Donovan's fourth Final Four appearance is worthy of kudos. For most of the year, Florida was the only program that made SEC basketball worth watching.
Georgia matched Kentucky’s 12-6 SEC record, a year after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left the scene and Mark Fox made an argument for coach of the year.
It all got worse from there, though.
Tennessee's conclusion belied its overall season. Cuonzo Martin returned most of the standouts from a 2012-13 team that missed the NCAA tourney, but Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and a healthy Jeronne Maymon weren't supposed to stumble into the NCAA tournament through a First Four matchup with Iowa. That's what happened, though.
Stumble was the theme of SEC basketball in 2013-14.
In all, four squads cracked the RPI's final top 50. Seven finished in the 90s or higher. Auburn (165) and Mississippi State (243) were at the bottom.
Every league has a basement. But the SEC's was difficult to identify because of the heap of seemingly average squads in the conference.
Missouri, with Jabari Brown leading the way, had some talented players, but a late 2-5 stretch that included road losses to Alabama and Georgia helped knock them off the bubble. Arkansas swept Kentucky but couldn’t manage any other impressive road wins. Johnny O’Bryant III led a talented LSU frontcourt, but the Tigers couldn’t play their way into the tourney either. Same for Marshall Henderson (19.0 PPG) and Ole Miss.
The rest of the league -- Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina -- all finished with sub-.500 records in conference play.
Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee definitely helped the league, but they were anomalies in a subpar conference.
What we expect to see next season: Things could be similar next year.
Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back for Kentucky. They’ll join Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein along with another elite recruiting class (see Trey Lyles, Karl Towns).
Florida could also be a national title contender if Kasey Hill and Walker continue to develop. Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith are back, too. But Patric Young, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Scottie Wilbekin are not. That’s a major blow. But five-star recruit Devin Robinson is the anchor of another strong recruiting class in Gainesville.
The rest of the league is filled with question marks.
Things are fluid at Tennessee, Missouri and Auburn. All three programs have new coaches who have to persuade current players to stay on board and find ways to boost their talent pools for next year in the ninth hour.
Tennessee lost its entire recruiting class -- all four prospects requested and received their releases -- after Martin left for Cal and Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall replaced him. Bruce Pearl is working the phones now that he's back in the game at Auburn. It's too early to know how the hiring of former Central Missouri head coach Kim Anderson on Monday will affect Missouri’s future, but he won’t have Brown or Jordan Clarkson, who both declared for the NBA draft.
Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey return for LSU. That duo along with 6-foot-11 incoming freshman Elbert Robinson will lead one of the league’s top frontcourts. The Tigers should make a push for an NCAA tourney slot. Anthony Grant lost Trevor Releford, who will be hard to replace at Alabama, but Levi Randolph returns. Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls helped Arkansas beat Kentucky twice last season and could help Mike Anderson’s program earn an NCAA tourney bid next year.
Georgia's Charles Mann & Co. will give Fox the same talents he had on a 12-6 SEC squad last year. If his youngsters grow, the Bulldogs could finish near the top of the conference again.
The return of Kedren Johnson from a year-long suspension would help Kevin Stallings' cause at Vandy. Billy Kennedy has a solid nucleus at Texas A&M. The Marshall Henderson Era is over at Ole Miss. And South Carolina and Mississippi State will try to turn the corner. Again.
Still, Kentucky and Florida will be the teams to watch in the SEC. The rest of the conference? As always, it's difficult to say.
Well this suddenly is interesting.
Until this week, the coaching carousel was a pretty mundane kiddie ride. Coaches most everyone expected to be handed pink slips did, in fact, get their walking papers, and no huge seismic shifts came with their replacements.
And then in the span of three days, the universities of Tennessee and Missouri were rejected like jilted bridegrooms by their coaches.
Cuonzo Martin, unappreciated by both his fan base and administration, left Tennessee for Cal, a good job but certainly not as good as the one in Knoxville. He had done well by most folk’s standards -- a winning record and Sweet 16 berth this year -- but was never able to escape his predecessor's shadow -- figuratively and literally. Bruce Pearl's NCAA tournament success loomed over Martin, who needed three years to return the Vols to the tourney, and his Knoxville address didn’t make things any easier.
He made no bones about his dissatisfaction, eyeing the gig at Marquette before leaving for Berkeley this week.
