College Basketball Nation: Bruce Pearl

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There are mismatches, and then there is what happened in the first 11 minutes of the Auburn-Kentucky game Saturday night.

The top-ranked Wildcats bullied their way to a 30-4 lead, and Auburn still hadn't flushed a single field-goal attempt through the net. With that absurd point difference posted on the Rupp Arena scoreboard, Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns said one thought permeated through his team: "How'd we give up four points?"

"That's honestly our mindset," Towns said.

That might explain more than anything how the Wildcats have reached 27-0 on the season after an exceedingly easy 110-75 win over the outmanned Tigers. They find ways to challenge and push themselves even in situations as lopsided as that one.

"I've never been on a team like this," reserve big man Marcus Lee said. "We're such perfectionists. We don't want anybody to score on us like, ever."

They weren't perfect Saturday night, but it's hard to imagine a more dominant performance. They shot 64.7 percent for the game, outrebounded Auburn 44-22 and scored 62 points in the paint. Nine players had at least six points, with six in double figures, and their top four post guys -- Towns, Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson -- went a combined 21-for-23 from the floor.

There were some ridiculous moments, such as Tyler Ulis throwing a pass behind his back to Cauley-Stein for a windmill dunk, or walk-on Tod Lanter hitting a 3 to give Kentucky its most points in a game since it scored 115 on Dec. 30, 2002, vs. Tennessee State.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Canada, Trey Lyles, Karl-Anthony Towns
AP Photo/James CrispTop-ranked Kentucky jumped out to a 30-4 lead over visiting Auburn before cruising to a 110-75 victory.
Yet there was also the time when Auburn scored the first four points in the second half to whittle the lead down to 20 points, and John Calipari called a timeout to get his starting platoon back in. Or when Calipari yelled at the officials at halftime with a 52-26 lead.

No letdowns are allowed in the pursuit of perfection.

"That's all I've been talking about," Calipari said. "Let's not worry about all this clutter. Let's just be the best we can be."

Their best represents rarefied air. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Friday that his Tigers, who do not start a player taller than 6-foot-8, would need "an extraordinary, superhuman effort" to win at Rupp. Even that might not be enough for most teams if Kentucky is clicking.

"It's nothing like anything we see all year long," Pearl said. "What they do offensively as far as pounding it inside, nobody in the league is even close to that. … I can't even imagine what their practices are like."

Towns offered a clue as to what those workouts look like, describing them as "slugfests" and "prize fights." The Wildcats' depth, especially in the frontcourt, allows future pros to bang against other lottery picks on a daily basis. The steady improvement of Towns -- who had 19 points and 10 rebounds -- and Johnson in the post and Cauley-Stein recently adding a mid-range jumper to his repertoire attest to that.

"Every time we step on the court, you have to bring it," Towns said. "Or you'll get embarrassed in practice."

The intrasquad competition sometimes extends into games. Lee had a dunk in the second half in which he leapt over Johnson, knocking his fellow big man down in the process. Is it possible to posterize a teammate?

"I was like, ‘Why'd you take my rebound away?'" Johnson said. "That has never happened. I was kind of mad at first, but then I saw Marcus had dunked on me, so it was all right."

"I did that a couple of times to my best friend in high school," Lee said. "So I kind of know what to do next to make sure he doesn't hate me."

Kentucky hasn't been challenged by opponents much its last three games, though that could change next week when they travel to improving Mississippi State on Wednesday and especially when they host No. 18 Arkansas on Saturday. Right now, though, they're mostly chasing history.

Calipari entered new territory, as he had previously coached two teams (1995-96 UMass and 2007-08 Memphis) who started the season 26-0 before losing. The Wildcats matched the longest winning streak in school history, tying the 1996 national championship team which lost in the SEC tournament final before winning it all. Coincidentally, 1996 Final Four MVP Tony Delk had his No. 00 jersey retired into the Rupp rafters at halftime Saturday night.

"I want to see this team go 400," Delk said. "You don't want to lose a game now. You want to see a team like this finish what they started."

Pearl was asked if he thinks the Wildcats can win out. He said his main concern would be a tight whistle in the NCAA tournament curtailing some of Kentucky's advantages.

"If they let them play, which I hope they would in a big game, they should have a real good chance," Pearl said. "They're physically overwhelming."

And when pursuing a perfect season, it helps to have a perfectionist streak.

What a strange, surreal day in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Bruce Pearl, who took the Vols to unprecedented heights as head coach from 2005-11, returned to Thompson-Boling Arena for the first time since being fired after NCAA sanctions four years ago. He coaches Auburn now, but is still very popular in Tennessee -- remember that petition to re-hire him last year? -- and the local fans greeted him accordingly.

