Vandy may be dead tourney wise but with only 7 scholarship players, Stallings deserves credit for even having this team at .500. So far this is his best coaching job.
Team A = Missouri
Team B = Tennessee
Team C = LSU
Team D = Ole Miss
Team E = Vanderbilt
Team F = Arkansas
Tomorrow afternoon Missouri will get a chance to boost its resume by hosting Kentucky. Arkansas will travel to LSU and the Tigers can’t afford to become one of the rare teams Mike Anderson’s squad beats on the road. At Alabama, the Crimson Tide will host Tennessee. Bama appears doomed and a home loss to the Vols would surely seal its fate (again, barring a miracle finish). UT, on the other hand, needs to start improving its road record, an area that last year’s tournament selection committee put great emphasis upon.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss needs to take care of business against South Carolina in Oxford and Vanderbilt, if it’s to creep further up onto the NCAA bubble, has to beat Mississippi State in Nashville.
Tourney hopes aside, there are two games to watch tomorrow that feature hot-seated coaches battling one another. First, Georgia travels to Auburn. Tony Barbee is 1-6 in the SEC this year. His overall mark on the Plains in four years: 40-64 (38.4%) overall and 13-40 (24.5%) in the conference. It’s hard to imagine him surviving regardless of the the Tigers’ finish.
Barbee’s opponent tomorrow seems to have climbed off the mat in recent weeks. Losses to Georgia Tech, Davidson, Temple, Nebraska, Colorado, and George Washington in UGA’s non-conference schedule left Mark Fox dangling from the ropes, just a punch or two from being KO’d right out of the Peach State. But his Bulldogs began SEC play 4-1 before losing two straight to Kentucky and Vanderbilt (at home). In his fifth year, Fox is 75-72 (51.0%) overall and 32-41 (43.8%) in the SEC. He reached the NCAA Tournament in his second year (with players inherited from Dennis Felton), but he’s not finished with a winning record in any other season. Fox needs to win tomorrow and then make a very strong finish to save his job.
Tomorrow night in Tuscaloosa, Anthony Grant and Cuonzo Martin will face off. Grant is in his fifth year; Martin in just his third. When hired, Grant was the hottest up-and-comer in the country. While his teams haven’t been bad, they certainly haven’t thrived, reaching but one NCAA Tournament (in his third season). Overall, Alabama’s coach is 93-60 (60.7%) overall and 42-31 (57.5%) in league play. He scheduled up this season but he’ll likely get little credit for that from Tide fans. His team lost non-conference games to top 50 RPI teams Oklahoma, Duke, Wichita State, Xavier and UCLA. Unfortunately for Grant, Bama also has losses to Drexel (116), South Florida (146), Georgia (133) and rival Auburn (189). Still, first-year AD Bill Battle might give Grant an Andy Kennedy-style pass to see if one more year might enable him to turn things around for UA.
Martin, on the other hand, is a victim of circumstance more than record. Tennessee’s coach had the best SEC record of any coach not named John Calipari or Billy Donovan through his first two seasons. His first team overachieved and finished second in the SEC. Last year’s team suffered the loss of preseason All-SEC player Jeronne Maymon yet still made it to the NCAA bubble, only to be bounced as one of the first four teams out.
So why the hot seat in Year Three for a coach who’s gone 51-35 (59.3%) overall and 25-16 (60.9%) in league play? Because he replaced Bruce Pearl. Pearl went to the NCAA Tournament six times in six years, took the Vols briefly to the top of the polls for the first time in school history, and also led UT to the Elite Eight for the first time ever. Though Pearl’s own NCAA missteps cost him his job, many Vol fans simply do not care. For that reason, no one was going to replace Pearl’s record or his personality in many folks’ eyes.
Martin’s squad is still in the running for a much-needed NCAA bid (after two straight NIT flame-outs). But win or lose, there will be a lot of Volunteer fans urging the school’s administration to “Bring Back Bruce” at year’s end.
And that brings us to the third part of this hoops report — Pearl. Coaches do not come off of show-cause penalties and return to coaching immediately. It simply hasn’t happened. Not in a major sport.
Pearl’s show-cause penalty will end in August meaning that unless the NCAA hears his appeal and agrees to let him off early, the coach would not be allowed to recruit for any new employer until the eighth month of the year. He could, however, still be hired in March or April, with his staff having to beat the recruiting trail until Pearl’s time in the NCAA pokey is up.
Once paroled, it’s likely Pearl would will still be watched closely by NCAA gumshoes. He violated the same rule at two different schools and tried to cover it up when he was caught with junior prospects at his house in Tennessee. He also phoned the parent of one of those recruits in what looked to be an attempt to get others to help him cover up his violation. The UT administration tried hard to stand by Pearl, but during his double-secret probation phase, he covered up a player’s failed drug test and he handed out too many game tickets to one of his players. Small potatoes, yes, but when you’re awaiting trial on robbery charges, you don’t jaywalk.
Any school looking at Pearl — and that could mean Auburn, Alabama or Georgia — would likely hear some bad things from Tennessee officials who felt forced to fire him once he violated their “don’t do anything else wrong” instructions. The NCAA probably wouldn’t have great things to say. And SEC commissioner Mike Slive might not want an SEC school hiring a man straight out of the NCAA hoosegow, either.
Make no mistake, Pearl is a high-risk/high-reward guy. He’s a fantastic coach and he would win wherever he lands. Counting his Division II years at Southern Indiana, he trailed only Roy Williams as the fastest to reach 400 NCAA wins. He’s also a Grade A carnival barker. Want to pump life into a glum fanbase? Hire Pearl. He’s a marketing machine.
But he has a track record of not being upfront with his bosses. He also made a small violation worse by lying about it and — apparently — trying to get a player’s father to do likewise. Why lie about something so small? Was there some other reason Pearl didn’t want the NCAA snooping around?
And if he drew the NCAA’s ire at a new school, that school would likely get one heckuva spanking for bringing in a guy so soon after his show-cause penalty ended.
Would Georgia go for Pearl? Unlikely. Alabama? That rumor is out there, but here’s guessing Bama’s Battle — who has ties to Tennessee — wouldn’t take that kind of a chance unless he received good reports from his contacts in Knoxville (and that’s not going to happen). Tennessee? Not likely. Pearl hasn’t told anyone that he would not come back if offered, instead saying that fans need to get behind the Vols’ current coach. In other words, he’s danced around the topic.
So would he take the job if the Vols forgave and forgot? We’re probably never going to know. If Martin reaches the NCAA tourney, he’ll likely save his job. And if he doesn’t and is fired, there’s probably about a 1% chance at best that the same people who fired Pearl would attempt to hire him back. Many a booster was upset with the fact that Pearl’s actions led to their school’s name was dragged through the mud for months.
And all of that brings us to Auburn. Auburn, desperate for a basketball winner. Auburn, with its new (but small) arena. Auburn, a school that trails only SMU and Arizona State in terms of major NCAA sanctions and probations. AD Jay Jacobs stood strong throughout the Cam Newton affair and the case of the four ex-Tigers who told HBO’s “Real Sports” they’d been paid to play. If there’s a school in the SEC willing to roll the dice on hiring Pearl, it’s likely Auburn. (That’s not an insult, Tiger fans, that’s a statement based on historical fact.)
Would Pearl and his wife — an East Tennessee native — view Auburn as the best place for him to jump back into the coaching game? Will Auburn or anyone else offer him a job as quickly as most seem to think? Good questions.
And they’ll be answered in about six to eight weeks.
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