Frank Haith, meantime, was never viewed as an inspiring hire by Mizzou people. After Mike Anderson left for Arkansas, the general consensus on Haith, who had an OK but not hugely successful run at Miami, could be best summed up by a friend of mine who squeaked, "Frank Haith?" when the hiring was announced.
When the coach subsequently was implicated in the Miami NCAA scandal, it didn’t exactly help. Neither did an NCAA tournament upset as a 2-seed at the hands of 15-seed Norfolk State after a 30-win season two years ago.
The strange thing is, the Missouri administration expressed its faith in Haith amid the NCAA scrutiny, but after a disappointing NIT berth this year, most folks figured the coach was headed to a Show-Me year in the Show-Me State in 2014-15. He merely got ahead of the posse, it seems, by leaving for Tulsa.
Now, neither fan base is exactly crying in their coffee over the departure of either coach, with both groups convinced they can get a coaching upgrade.
Arms race, anyone?
Fair or not (and mostly not), these two hires will be compared to one another -- for initial impact, and more than likely, for long-term success. The schools and the programs are too similar, the timing too close for it to be otherwise.
In SEC hoops, there is Kentucky, there is Florida and there is everyone else jockeying for third.
There aren’t many teams that can lay claim to that bronze-medal position but count Tennessee and Missouri among the group that can. Both could open their wallets if they wanted to, with the backing of fervent and well-funded boosters; each has decent facilities and most of all, a history that is not covered entirely in dust.
The Volunteers went to six consecutive NCAA tournaments under Pearl and returned this year under Martin. The old coach had a 2010 Elite Eight berth to show for his efforts; the new coach, this year’s Sweet 16.
Missouri, meantime, had five consecutive NCAA tourney berths on its resume and a regional final run in 2009.
In other words, there’s plenty to work with for a new coach.
But who will those new coaches be? Already both sides are clamoring for the home run hires -- Shaka Smart or Gregg Marshall (the real winners here, by the way? Smart and Marshall's agents), but the reality is, right now winning the news conference has to be the least of these two school's concerns.
Whatever their individual reasons, Martin and Haith lasted only three short seasons. That’s not long enough, not in a top-heavy league such as the SEC, where gaining ground on the front-runners usually requires wading through quicksand.
Athletic directors Mike Alden at Missouri and Dave Hart at Tennessee each need to hire for stability more than headlines and find coaches that fit.
It's never an easy job, leading a coaching search, especially when everyone is watching.
And no doubt, comparing.
In the most deliciously ironic coaching carousel ride in some time, the University of Tennessee, both fan base and athletic department, somehow managed to get what they no longer wanted and exactly what they deserved.
Cuonzo Martin, the man they treated like a bad case of the flu for three years, essentially put his thumb to his nose, wiggled his fingers and said, "Stuff it." He is off to the greener, more welcoming pastures of Cal while Tennessee is left with a bare cupboard, no coach and, worst of all, the coach it longed for now working down the SEC road at Auburn.
The Volunteers, apparently, would have been wise to look at the fine print when Martin said, upon removing himself from the Marquette search that, "Tennessee is where I want to be. That has never changed."
He made those remarks, after all, on April Fools' Day.
And now the joke is on Tennessee.
Or the joke is Tennessee. Take your pick. Both are applicable.
The school is now on its third basketball coach in four years, to partner with the four football coaches it’s hired in the past six seasons.
No one will argue that Tennessee is a plum job -- one currently unemployed coach called me within an hour of the opening to inquire about it -- but the administration and fan base are doing a helluva job turning Knoxville into a reality show.
This is now a place that has been jilted by both Lane Kiffin and Martin.
Except when Kiffin left, his players were furious.
When Martin hit the road, Jordan McRae took to social media: “Can’t treat people any kind of way and expect good in return,” he wrote.
No you cannot. Even in this weird, morally challenged world, the golden rule does still have some teeth. You can’t spend three years making a man feel like an unwanted interim coach and then, once he reaches the Sweet 16, expect him to return the warm and phony embrace.
Less than a month ago, 36,000 fans signed a petition to get rid of Martin and return Bruce Pearl to glory. Never mind the fact Martin spent his entire tenure trying to extricate the Vols from the NCAA crater that Pearl had dug them. Pearl was Pearl -- gregarious and fun, with an up-and-down style and he still lived in Knoxville.
In the days before the Sweet 16 game -- and after Pearl signed with Auburn -- came another petition. This one was aimed at getting Martin a raise, complete with an open apology for the first petition.