How many times do you see a fired former coach high-fiving students as head coach of a conference rival?

Bruce PearlAP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel/Adam Lau
Bruce PearlAP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel/Adam Lau)

But Pearl wasn't the only coach fired by Tennessee in the house on Saturday. Phillip Fulmer, who won the 1998 college football national championship and coached 16 seasons at UT before being canned in 2008, sat courtside and even donned an orange blazer, which Pearl used to famously wear during games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Fulmer got a standing ovation as well.

As if that weren't enough, current football coach Butch Jones was also in the house, sitting in the student section and hosting recruits on the final weekend before national signing day.

And oh yeah, the basketball game. The Vols won that 71-63. So with two fired coaches and a popular football coach stealing much of the spotlight in Knoxville, it was a pretty big day for current basketball coach Donnie Tyndall as well -- and the student section chanted his name as the final buzzer sounded.

Bruce Pearl is not a shy man. Whether it was painting his bare chest orange, singing "Rocky Top" in the cafeteria or firing up players, students and fans in any way possible, the former Boston College mascot never shied away from the spotlight at Tennessee and never missed a chance to promote and market his program.

Well, he's now at Auburn and is picking up right where he left off.

Take what happened recently during a marketing class on campus. In front of dozens of unsuspecting students, the Tiger cheerleaders, mascot and marching band -- along with top player KT Harrell and Pearl himself -- marched right into the classroom and formed their own little pep rally.

And amidst it all, the one-and-only Bruce Pearl is yelling, waving his arms and just doing assorted Bruce Pearl things. Take a look...

3-point shot: What Pearl is selling

June, 12, 2014

Andy Katz discusses what Bruce Pearl is selling at Auburn, Utah's strong nonconference schedule and Jim Boeheim's thoughts on graduation rates in the latest edition of the 3-point shot.

3-point shot: Kris Dunn's injury

June, 4, 2014

Andy Katz updates Providence's Kris Dunn's injury, Auburn recruiting without Bruce Pearl while he's under his show cause penalty and looks at Tony Bennett's contract extension at Virginia.

3-point shot: Aztecs gain confidence

March, 25, 2014

Andy Katz discusses San Diego State's confidence, Dayton's preparation and Bruce Pearl's recruiting dilemma at Auburn.

3-point shot: A valuable Pearl

March, 19, 2014

Andy Katz on Auburn's hiring of Bruce Pearl, Virginia Tech's coaching search and how New Mexico is hoping to avoid another upset in the NCAA tournament.

It’s about the record, because it’s always about the record.

Auburn didn’t hire Bruce Pearl because he did well in the interview or because he already has some orange in his wardrobe.

Auburn hired Pearl because everywhere he’s gone, he’s won. From the smallest of the small (Division II Southern Indiana), to the middest of the majors (Milwaukee) to the biggest of the bigs (Tennessee), Pearl’s win-loss record is an unimpeachable 462-145.

And no doubt Auburn also hired Pearl because he’s a huge get for a program that doesn’t get many huge gets. He has charm, charisma and a name that immediately legitimizes a program that has long been the illegitimate child of its behemoth football team.

Auburn typically views basketball season as the stopgap between a BCS title game and spring practice. Adding Pearl could dramatically change that seasonal timeframe.

In getting Pearl now, at this particular crossroads of his career, Auburn gets a man who is ideally suited to fix what ails the Tigers.

[+] EnlargeBruce Pearl
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesBruce Pearl had a 145-61 record at Tennessee from 2005-11.
Coaches love to break huddles with "stay humble, stay hungry."

Bruce Pearl is both humbled and hungry.

“I’m humbled," in fact, is how he began his statement included with the news of his hiring.

For Tony Barbee, Auburn was a step up the coaching ladder, a reward for winning at even-harder-to-win UTEP. Maybe things weren’t great on The Plains, but the money, the budget, the recruiting potential -- all of it was better than at El Paso. In 2010, here came a wide-eyed, new big-league coach, ready to conquer the world.

Pearl isn’t wide-eyed. He is clear-eyed. He comes to the Tigers hat in hand, happy to have the chance to coach again.

In August, the cloud of NCAA shame will be officially lifted from his name, when the show-cause penalty he earned for lying during the course of a 2011 investigation at Tennessee is over. The investigation, the accusations and the penalties shamed Pearl, which maybe wasn’t a bad thing.

No one needs public censure or ridicule, but Pearl, who tried to pretend he didn’t recognize a barbecue in his own backyard, was on the verge of becoming something plenty of successful people become: a tad too big for his own britches. Success comes easily, followed by adoration and admiration, and suddenly no one looks quite as pretty as that darned good-looking face staring back in the mirror.

