Although they’ve had time to get acquainted with Jim McElwain and his new coaching staff the real first impressions begin for Florida’s returning players and a couple of early enrollee newbies this afternoon when the first day of spring practice begins. McElwain and the staff have spent plenty of time poring over film and watching closely as the team goes through conditioning and mat drills, but the impressions that count the most will be made over the 15 practices that will stretch over the next four weeks.
About the only way to describe spring practice is to call it a grind. In the 40-plus years I’ve been writing about football, I probably haven’t come across more than a handful of players who really enjoyed spring practice. Most of them hate those hours in the heat and humidity on afternoons when the campus lovelies are working on suntans around the pool. Saturday practices when you’re 90 minutes from Crescent Beach can’t be fun.
But, it’s a necessity, especially this year when they have to prove they are quick to grasp new concepts, respond well to coaching and try to show they have what it takes to compete in the Southeastern Conference.
For the coaching staff, it’s a first chance to identify leaders, find out who can and can’t make plays and which guys just want to play football, regardless of position. It’s those guys who are hungry to play and are ready to do anything a coach asks them to do that are the glue of a program and this is a program in serious need of some glue. The Florida program isn’t exactly coming apart at the seams, but it is one that definitely needs to take on a new identity and to do that, glue guys make all the difference in the world. Those gung-ho types who will kill to be on the field are the types who will set the tone and help Mac and his staff forge ahead with a new attitude and new expectations.
It’s been awhile since Southeastern Conference basketball got this much respect. Five teams in the NCAA Tournament in a year in which Florida is down says plenty about how far the league has come in the last few years. It’s also a tribute to Mike Slive, who demanded better scheduling back in 2010, telling the league’s athletic directors and coaches that if they scheduled better teams they would see more respect on Selection Sunday.
Heading into Sunday, Slive could feel good about Kentucky, which was going to be the overall #1 seed no matter the outcome of the SEC Tournament in Nashville, and Arkansas, which got a #5 in the West and wasn’t all that far from a #4. General consensus was LSU and Georgia were in good shape but Ole Miss, thanks to a one-and-done SEC tournament showing with the loss to South Carolina, might be on the outside looking in. Consensus about LSU (#9 see East) and Georgia (#10 seed East) was spot on. They got into the Big Dance easily.
That Ole Miss got in might have more to do with taking Kentucky into double overtime than a road win over Oregon and a neutral site win over Cincinnati during the non-conference portion of the schedule. It might help to explain why Ole Miss got in with a #57 RPI while Colorado State with 27 wins and a #29 RPI and Old Dominion with 24 wins, a #45 RPI and wins over LSU and VCU got left out.
The first round schedule:
Kentucky: The Wildcats (34-0) will face the winner of a play-in game between Manhattan (19-13) and Hampton (16-17) on Thursday in Louisville. The Saturday second round game will be against the winner of Cincinnati (22-10) and Purdue (21-12), a game between 7-8 seeds.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks (26-8) will face #12 seed Wofford (28-6) of the Southern Conference Thursday in Jacksonville. If they win, they get the winner of North Carolina (#4 seed) and Harvard (#13) on Saturday.
LSU: LSU (22-10) gets #8 seed North Carolina State (20-13) in the first round of the East Regional in Syracuse on Thursday. Should the Tigers win, they’ll get the winner of #1 Villanova (32-2) vs. #16 Lafayette (20-12) on Saturday.
Georgia: Friday, Georgia (21-11) gets #7 seed Michigan State (23-11), which took #1 seed (West Region) Wisconsin into overtime in the championship game of the Big Ten. Should the Bulldogs survive that one they get the winner of #2 Virginia (29-3) and #15 Belmont (22-10) on Sunday in Charlotte.
Ole Miss: The Rebels (20-12) face BYU (25-9) in a #11 seed play-in game in Dayton on Tuesday. If they win, they face #6 seed Xavier (21-13) in a West Regional game in Jacksonville on Thursday. If they get past Xavier, the winner of #3 Baylor (24-9) and #14 Georgia State (24-9) awaits on Saturday.
… if they get most of the breaks and shot unconscious
1. Arizona: The Wildcats are probably the one team with the best chance to shatter Kentucky’s dreams of an unbeaten season. They have size, depth, shooters and they play serious in your face defense. Nobody has Kentucky’s size and depth in the front court, but Arizona can present more and perhaps better challenges than anyone Kentucky has faced this year. Everybody talks about the matchup nightmares Kentucky presents, but Arizona presents a few problem matchups as well, starting with stretch four Brandon Ashley (6-9). He can shoot the three, is quick enough to put the ball on the deck and get to the rim and he’s strong enough to finish. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson are freak athletes who can play and defend multiple positions. The Wildcats have clutch shooters in Gabe York and T.J. McConnell. But, to beat Kentucky, the key will be keeping 7-footers Kaleb Tarczewski and Dusan Ristic out of foul trouble. Do that and Zona has a chance.
