JAMIE H. VAUGHT: College Basketball's Most Fun Time of the Year Has Arrived
Some March Madness observations, stats and tidbits:
---It’s really hard to believe that two of UK’s best players -- Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who earned first-team or second-team All-SEC honors as voted by the coaches -- were left out by the Associated Press on its All-SEC teams. Weird, huh? If my late brother-in-law, who was a head basketball coach on the high school level for a couple of years, was alive today, he would be laughing at me, pointing out the media don’t know anything about the game. As you may know, the AP teams are voted by the sports media. Going into this week’s NCAA tournament, Knox leads Kentucky with a 15.6-point average while Gilgeous-Alexander -- the newly-chosen SEC Tourney MVP -- is second in scoring with 13.9 points along a team-high 171 assists.
---Awful. That’s my reaction when Georgia coach Mark Fox was fired after the Bulldogs lost to UK in the SEC tournament, dropping their season record to 18-15 and later turning down an NIT bid. Fox did really well in his nine years at the Bulldog helm despite working at a football factory. Before Fox was dismissed, the Red & Black, the campus newspaper at Georgia, cautioned or warned the school about the possible move, pointing out the school isn’t known for basketball and that a change in hoops leadership doesn’t mean the program will improve. At Georgia, Fox compiled a 163-133 mark with two NCAA tourney appearances. Before coming to Athens, Fox coached at Nevada for five years, earning three appearances at the Big Dance.
Kentucky coach John Calipari is a big fan of Fox. “Well, let me say this. Everybody that’s watched us play against each other, Georgia and Kentucky, they’ve all been wars,” said Calipari the night before the Fox firing. “I know how good a coach he is. I know what he’s doing with young kids. He’s doing it the right way. He’s a great guy.
“I told him prior to the (SEC tourney) game. I said, ‘I’d love for you to beat us and get two more and go play in that tournament and squelch all the crap.’ It’s nuts in our profession. Guys like a Mark Fox, they could consider and say, ‘Well, he’s not doing a good enough job for us.’ I just beg to differ.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on out there, stuff that’s not going on at Georgia. They’re in good hands. That has to mean something.”
Added Alabama coach Avery Johnson, “I’m disappointed for Mark, but I’m sure he’ll bounce back because he’s a good man and he’s a really good basketball coach.”
How about Fox ending up at Louisville? That would be a classy move for the school which obviously needs to clean up its reputation after that strippers/FBI mess. Of course, U of L acting coach David Padgett deserves some consideration for the permanent job.
---This past Sunday’s SEC tournament title showdown between Kentucky and Tennessee brought back memories of the 1979 tourney which marked the renewal of the conference postseason event after an absence of nearly three decades. That 1979 affair was my first SEC tourney as a sportswriter while I was a student and it also showcased a memorable championship game between UK and UT, both unranked teams. The surprising Wildcats, playing their fourth game in four nights, lost 75-69 in overtime.
Chris Low, a senior writer for ESPN.com, tweeted last week about that 1979 title showdown. “In a story I did years ago on Tennessee’s ’79 team, Terry Crosby told me Joe B. Hall got on the hotel elevator with him before the game and ignored him after Crosby said hello. Crosby proceeded to tell Hall in very colorful language he was going to shut down Kyle Macy – and did.”
---It was awesome to see SEC get eight NCAA tourney bids. That’s most ever in conference history. The previous mark was six, which was accomplished nine times, most recently in 2008. By the way, SEC’s eight teams in the Top 50 RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) led the nation: No. 8 Tennessee, No. 10 Kentucky, No. 15 Auburn, No. 29 Texas A&M, No. 30 Arkansas, No. 42 Alabama, No. 43 Missouri and No. 46 Florida.
---While UK's overall field goal shooting has been very respectable with 47 percent average in 34 games, we know defense will take you a long way. As you saw, Kentucky’s defense was remarkable in the SEC Tournament, limiting Alabama and Tennessee in field goal shooting percentage of 37.9 and 37.1, respectively, as the 24-10 Wildcats captured their fourth straight conference title. Having a sticky defense will help especially if UK is struggling on the offensive end.