Because remember, before the NCAA mess, there were the pretty girls in bikinis on the boat and the messy divorce, complete with a hair salon called Alimony's owned by his ex-wife.

If Pearl's response to his success wasn’t all wrong, it was at least a tad tacky -- a sign that the coach who had worked so hard, who had been almost publicly shunned by the coaching community after turning in Illinois to the NCAA while an Iowa assistant, had maybe lost some of his up-by-the-bootstraps ways.

To his credit -- really to his immense credit, because no one takes the blame for anything these days -- Pearl has spent his time in NCAA exile talking about what he did. He’s cautioned kids, coaches and anyone who will listen not to make the same mistakes he’s made, to always tell the truth and to own up to your mistakes.

Now Pearl re-enters the profession after a come-to-earth free fall, duly chastened, thoroughly reinvigorated and truly repentant.

And most of all, hungry to get back to work.

Auburn needs a hungry coach -- starving, actually -- because this job isn’t easy. The Tigers have eight NCAA Tournament berths in their history, five in the Sonny Smith era. The last successful run came in 2003 under Cliff Ellis. A year later, he was fired.

Pearl isn’t a magician and Auburn fans would be wise to remember that, but he is no stranger to rebuilding jobs.

Southern Indiana won 10 games before he arrived. Before he left, he had the team in the Division II national title game. Milwaukee never had won a Division I league title before Pearl. By the time he left, the Panthers had been to the Sweet 16.

And Tennessee had missed the NCAA tournament four straight years before Pearl arrived. Then, suddenly the Vols were 6-for-6 in tourney berths and, at one point, were ranked No. 1 in the nation.

That, of course, is why Auburn hired him -- the track record of success.

But the Tigers really are getting so much more.

They’re getting exactly what they need -- a coach who knows how to win, yes, but a coach who is hungry to win and humbled to have the chance to try again.
The world of the NCAA is a strange place. In the NCAA's world, small, silly things can be much bigger and much more serious than in any other possible context. For example, a photo of a recruit at a coach's house can be seismic, the conspiratorial equivalent to the Nixon tapes. It can get a successful coach not only fired but show-caused. It can throw the program he built into a bit of a rebuilding phase. It can reorient his career path from basketball to marketing.

That's what happened to Bruce Pearl, whose crime was less about having then-prospect Aaron Craft at his house for a barbecue then lying about it to NCAA enforcement staff, which is the biggest single no-no in the NCAA's long and rich-mahogany-scented no-no tomes. It was serious stuff, not only earning Pearl what amounts to a three-year ban on his ability to coach college basketball, but uprooting him from a program he had built into a consistent winner while also squandering the long and arduous climb Pearl made after a decade spent in coaching purgatory. Honestly, it was kind of sad.

Outside of the context of the NCAA, though, all of this stuff can seem kind of funny? A barbecue? A sneaky photograph? What is this, "Columbo?" When someone who is primarily an NBA fan hears about all of this, they scoff incredulously. Serious though it may be in one context, to many the NCAA just seems funny.

Which is why I found Pearl's son, Steven Pearl's, radio ad below for a local Knoxville barbecue joint to be so utterly hilarious. It includes such excellence as "If there’s one thing we Pearls know, it’s how to throw a barbecue" and "Just remember, my two rules for legendary backyard barbecues … 1) Get your food from Calhoun’s and 2) Absolutely no photography" before closing with a gem of a legal disclaimer: "Offer not available to Aaron Craft." Amazing.

At this point, apparently the Pearl family can not only joke about the fateful barbecue, but can do so to their own financial gain. It's a sign of the mostly forgiving attitude most UT fans still have toward the Pearls that Steven Pearl could have a local radio show in the first place, let alone get paid to reference what was at the time a really baffling and traumatic series of events for Vols fans. And it totally works! Impressive, right?

Of course, the elder Pearl has never been shy about making jokes at his own expense. In 2011, as he waited for the NCAA hammer to fall, he participated in a United Way event that cast him in the role of celebrity gas-pumper. As he said at the time: "In coaching, you always need to have a profession you need to fall back on if you don't win enough games, so I'm just here practicing."

Where does Kentucky go from here?

February, 20, 2013

Big Blue Nation is at a crossroads. As it sits now, Kentucky is 17-8, having suffered a 30-point loss to a conference rival, losing arguably the best player in college basketball, with no real quality wins on its résumé and staring from the outside looking in at this year’s NCAA tournament.