Prior to today's news conference, called after Martin already had left, Hart had given and offered Martin one measly raise -- $50,000 last year. That bumped Martin’s overall salary to $1.35 million, 11th in the 14-member SEC.
And then when the Vols thumped Mercer to go to the regional semifinal, there was Hart embracing Martin on the court.
Didn’t work for Judas.
Won’t work here.
Vols fans, no doubt, will say that Cal will fail and good riddance and that’s fine. Hell hath no fury like a fan base scorned.
And that’s OK, too.
But remove the anger and what you see is a coach who was far from an epic failure. He went 63-41 in his three seasons, finishing in the top five of the SEC in each season.
This despite the stain and strain of NCAA sanctions.
In a lot of places that would merit a raise, a contract extension and a heap of praise.
At Tennessee, it got Martin a heap of nothing. Impatient fans and lukewarm administrators never really gave Martin a chance -- Indiana fans, with a bit more basketball dog in the fight, gave Tom Crean a longer leash.
And now the Vols got what they stopped wanting and exactly what they deserved.
Connecticut’s national title as a No. 7 seed provided the conclusive evidence of what we knew early on in the 2013-14 men’s college basketball season. There was no dominant team. Arizona settled down the revolving door of No. 1 teams -- the Wildcats were the third to hold the mantle just six weeks into the polls, and their eight weeks atop the Associated Press poll was the longest of the five teams (Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse, Florida) to be ranked No. 1. With the odds of winning the Billion Dollar Bracket already outrageous, parity in college basketball made it downright impossible.
With the book finally written on the season, here are the chapters we’ll remember most:
Freedom of movement: Officials were quick to say this season they weren’t creating new rules, they were enforcing the old ones. College basketball had become too defensive, the critics said. Physical play was ruining the game. The season started with an emphasis on allowing freedom of movement and handchecking was called to the point of being a “touch foul.” Players, coaches and officials alike never came to a consensus of understanding how a block/charge would be called. While scoring on the whole increased slightly, there was no denying that foul calls and free throws had a substantial spike.
Champions Classic: Teams were allowed to begin practice two weeks before the traditional Oct. 15 start date, which in a practical sense meant earlier than ever. It resulted in a November filled with high-quality games beginning with a special night in Chicago. The Champions Classic doubleheader featured Michigan State’s win over Kentucky and Kansas beating Duke and ushered in the season with big-name matchups with budding superstars to get college hoops buzzing even in the midst of the BCS race and the NFL, the overlord of American sports, in the middle of its season.
Senior spotlight: Plenty of seniors weren’t going to let the young guys hog all the spotlight and reminded us of the value of staying four years. No way UConn’s Shabazz Napier was mature enough in his previous three seasons to lead a team to the national title the way he did this season. Creighton’s Doug McDermott returned to school -- as a walk-on no less -- and finished as the fifth leading scorer in Division I history. He was also the first player since Wayman Tisdale (1983-85) and just the sixth ever to have three consecutive seasons scoring 800 points or more. Louisville’s Russ Smith returned and ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency by kenpom.com for a second straight season.
Conference realignment: With the dust finally settled (we think), and teams shuffled into new leagues, we saw the good and the bad from the new configurations. A record crowd of 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome watched Syracuse’s 91-89 overtime win against Duke become an instant classic in their first meeting as ACC foes. The future of ACC basketball, which adds Louisville next season, is partly why Maryland’s season-long swan song as a former ACC charter member was overshadowed. Creighton excelled in its new locale, finishing second in the new Big East, even though its move from the Missouri Valley hurt Wichita State. (More on that below.) The brand-spanking new American Athletic Conference truly reflected the nation with its huge disparity between the haves at the top of the league and the have-nots at the bottom. In the end, the national championship trophy resides in the rookie league.
Shockers chase perfection: Wichita State became the first team since St. Joseph’s in 2004 to finish the regular season undefeated. Instead of drawing praise, it drew some skepticism from those who pointed to a weakened Missouri Valley schedule. Still the Shockers plugged along reaching 35-0 -- one game better than the 1990-91 UNLV squad that went 34-1 and lost to Duke in the Final Four -- and grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their season ended against eventual national runners-up and 8-seed Kentucky in the round of 32.
