Just some random thoughts and observations as we enter Day Three of the 2014 SEC Tournament…
* Yesterday wasn’t the best day for the SEC’s remaining NCAA bubble teams. Arkansas fell to South Carolina, which according to our numbers, should just about dump them from the Big Dance. Missouri won, but the Tigers needed double-overtime to escape Texas A&M. The committee likely won’t be too impressed with that, either. Finally, by virtue of their win over the Razorbacks, Carolina now draws Tennessee this afternoon. Win the Vols are probably in the tourney. Lose to a team with RPI #150 and it’s right back onto the middle of the bubble. In other words, UT could have better survived a loss to Arkansas than one to Frank Martin’s suddenly hot bunch from USC.
* On the positive side for UT, MU and UA, a number of bubble squads (RPI 40ish-60ish) from other leagues lost yesterday: Oklahoma State, Iowa, SMU, Kansas State, St. John’s, and California. Those help. The bubble winners were Dayton, Stanford, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Xavier, Providence, MTSU, and Florida State. Those don’t.
* The first two days of the SEC tourney have done little to convince anyone that the Southeastern Conference iss better than they might have thought. Mississippi State — a team with three league wins from 18 regular-season games — bounced Vanderbilt. South Carolina snuffed out higher-seeded Auburn. Fifth-seeded Arkansas was evicted by Carolina. Missouri needed double-OT versus Texas A&M. The evening session last night — LSU over Alabama and Ole Miss over Mississippi State — restored some order, but the cream hasn’t exactly risen to the top in Atlanta yet. Maybe today.
* The Bruce Pearl debate rages on. It seems the majority of Auburn fans want the ex-Tennessee coach, but there are still many who feel he’ll “Bobby Petrino” them and jet at the first opportunity. Maybe so, but if he leaves the program better than he found it wouldn’t that still make Pearl a good hire? If he left the program better than he found it.
* What’s amusing is the usual Our Guy vs. Your Guy double-standard that exists in Fan World. When Pearl lost his job at Tennessee and was hit with a three-year show-cause penalty, the vast majority of rival SEC fans rejoiced. They Pearl a cheater. Some said he should be “banned” longer for lying to the NCAA. Now that Pearl’s penalty has almost been paid — the show-cause ends in August — he suddenly “didn’t do anything serious.” At least that’s the take of many on the AU messageboards. The flip-flop from “cheater” to over-penalized Robin Hood has less to do with forgiveness and more to do with the fact now he can coach at Auburn. At Tennessee: Big, mean, dirty, lying cheater. At Auburn: A guy who lied about a barbecue… “and that’s not even a violation anymore!” (Love that bit of spin. As if lying to the NCAA and calling the parent of a player to coax him into covering up a violation weren’t the bigger issues.)
* If Pearl were to land on the Plains, you can be sure the inverse of the Our Guy vs. Your Guy double-standard would play out in the Volunteer State. Let Pearl beat Tennessee in an important game or — try not to gasp — win big at Auburn and many UT fans who once shared the “Aw, it was just a barbecue” defense will begin to say, “He had to have cheated down there!” Mark. My. Words. (Some, of course, would just use Pearl’s success to hammer the Tennessee administration for not firing Cuonzo Martin and replacing him with Pearl before Auburn had a chance.)
* At MrSEC.com, we’re big fans of second chances. We hope Pearl gets one. And if it’s at Auburn, we hope he walks the straight and narrow and scrubs clean his reputation once and for all. But there’s one thing that still feels a bit icky about the possibility of Pearl coaching Auburn. As Kevin Scarbinsky of The Birmingham News pointed out this week, Auburn associate AD Dave Didion was the lead investigator on the Tennessee case that cost Pearl his job. So who better to say his sins were small, right? Wrong. If Didion was one of the investigators who was lied to point-blank and he turned that information over to the NCAA only to watch the NCAA smack Pearl — and basically force Tennessee to fire him or get smacked its ownself — then it’d be a little sketchy for the same man to say, “Yeah, but he’s clean enough for us here at Auburn!” Maybe he’s as big a fan of redemption stories as we are, but we’re not going to buy the “who better to re-hire him?” narrative that will be spun from Birmingham to Ashford.
* Speaking of Tennessee, let’s say Martin and the Vols escape an upset bid by South Carolina today. Then let’s imagine that they somehow find a way to upset Florida and reach Sunday’s SEC Tournament finals. Further, let’s say the Vols get a nice draw in the NCAA Tournament and win a game or two. Who’s to say Martin won’t leave Tennessee for another gig? If Jarnell Stokes turns pro this summer the Volunteers will enter next season with little optimism. Martin has listened to three years of “Bring Back Bruce” talk and he’s a smart enough man to know that next year will be a step back, at least on paper. While many Vol fans view him simply as “Not Pearl,” another school might see Martin as a guy who runs a tight ship, never has a player in off-the-court trouble, survived in the shadow of Pearl, and won 24, 26, 19, 20 and 20+ games over his last five years at two different schools. Worst case scenario for UT: Pearl lands at an SEC rival, Martin jets, and the AD Dave Hart is forced to roll the dice on yet another up-and-comer.
* There are a pair of coaches — aside from Pearl — who Auburn AD Jay Jacobs should take into consideration. First is 56-year-old Ben Howland. He won at Northern Arizona, he then won big at Pittsburgh (two Sweet Sixteen trips), and he then won even bigger at UCLA (three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006 through 2008). Here are the post-Final Four records that cost him his job with the Bruins: 26-9, 14-18, 23-11, 19-14 and 25-9. Auburn fans would take those records in a heartbeat. The other guy actually wants the Tigers’ job — if rumors are to be believed. Rick Stansbury, 54, should be looked at long and hard by Jacobs. If Auburn won’t/can’t hire Pearl, Stansbury would have better odds of success than an up-and-comer from a smaller league. How do we know this? Because he’s already won in the SEC at Mississippi State. Stansbury blew up his own regime by signing and then catering to Renardo Sidney, yes, but while Auburn was flopping around at the bottom of the league standings like a dying fish, MSU was posting these records: 20-13, 14-16, 18-13, 27-8, 21-10, 26-4, 23-11, 15-15, 21-14, 23-11, 23-13, 24-12, 17-13, 21-12. That is an overall record of 293-165 with a .641 winning percentage. There were six NCAA trips and five NIT trips thrown in for good measure. Know what Auburn’s done since Stansbury took over at State in 98-99? They’ve gone 264-237 (.526) with three NCAA trips, two NIT trips, and soon-to-be four coaches. Stansbury might not be a sexy hire, but here’s guessing AU fans would be satisfied if he averaged 21 wins a year for them as he did the rival Bulldogs.
* Every SEC fan outside of the Sunshine State is probably pulling for Billy Donovan’s squad to take it on the chin at some point over the next three days. No one likes Goliath. But here at MrSEC.com, we think it would be pretty darn incredible to see an SEC team go a perfect 21-0 in league play. Hey, we like upsets as much as the next bunch of guys and we really don’t care one way or another who cuts down the nets in Atlanta, but if history is made, we’re gonna savor seeing it.
* Good luck to Missouri, Florida, Carolina, Tennessee, LSU, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Georgia today.