Theblowout loss to Tennessee was not that surprising. In fact, I tweeted earlier that day that the Wildcats were going to struggle and UT's home-court advantage was going to be a factor. I did not think, however, that they would get blown out like they did. Kentucky trailed by 39 late and it was as bad a loss by a defending national champion as I can ever remember.

The loss of big man Nerlens Noel unquestionably hurts the Wildcats. With him on the floor, opposing teams shot 40 percent on 2-point field goals. Without him? Sixty percent. He was only the fifth freshman in the past 40 years to average over 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks per game. Two others on that list: Ralph Sampson and Anthony Davis. That’s not a talent you can just replace.

Noel covered up a lot of the flaws this team has because of his shot-blocking ability. Teams could penetrate the lane or dish it down to the low block and Noel would be the safety net and alter most of those shots. Unfortunately, coach John Calipari cannot wave a magic wand and get him back. They have to figure out some other way to defend.

From my perspective, it is beginning to look like a situation that was set up to fail from the beginning. The one-and-done angle is way past overkill at this point when talking about this team. I’m not going to go there. But I do think this group had its growth stunted early in the season. The ESPN "All Access" shows in the preseason undeniably caught the interest of future recruits, but they also put this group of players in a tough spot.

Guys who had never played a minute of major college basketball were donning the national championship jerseys from the preceding year. They were ranked No. 3 in the AP preseason poll, even receiving some first-place votes. The lights were exceptionally bright for these kids and they had never set foot inside of Rupp Arena for an actual game.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsKentucky coach John Calipari will have to adjust his defensive scheme with center Nerlens Noel out for the season.
Calipari is going to get a lot of criticism for how this team has played, some of it fair, most of it not. I think John is an underrated coach. Last year’s Wildcats were one of my absolute favorite teams to watch in the 33 years I’ve been around college basketball. That team was special.

Point guard play has been the Achilles heel of this group so far. Ryan Harrow is not the right fit for this team. He was not highly rated out of high school and folks in Raleigh did not seem too disappointed when he decided to transfer from NC State. He’s a scoring point guard with defensive flaws, the opposite of Marquis Teague.

I recruited Cal’s other option, Archie Goodwin, as well as Alex Poythress when they were sophomores in high school. Both of these kids are splendid athletes. Goodwin has the talent to be a special college basketball player, having shown flashes of his ability already. But he’s a kid who needs time to figure things out.

Poythress is sort of similar, having grown up and played in tiny Clarksville, Tenn. He has struggled a little bit to find his true position. Right now I think he’s a power forward, but lacks some of the physical attributes to allow him to be successful there. His skill set is not polished enough to handle the small forward position, and who does he guard? That’s been a challenge for him. He simply needs some time to develop his feel for the game.

Some, probably most, are going to write this team off -- if they already haven’t. Personally, I think the Wildcats finish 2-4 the rest of the way and move out of NCAA tournament contention all together, especially if Georgia can play the way that it did against Ole Miss on the road. Realistically, Vandy and Mississippi State are the only games the Wildcats should win the rest of the regular season.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe UK will surprise us. This will be Coach Cal’s biggest challenge since arriving at Kentucky and so far he has risen to the occasion every other time he’s faced adversity in Lexington. There is reason to believe that he can do it again.

It starts with the Wildcats reinventing themselves. This team was not winning big with Noel, and they are certainly not any better without him. But Willie Cauley-Stein is a developing prospect, who like the other guys that I’ve mentioned, will continue to improve. That has to be the theme: keep getting better. If they do that, they still have a chance to accomplish something that last season’s team didn’t: win the SEC tournament.

If these Cats can focus on improving and get themselves ready for the league tourney, they have a chance at making a run. The conference is wide open this year with the exception of Florida. If they can somehow get past or elude the Gators, they can earn that automatic berth. I’ve seen Nashville turn into Lexington South before, as UK's rabid fans turn that town blue.

With those fans in the house, the Wildcats will have a chance. But ultimately it'll be up to the players to rally from this past Saturday's embarrassment. The talent is still there. Will it deliver?

Stay tuned, Big Blue Nation.

No great teams, but plenty of great veterans

January, 30, 2013
On a recent episode of PTI, hosts Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser asked me why the offense in college basketball has been so poor this season. The crux of the query is warranted, but it’s also part of a larger question that seems to be gaining traction, which is: Are there any great teams in college basketball?

No. There’s not. And there hasn't been in a while.

The answer to why for both questions is not that dissimilar, either. Talent no longer stays on college campuses -- it departs to the league. The one-and-dones have changed the landscape of college basketball and the gap with mid-major teams has narrowed over the years. Stylistic changes have altered the style of play and, as Wilbon and I talked about, the lack of offense is notable.