2. Wisconsin: This might be the most disciplined team in the country. They have a motion offense that makes opponents work hard defensively and at the other end of the court, the Badgers play good position defense without fouling. This is a better offensive team than the one Kentucky beat in the NCAA semifinals on a last second shot last year, but so is Kentucky. The Badgers could beat Kentucky if (1) Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes stay out of foul trouble; (2) they get enough of an inside game to open up the perimeter so their guards can get open looks; and (3) they do a whole lot better rebounding the ball than they did in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State.
3. Duke: For Duke to beat Kentucky it would depend Jahlil Okafor staying out of foul trouble. If he’s in the game, then he’s better than any of the Kentucky bigs. Kentucky’s strategy will be to run one 7-footer after another at him to wear him down. Suppose he stays out of foul trouble and doesn’t wear down? If Okafor is a scoring presence in the middle and Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Matt Jones are hitting 3-pointers, then Duke could spring the upset. Duke has to hit 3-pointers and make Kentucky hit 2-point shots to have a chance against Kentucky.
UCLA is in the tournament as a #11 seed with a 20-13 record and a #51 RPI. Against top 50 RPI, the Bruins are 2-8 with both wins at home. There isn’t a quality road win on a schedule that includes a loss to Alabama and a 41-point loss to Kentucky in which the Bruins scored a grand total of seven first half points. The only logical explanation is that UCLA got in for lifetime achievement.
Dick Vitale does fantastic work raising money for charity and he’s been a fine ambassador for college basketball all these years, but his sell-by date as a color commentator expired a few years ago. It’s painful to listen to him work a game, particularly if one of the coaches is John Calipari or Coach K. If Kentucky or Duke is playing and Dickie V is on the air, instead of analysis we get a constant barrage of cheerleading, worn out clichés and dissertations for canonizing Cal and Coach K. The good news is now that the NCAA Tournament has begun, ESPN doesn’t carry any games so we don’t have to listen to Dick. Unfortunately, that also means we don’t get the excellent analysis of Jay Bilas and Doris Burke, who are as good as it gets when it comes to breaking down a basketball game and putting it into terms that everyone can understand.
Oliver Purnell is the latest coach to fail while trying to resuscitate the DePaul basketball program. Five years after leaving Clemson, where he took the Tigers to three straight NCAA Tournaments, Purnell resigned Sunday after going 54-105 at DePaul including 15-75 in the Big East. Purnell is a very good basketball coach, but he learned the same lesson Jerry Wainwright and Dave Leitao learned before him – the talented kids from Chicago can’t wait to get out of town.
DePaul hasn’t posted a winning record in eight years and has had only six winners in the last 20. It’s going to be very hard to lure an established coach to come into a situation where the combination of academics, a not so exciting campus and a lack of a campus arena among other amenities will always make DePaul a third, fourth or even no choice for talented kids like Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker, Cliff Alexander or Jahlil Okafor.
DePaul alums immediately called for the hiring of former Duke star Bobby Hurley, whose rebuilding project at Buffalo only took two years (42 wins, MAC championship and automatic NCAA bid) but Hurley will be able to pick and choose his next place of employment (think Georgia Tech the plug is pulled on Brian Gregory this week) and it won’t be a school with the challenges of DePaul.
Also, Charlotte and Alan Major agreed to part ways, a move that had more to do with Major’s health issues than his coaching ability. Major had to take two medical leaves of absence in the last year alone.
"Who do I like watching? It's hard to watch," said Oakley, 51. "I don't know, it's just, it's a different game. It's some good games and a lot of bad games. More bad games than good games."
Other than Kentucky, is there a team in this year’s NCAA Tournament that you think is capable of going on a 6-0 run and cutting down the nets in Indianapolis?
Sam Cooke recorded the song “A Change is Gonna Come” in 1964 and while it was only a modestly successful song for Cooke, it became one of the anthems of the Civil Rights movement in the south. I recently came across this version of the song performed by a musical project called “Playing for Change.” This foundation has put together the musicians who have raised money to create and support music schools in several different countries plus using the proceeds to promote peace around the world. This version of the song was performed at Folsom Prison in California and features marvelous vocals by Clarence Bekker and Grandpa Elliott, who also delivers with the harmonica.