In addition, Kentucky needs to improve its free throw shooting -- currently 69.7 percent for the season -- to survive in the Big Dance. When the game is on the line in the final minutes, the teams that make more free throws will usually advance. If UK -- along with its sticky defense -- can hit its free throws like it did against a very good Tennessee club, making 16 of 20 for 80 percent from the line, in last Sunday’s dramatic SEC tourney showdown, the Wildcats can go pretty far.
Kentucky’s top free throw shooters are Quade Green (82 percent), Alexander (80.8 percent) and Knox (76.8 percent). Nick Richards is also doing well, hitting 72.5 percent.
---In women’s basketball, the NCAA Lexington Regional is an attractive one as far as UK rivals are concerned. We could see a potential regional title showdown at Rupp Arena on Sunday, March 25 between No. 1 seed Louisville and No. 3 seed Tennessee. Missouri is also in Lexington Regional as a No. 5 seed. If the Cardinals and the Lady Vols advance to Rupp Arena after opening round games, we should expect a very good crowd in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.
---At UK coach John Calipari’s house where the media, including yours truly, was invited watch the Selection Sunday show, energetic sophomore Wenyen Gabriel was asked about No. 5 seed Kentucky’s bracket in the NCAA South Regional where the Wildcats will travel to Boise, Idaho this week. “First impression was that we got put in a tough bracket. I looked through the bracket and it’s a tough bracket. But then again, it’s March. You got to play a tough game every day and we just have to focus on the game at hand. We got Davidson coming up. That’s a good team we got to focus on right there and I’m not trying to look too far down the bracket after we play Davidson. Hopefully we win, then we’re going to look on to the next game.”
Gabriel, who has never been to Idaho, knows a little bit about the state. “I think it’s the home of the potatoes,” he said with a smile.
---While this year’s Kentucky youthful club has been a challenge, you can tell that John Calipari still loves teaching basketball and helping his kids become a success in sports or life. He talked about his coaching philosophy just moments after red-hot shooting Wildcats dominated Alabama 86-63 in last Saturday’s SEC Tournament.
“Here's the thing I can never lose sight of: I'm trying to prepare these kids for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Some of them will be with me one year. Now, they go to class. They're getting 30 credits when they leave if they stay one year. Most of them are B students. We've graduated 17 players. We have three players in the NBA with college degrees. We have four guys that are coming back that left early. But my job is, again, to teach them to conquer themselves, to teach them to be great teammates. “Pat Riley said to me, you know what, your kids come into this league (NBA), and they're great teammates. Yeah, they all had to share. … But my job is to prepare them to go have success.
“This team, the youngest, most inexperienced team I've ever attempted to coach and at times the maturity level is -- there's something to be desired there at times. Basically, I'm saying they're young, 18s and 19s. They're very young, and they haven't been -- they've never been coached this way. They've never been told no. “You know what? I get tired. I don't get frustrated. I was in bed last night at 8:45, had a great night, woke up. My wife thinks, I'm -- what's wrong with you? She says, I'm not getting old. You're getting old. I said, Well, do what I'm doing. You're over here petting the dogs. I have to go with this thing here. You'd be tired, too.”
---In case you missed it, ESPN tweeted an interesting tidbit earlier this week. According to Basketball Power Index (BPI), Davidson is a popular pick for an upset Thursday night against Kentucky in a No. 5/No. 12 seed matchup. It says Davidson has a 42 percent chance of winning.
---Fearless Forecast: I have UK over Davidson before dropping out Saturday in a loss to No. 4 seed Arizona and its 7-1 freshman star Deandre Ayton, the Pac-12 Player of the Year who is likely NBA’s overall No. 1 draft selection this year. I’m very concerned about Ayton’s size and the Cats really don’t have anyone who can match up well. We’ll see and hope I’m wrong.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.