[+] EnlargeKenny Boynton
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsLed by senior Kenny Boynton, Florida has proven to be a prime choice to win the national title
There are countless reasons that have made the game change, but I also believe that we are starting to see upperclassmen really step up and perform at a high level. Guys like Mason Plumlee, Jeff Withey, Peyton Siva, Kenny Boynton, Brandon Triche and others are excelling in what is shaping up to be the year of the cagey veteran. These kids are having standout years and have their respective teams vying for a championship.

Going by the critics’ standard for determining “great,” I would argue you’d have to go back to 1996 and look at Rick Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats to see that last truly great team. That group won a national championship with guys like Tony Delk, Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty. Rick had so much depth on that team that Ron Mercer came off the bench and nine of those guys -- nine! -- went on to play in the NBA. Incredible.

Those types of teams come around rarely. There will be some that would argue that last year’s Kentucky team should be in that conversation. Maybe. But can you imagine if those kids came back and stayed for their sophomore and even junior years? That would have been a great team.

Jim Calhoun’s 2011 Huskies are a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Senior Kemba Walker lifted that UConn team on his back and took that program on an unprecedented run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments. It was not a great team. The Huskies were the No. 9 seed in their own league tourney. But Calhoun, a Hall of Fame coach, got the most out of his guys on the way to Connecticut’s third national championship.

UConn's title-game opponent, Brad Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs, are another good example, both in 2011 and the year prior. In 2010 they were a No. 5 seed -- and an 8 in 2011. Neither team was a great team, but they were led by veterans who played great basketball in March. The result was a run all the way to the championship game both years.

In either case, UConn or Butler, it didn’t matter what stature was assigned to them. Fans from Storrs to Indianapolis got to enjoy the ride of their lives and we got to see some exciting basketball. The point is two-fold: 1) The historical context of where a team stands is for fans that do not have a team in the race, and 2) If there is a measure of greatness that truly counts, it should be regarding the coach.

As I mentioned earlier, the one-and-done players have etched their way into the landscape of college basketball. But the elite coaches are still around and the veteran student-athletes that have put in the work are seeing the payoff. Look at the top 25 as it is. Teams like Duke, Kansas, Florida, Butler, Oregon and Miami are heavily reliant on their core groups of seniors to lead their programs.

It’s paid dividends so far. At Duke, with guys like Plumlee, Seth Curry and (when healthy) Ryan Kelly. At Kansas, with the combination of Withey, Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young. At Miami, where the Hurricanes get more than 80 percent of their points from their seniors. Of course it helps having a Ben McLemore, Rasheed Sulaimon or Shane Larkin, but that’s part of the team concept.

Like my ESPN colleague Seth Greenberg likes to say, seniors are invested in winning. They have paid their dues and they understand their roles. In most cases they are patient and improve every year. Having tried and failed before, they are sometimes hungrier knowing that this is their last go around.

I love seeing kids diving all over the court coming up with floor burns from getting tangled up. It’s fun to watch skilled players dictate the pace of play, both defensively and offensively. There’s nothing better than a poised Jordan Hulls or Rotnei Clarke knocking down a clutch shot to help their team win. And it seems we’re seeing that from our seniors more this season than in recent years.

The truly great teams may not be there, but the great kids are and so are the coaches. Mark my words: Come that first weekend of April, you will see a decorated coach and, more than likely, a team with some standout seniors raising that trophy.

Former UT coach: Don't end Vols-Tigers

January, 4, 2013
Editor's Note: Current ESPN analyst Bruce Pearl was coach at the University of Tennessee from 2005 to 2011, where he compiled a 145-61 record and took the Vols to the NCAA tournament in all six of his seasons.

I still live in Knoxville, Tenn., and this week, all the talk around town has centered around the possibility that tonight’s Memphis-Tennessee game (8 ET, ESPN2) will be the last time the two rivals will play for the foreseeable future. Memphis coach Josh Pastner has been adamant about discontinuing the series with the Vols and was quoted in the Knoxville News Sentinel as saying, “We will not play Tennessee anymore as long as I'm the head coach and I'm doing my scheduling.”

Reports emerged Thursday, however, that Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen and Tennessee AD Dave Hart were discussing a possible extension to the current arrangement. Our Andy Katz has the latest on the mini-drama here.

I talked to Coach Pastner as he boarded the plane to come to Knoxville, and he admitted that they were in fact going to take another look at it.

As someone who has been a part of this rivalry, I would be disappointed if the series were to end. This game has developed into one of the best in-state rivalries in the country. People from Memphis live in Knoxville and attend the University of Tennessee. The same can be said about people from Knoxville living in Memphis. It is a great game for the state of Tennessee.