Coaches behaving badly: The season provided Internet trolls a seemingly endless supply of memes and GIFs to loop. The list was long, including Iowa’s Fran McCaffery slamming chairs against Michigan State, Nebraska’s Tim Miles ending the Cornhuskers’ most memorable season in decades with an NCAA tournament ejection and Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson’s postgame rant that included that his wife, not his players, knows to, “at least shot-fake one time.” But a few stand out. Who can forget the sight of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nearly losing his jacket while running on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor to protest a charge with 10 seconds left in a loss at Duke? Boeheim joked after the game that his first trip to Tobacco Road, which resulted in his first regular-season ejection, would be a memorable one. Then there was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (insert sarcasm font here) who will certainly think twice before throwing a pen toward his bench. Krzyzewski got a technical foul for doing so in the ACC tournament final against Virginia.
Safety issues: There were the things out of man’s control like the postponement of Iowa’s game at Indiana due to a pane of the ceiling crashing into the stands. North Carolina and Duke postponed their first meeting when a snow storm left the Blue Devils’ bus unable to safely travel eight miles to Chapel Hill. It was the Tar Heels’ first postponed game since the Gulf War. Court storming continued to be a topic when a fight broke out at the end of Utah Valley’s win over New Mexico State. The incident started when an agitated K.C. Ross-Miller of NMSU hurled the ball at Holton Hunsaker as time expired. Two Aggies were suspended for their roles in the altercation. Thankfully no one was hurt when an alcohol-fused adrenaline rush sent a UC-Santa Barbara student running onto the court during the first half of a game against Hawaii; the fan got close enough to confront Hawaii coach Gib Arnold before players pushed him away and he was escorted out.
Those were the top highlights from the season. Just missing the cut were: how teams turned around their seasons (including Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee); the impact of transfers (from the spectacular, including Duke’s Rodney Hood; to the cautionary, including Georgetown’s Josh Smith); the Carolina blues (potential All-American P.J. Hairston sat out the first nine games before the school announced it would not seek his reinstatement); and basketball as an emotional outlet (cellar dweller Boston College handed Syracuse its first loss after the passing of longtime BC media relations director Dick Kelley, and Georgia coach Mike Fox winning at Missouri after attending his father’s memorial service).
INDIANAPOLIS -- Tennessee made a remarkable run to the Sweet 16 after beginning its journey beginning in the First Four. The Volunteers topped Iowa, UMass and Mercer to reach the Sweet 16, but Michigan was just too much in a 73-71 victory on Friday night.
Here are five observations from that Sweet 16 game:
What a comeback: The Vols didn’t give up. With 4:10 to play, they were down 67-60 after being down by as many as 15 points. They were down just 70-64 with 2:21 to go. Tennessee continued to attack the floor and get to the rim. With less than two minutes to play, Tennessee and Michigan were separated by only five points. The Vols continued to whittle away, drawing within three with 23 seconds left and moving to within one when Jordan McRae scored with 10.8 seconds left. Caris LeVert then stepped out of bounds with 9.6 seconds to play, making things real at Lucas Oil Stadium. Tennessee, despite struggling from 3-point range, was in position to win. But Jarnell Stokes drew a late charge against Jordan Morgan with six seconds left that essentially ended the game for the Vols despite a great comeback effort.
Michigan nearly flawless in first half: In some of the great upsets in past NCAA tournaments, the underdogs succeeded because they got off to fast starts. That didn’t happen with Tennessee. The Vols needed an impressive 11-3 run after going down 15-7 early. But the first half from there was all Michigan. The Wolverines dissected the Vols from that point forward. Cuonzo Martin’s squad couldn’t handle John Beilein’s collection of 6-foot-6-ish wings -- is there a factory in Ann Arbor, Mich., that we don’t know about? -- who just kept punishing Tennessee inside and outside. Michigan went 7-for-9 from the 3-point line, a 78 percent clip. This isn’t some Tennessee team that got lucky on its way to the Sweet 16. The Vols had defeated its three previous opponents in the NCAA tournament by nearly 20 points per game. But the Wolverines were just too much. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Michigan is 18-for-30 from the 3-point line in the first halves of its NCAA tourney games. The Wolverines don't wait. They just go.