Moreover, it’s a great game for college basketball. In February 2008, we went into Memphis as the No. 2 team in the country and knocked off the then-top-ranked Tigers, led by John Calipari and Derrick Rose. That propelled us to No. 1 for the first time in school history and remains one of the most-watched college basketball games in ESPN’s history. The entire city was electric. Justin Timberlake, Priscilla Presley and the Manning brothers were in the stands. It was an unforgettable atmosphere and an unforgettable night.

The first game of this current eight-year contract? It was played at Memphis, too, but was aired on CSS Regional. As the rivalry grew, so did the attention from the national media. "College GameDay" was there for that 2008 showdown, and ESPN or CBS have picked up the game nearly every meeting since. It has grown into a national game.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsCoach Josh Pastner and Memphis will be seeking their third straight win over rival Tennessee on Friday.
Which makes the Memphis resistance a letdown to me. The irony is that the Tigers need to play this game more than Tennessee, in my opinion, and have since the series started. The Volunteers’ RPI has been higher six of the eight seasons (including this year), and as the Big East’s future remains uncertain, the Tigers will need to continually add quality opponents to boost their résumé in order to get into the NCAA tournament. This season is a great example. Both teams need a quality win, and this is really Memphis’ last chance to get one, whereas UT still plays Florida, Kentucky and Missouri.

The latest possibility of extending the rivalry is encouraging. But why has it gotten to the point where one team would not want to play the other?

Well, from a Memphis perspective, it's simple: recruiting.

Memphis is a fertile recruiting area, as are the surrounding areas in Arkansas, eastern Missouri and northern Mississippi. The Tigers are concerned about Tennessee gaining valuable exposure by playing at the sparkling FedExForum in Memphis every other year. This has been a growing feeling in the Bluff City dating back to the Calipari days. Coach Pastner has maintained that there is no benefit of affording UT the exposure of playing in a basketball hotbed, while Knoxville offers little for the Tigers in terms of recruiting.

If that’s the logic, I disagree, but fine. However, it has also been reported that although Memphis was not in favor of renewing an annual series with Tennessee, it is all about scheduling old rival Louisville and Rick Pitino every year. Louisville, which is almost the exact same distance from Memphis as Knoxville, is a perennial Final Four contender. Those recruits that Memphis feared would leave for Tennessee wouldn’t go to the Cardinals? In fact, Pitino’s top recruiting commitment for 2013, Chris Jones (the best junior college point guard in the country), hails from Memphis.

The numbers further dictate that this stand does not make sense. Memphis is 34-52 against the Cardinals, and Louisville has won eight of the past 12 meetings. Louisville has made it to at least the Elite Eight three of the past five seasons, is coming off a Final Four appearance and is again in the mix for a national title this season.

Conversely, the lifetime series with Tennessee is 14-10 in favor of the Vols, but Pastner has led the Tigers to two straight wins. Neither team has won more than two games in a row since 2001. Additionally, neither team has won a game in the NCAA tournament since 2010. In general, the two schools are much more evenly matched these days than Memphis and Louisville.

The numbers tell a story, but so do the intangibles of the game. There are 12 players from the state of Tennessee who will play in this game tonight. These matchups are typically decided by just a couple of possessions and almost always garner national attention. More importantly, a rivalry is made with two teams that play hard against each other, typically don’t like each other that much, and have bragging rights at stake. Tennessee-Memphis has all of that, but most importantly, the fans appreciate the game. There will be more than 20,000 people in Thompson-Boling Arena for this game tonight, and FedExForum is always packed when UT comes to town.

Make no mistake: It is not a sign of weakness that Coach Pastner is reassessing his stance. I respect him as a man and as a coach, and I certainly respect his choices. Good coaches make adjustments, and if Bowen and Hart think it’s in the schools’ best interest, Pastner will jump on board.

But I don’t buy the recruiting argument. So why else would they want to end the series? It’s certainly not dominance by one school or the other. Both teams are 4-4 since 2006. Attendance can’t be the reason. Season-ticket holders from both programs circle those UT-Memphis dates. It’s not traveling. The two schools are 381 miles apart along Interstate 40. I doubt it has anything to do with conference realignment. The SEC has been quiet on that front, specifically in terms of basketball.

Whatever the reason, it seems like the basketball fans in Tennessee and throughout the country are the ones that lose without this game.

Let’s hope that it doesn't come to that.

How NC State can avoid disappointment

November, 27, 2012
Mark GottfriedRob Kinnan/US PresswireExpectations are high this season for Mark Gottfried's NC State team.
North Carolina State was the ACC preseason favorite for the first time since 1975, and after visiting Raleigh for Midnight Madness, I felt like this team deserved the hype. A one-sided loss to Oklahoma State and a close call with UNC-Asheville has quelled some of that excitement.