LeVert the future: Nik Stauskas (14 points) has no reason to stay in school beyond this season. That much was clear in Friday’s game. He’s a big guard with range and solid ballhandling ability. Glenn Robinson III (13 points) could leave, too, but the program will still be in good hands if LeVert (10 points) returns. The 6-6 sophomore has made dramatic improvements this season. He’s been a 41 percent shooter from the 3-point line, but the most impressive element of his game on Friday, something I didn’t see until I watched him live, was his quick first step and ability to create his own shot. He is thin, and a summer in the weight room would really enhance his game, but he’s a special talent who might be the next Michigan superstar. His late error doesn't define his season or his potential.
Size doesn’t always help: When Tennessee walked to the podium for its pregame media session on Thursday, it looked like a college football team. Jeronne Maymon and Stokes are large individuals, with size that Michigan lacks, and, on paper, that appeared to be a potential issue for the Wolverines. How would they deal with a team that had big wings and strong post players such as Stokes and Maymon? Well, that wasn’t the real question. The real question became, "How can Tennessee stay in front of the Wolverines?" It couldn’t in the first half. Martin had Maymon on Robinson early, which didn’t last long, as Robinson kept beating Maymon off the dribble. He had to insert Derek Reese, a 6-8 wing, to guard him. Early in the game, Tennessee wasn’t even using Stokes and Maymon together. Maymon’s early foul trouble might have contributed to that, but the Vols were better with the one-big system. That’s how you know Michigan is a really good team, as Tennessee had to adjust its entire scheme in the first five minutes to deal with it. But the one-big system also helped the Vols climb back into the game.
Beilein deserves credit for developing players: Yes, Beilein doesn’t exactly draw kids from the prep market’s scrap heap, but he’s also not signing a bunch of one-and-dones, either. Look at Stauskas, Robinson and LeVert, along with Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. Check out the game that Morgan (15 points, seven rebounds) had. They’ve all developed at a respectable pace. Stauskas will be a millionaire lottery pick if he decides to turn pro. Robinson could be a first-round pick, too. LeVert could be a top-15 selection in 2015 if he doesn’t leave this year. Walton looks comfortable. Irvin is next. And we haven't even mentioned Mitch McGary, who was the team's top pro prospect entering the season before a back injury ended his year. He was just a solid freshman, but by the end of last year's tourney, he was a lottery pick. Sure, the Wolverines can shoot, but the perennial progression of Beilein’s rosters is worth noting. His players have made some tremendous strides.
Tennessee vs. Michigan
What to watch: Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon have led Tennessee’s charge to the Sweet 16 thus far. A Michigan team that lacks a comparable post threat could struggle with Tennessee’s tough bigs inside, but the Vols will have their hands full as they try to stay in front of Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas.
Who to watch: The potential battle between Stauskas, a 6-foot-6 shooter who won Big Ten player of the year honors, and 6-6 wing Josh Richardson could decide the game. Richardson has to find a way to frustrate Stauskas, who can hurt opponents by shooting or slashing.
Why watch: There will be fireworks because this is not the same Tennessee team that struggled throughout the SEC season. The Vols are hot right now and are running into a Michigan team that also overcame adversity -- notably the losses of Trey Burke and Mitch McGary -- to reach this stage.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
What to watch: Kentucky had little trouble in its 73-66 victory over Louisville on Dec. 28, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the hybrid zone that Louisville has used in recent weeks will stifle Kentucky’s offense this time.
Who to watch: Julius Randle (17 points) had a great game the first meeting. Can Montrezl Harrell & Co. find a way to stop the future lottery pick?
Why watch: This is Louisville-Kentucky with a shot at the Elite Eight on the line. It’s that simple.
Mercer’s disbelief had less to do with losing than the realization that the careers of seven seniors who played together the better part of four years were over.
"We had an amazing four years, those kinds of things stay in your mind forever," senior guard Langston Hall said. “You tell your kids, 'Back when I was playing in the NCAA, we beat Duke.’”
The Bears matched up favorably with No. 3 seed Duke and were able to lean on their experience to pull off the upset. From the outset on Sunday, the game took on a very different tone than the Bears’ win over the Vols last season in the NIT. Tennessee never trailed and Mercer found it difficult to keep its deficit around 10 points.
Mercer had no one who could match up with Tennessee’s pair of 6-foot-8, 260-pound forwards, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon.
“Stokes was a man on the boards,” Hall said. “We tried to help with the bigs, he was throwing us all out of the way. He’s a load to handle.”
Maymon helped keep Mercer senior center Daniel Coursey from having much of a presence inside. Early in the game, the Bears resorted to launching 3-pointers before they ever got settled into a half-court flow.