As the Wolfpack head into a showdown at Michigan on Tuesday, consistency has been one of the biggest issues -- and it’s not that surprising as Mark Gottfried tries to blend his core group of four returning starters with his extremely talented freshmen.

Let’s look at five important questions that surround this team:

1) The Wolfpack have (and most likely will) beat almost all of the teams they're supposed to, but when will they win a meaningful regular-season game? Part of the reason there is so much hype in Raleigh is because of the Wolfpack’s run in March, but this group went winless (0-8) against Top-25 opponents last season before taking down SDSU and Georgetown in the NCAA tournament. Was that a sign of things to come or an anomaly? They don't want to gain the reputation of being a team that only wins the games it's “supposed” to win. That would be a problem for a program that plays North Carolina and Duke twice each season and is trying to elevate to that same elite level.

2) Can the early-season loss to OSU and near miss with Asheville be a wake-up call that ignites this team? The Pack were told how great they were going to be for six months. They have two All-American-caliber players, three McDonald’s All-American freshmen, an experienced coach and a boatload of hype. That is a recipe for potential, but not necessarily success. Sometimes an early loss can put the chip back on the shoulder of a team that has potentially gotten a bloated sense of themselves. Oklahoma State took it to them. They were more physical, more athletic and played with a sense of urgency that was lacking on the NC State side. The next time out, NCSU lets a Big South team hang around throughout. You have a lot of experience in that locker room. The loss and close-game scare may be the early wake-up call the Pack needed.

3) C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell and Scott Wood are guys who have been there, but can this team avoid chemistry problems? Rodney Purvis was a name that was floated around a lot in the preseason as a game-changing talent. He hasn't disappointed early on, and neither has T.J. Warren. Both guys find themselves averaging double-digit points and are among the leaders in minutes played as the new guys in town. Meanwhile, Brown has struggled through five games, surprisingly not shooting well (34.8 percent) or distributing the ball effectively (a near-even assist/turnover ratio), seemingly trying to do too much and not making his teammates better. State played its best when Leslie was the focal point of the offense and that’s what it needs to go back to.

4) Were Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams smiling contently in the preseason as NC State got all of the attention? For the first time in nearly 40 years, the Pack were the big men in the Triangle. But so far Duke has gone about business as usual and been outstanding. There is no doubt Duke and UNC are equipped to handle expectations -- that's what they do every season. But for NC State, winning big games is not going to be easy. These guys aren't used to being the target. Changing an entire culture takes time. Banners are not hung for teams ranked No. 1 in the preseason.

5) NC State drew fourth-ranked Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and will have an opportunity to prove itself against a very good Wolverine team on the road. But how do the Pack match up? It has to be tempting to look over at the Michigan sideline and think, “Wow, this team is what our team was supposed to look like.” Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are making a case for the best backcourt in the country, and Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary are young guys making huge contributions. Conversely, Leslie and Brown were thought of as All-American quality players, but have underperformed and the freshmen have not fit seamlessly into coach Gottfried’s system. These were two teams that were ranked in the top 10 that are trending in different directions. Does NC State have the talent to beat Michigan? Yes. Do I think they’re ready to do it at this point in the season? No.

But it's important to keep in mind that this is college basketball, not football. Every game is important and winning big games can help immensely during seeding time, but it is also a very long season. NC State is going to be good. Perhaps very good. What needs to happen in Raleigh is a concerted effort to blend as a group and begin to play consistently.

Pearl Vision: Michigan has all the makings

November, 16, 2012
Sports are about rank and order. We saw it with the Major League Baseball awards that came out this week, we see it with all the teams bunched atop the college football polls, and we certainly do it with our college basketball programs.

When Mike Krzyzewski said after the Champions Classic that it’s good for college basketball to have marquee programs play in early season tournaments, he was right. I recently saw firsthand one of the teams that is trying to join that elite class of programs: the Michigan Wolverines.

The question coming out of Ann Arbor is whether UM is ready to be a top-25 program again -- not ranked in the top 25, but a perennial Big Ten contending/NCAA tournament team.

My answer: Yes.

Now let's be clear -- I’m not ready to put them in a class with Kentucky or Duke just yet. After all, it's been almost 20 years since the Wolverines have made it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. But John Beilein has things trending upward for the Maize and Blue. This is a program steeped in tradition that is eager to get back to those days where raising banners in the Crisler Center was the norm. I think they can get there.