“Their two bigs are absolutely enormous,” Coursey said. “They played a lot harder than last year [in the NIT]. I hope they win it all.”
Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said his seniors helping to win the Atlantic Sun title and beating Duke for the program’s first tournament victory left a legacy that has planted a seed for future teams.
“It’ll be hard to match what these guys accomplished,” Hoffman said. “There’s no doubt what these guys are going to be remembered for. They’re champions and they will always be champions.”
Coursey believed the words, but found them hard to accept in the wake of their loss to Tennessee. But he hopes he’ll come to appreciate the impact of the winningest class in school history.
“It’s kind of hard to realize,” Coursey said. “Hopefully when we go home and sit down a while and talk about it we realize what we’ve done has been pretty unbelievable.”
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin played "One Shining Moment" enough times when his team struggled during the season that junior forward Jarnell Stokes said the team should have the song memorized by now.
Martin showed the video montage that concludes every NCAA tournament after a debilitating loss to Texas A&M. He even played the Luther Vandross song without the visual clips so his players could just feel it.
Martin said he wanted the Volunteers to realize they could still salvage their season.
"To have a chance to do that right now -- I think at certain parts of the year we didn’t even think we’d get in the tournament, so it just makes it that much more fun," Stokes said.
The "moments" are part of what makes the NCAA tournament so special, and there are plenty of reasons the four teams vying to leave Raleigh with one more win on Sunday would savor it.
For No. 14 seed Mercer, though, it would mean Monty Brown gets another chance to build his tournament memories. The cruel irony of the Bears’ upset of No. 3 seed Duke on Friday is that Brown doesn’t remember much from it.
The 6-foot-11 reserve senior center played just four minutes before suffering a concussion in the first half against Duke. Brown had the ball and pump-faked, Duke’s Jabari Parker jumped and Parker's hip crashed into Brown’s head.
Senior guard Anthony White Jr., who was on the court standing in the corner when the play happened, initially didn’t think Brown was injured. When White encouraged him to shake it off, he knew something was wrong.
Senior guard Kevin Canevari, who will be Brown’s best man in his wedding this summer, went over and asked if he was all right.
"He was like, 'What’d you say?' and kind of looking very dazed," Canevari said. "It was a little bit scary at first. It’s definitely sad that it happened, but we’ll be praying for him."
Although Brown sat on the sideline for the remainder of the game with earplugs to block out the noise, senior Jakob Gollon said his teammate had trouble recalling the victory.
On Saturday, Brown couldn’t even attend the team’s practice and media sessions. He was at the hotel, likely sitting in a room with little light. His teammates couldn’t even talk to him much after the win because he was so sensitive to noise.
"Beyond his injury and not being able to play for us, as far as memories are concerned, that’s a pretty big deal," Gollon said. "Obviously, this is a pretty big experience that we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives. He may or may not be able to recall some of the things that happened during this time."
Brown wasn’t in the locker room when Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski made an impromptu visit to congratulate the team. He didn’t get to ride the team bus back to the hotel and hear his teammates' amusement over the #LordhaveMercer hashtag that was trending on Twitter.
Brown’s concussion meant what could arguably be the greatest single moment of his basketball career might be forever lost in the haze of his brain.
"This is what you live for. This is what you dream of as a kid," senior guard Bud Thomas said. "Especially playing Duke and Coach K. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to go out and beat them and pretty much shock the world. We’re getting all this press and Monty is pretty much in the shadow."
Mercer coach Bob Hoffman called Brown "one of the unsung heroes on our squad."
The Bears view Brown as an "old head" who offers up wisdom and encouragement. After all, as Langston Hall put it, he is getting married. Senior center Daniel Coursey said Brown is the one who "tells us not to do stuff and be all responsible."
"No matter what’s going on, his spirits are always high," White said. "He’s always telling you it’s all right, get to the next thing if something bad happens. If something good happens, he’s the first person to come out and congratulate you."
The Bears are hoping to celebrate one more upset and have one more chance to watch Canevari dance the "Nae Nae," because that would mean Brown could have one more chance to rejoin them on the floor next week and enjoy his own NCAA tournament experience.
"Of course, he can watch the video on ESPN, but it’s another thing to be able to experience that," White said. "And Kev’s dance -- he would have been right there, right behind him jumping up yelling a little bit."