Here are some of the reasons why, and possible next steps the Wolverines need to take:

1) The first indicator that things are changing is that there are higher expectations on this group. That’s what happens when you go to the tournament back-to-back years, are ranked in the top five in most of the polls, bring in a top-20 recruiting class, and come in as defending co-Big Ten champs.

2) That next step in my opinion, albeit small relative to their bigger goals, is to treat next week at Madison Square Garden like the NCAA tournament. Winning the 2012 NIT Season Tip-off under the bright lights in New York would mirror a trip to the Sweet 16. Pittsburgh and Kansas State are tournament locks, and Delaware could be this season’s mid-major version of George Mason out of the CAA. A title at MSG and the confidence begins to soar.

3) More evidence that this UM stock is rising is the talent on the floor. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are proven guys who are all-conference caliber players. Then they add Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas, who more than fill the basketball void left by Stu Douglass and Zack Novak. The leadership void is still to be determined, but a sign of a top-tier program is the ability to reload year to year, and that’s what we’re seeing.

4) This team is bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic, which all translates into being better defensively and on the boards -- which then translates into the Wolverines being able to run more and be explosive in transition.

5) Size matters, and Beilein has more of it than at any time in his career. With Jordan Morgan, Mitch McGary, Jon Horford, he’s got three bigs that can run and defend, and between them they have 15 fouls to give. All three need to improve their finishing around the rim and rolling ball screens, because they’re going to get opportunities with the up-tempo game.

From having broadcast two games there this week, I can tell you the expectations and excitement level in Ann Arbor are sky-high right now. And why not? Michigan has renovated its facilities, upgraded its roster and has a great staff.

Will all of that add up to the Wolverines becoming a perennial top-25 program?

Sure looks like it from my vantage point.

Bruce Pearl breaks down our fantasy draft

November, 6, 2012
What a great exercise it was in getting our experts here at ESPN to put together a fantasy draft for the upcoming college basketball season! If only it were that easy. I guess the closest thing to that we’ve seen recently was Kentucky’s national championship team a year ago.

You can vote on who you think picked the best team here. Here's how I think they did:

Like any fantasy draft, the first pick is a huge plus, and Joe Lunardi certainly took advantage of his position by taking Cody Zeller. Zeller is arguably the best player in the country -- and is an oh-so-valuable center, which gives Lunardi a strong edge in his frontcourt. To give you an idea, the next center taken was an unproven freshman in Nerlens Noel.

[+] EnlargeTony Mitchell
Andrew B. Fielding/US PresswireThe likes of North Texas' Tony Mitchell give Joe Lunardi's team the edge in Bruce Pearl's book.
Myron Medcalf’s team has incredible defensive cohesion and may be the most complete team when thinking about both ends of the court. Aaron Craft (Ohio State) and Kenny Boynton (Florida) are exceptional defensively and Jeff Withey is a premier shot-blocker. With Rick Pitino pulling the strings, this is not a team that would be easy to score on and, when you throw in Doug McDermott’s ability to carry a team scoring-wise, this team has the potential to be special.

I liked how Eamonn Brennan and Fran Fraschilla took some chances that could pay off in the long run. Isaiah Canaan (Murray State) and C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) showed how dynamic they can be last season. Can they do it again now that they have a target on their backs? Deshaun Thomas (Ohio State), James Michael McAdoo (North Carolina) and Phil Pressey (Missouri) tasted success last season, but now they are “the man” on their respective teams. How will that affect them? Lastly, Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee) is a beast, but Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA) is not eligible yet, and Noel may be limited offensively.

What stood out to me was the appropriateness of the coaches taken by each expert. Tom Izzo heads a perennial championship-contending team at Michigan State and has the most proven roster to work with. Pitino is masterful in getting the most out of his guys, especially on the defensive end, and has some real playmakers on both sides of the ball. Mike Krzyzewski is unbelievable at bringing together a mix of playing styles (see his two Olympic gold medals) and has highly talented but unproven players. And John Calipari is great at working with young talent and putting guys in positions to be effective, which is a must for Fran’s roster.

Overall, I would rank the teams as (1) Lunardi, (2) Medcalf, (3) Brennan and (4) Fraschilla. Lunardi’s team separates itself with its mix of skill and grit. Tony Mitchell may be the best player nobody has heard of, Trey Burke is a playmaker who can distribute the ball, and Zeller is probably the national player of the year. I love dimensions as a coach. Florida State’s Michael Snaer might be the toughest, most competitive player in the country, Duke’s Mason Plumlee -- the best of the Plumlees -- will be a great glue guy on this team. Oh, and Butler’s Rotnei Clarke can make shots the minute he crosses half court.

On Election Night, one thing is clear: Joe Lunardi has gone from bracketologist to fantasy guru!