Fans at the Colonial Center on Saturday should see two teams that really want to get after each other... no, hold on...
OK, forget it. I was trying to write a humorous column about Saturday's SEC basketball game between Vanderbilt and South Carolina, but the fact is, there's really not much funny about what happened back on Jan. 28 in the Commodores' 57-55 loss to the Gamecocks at Memorial Gym. The fracas / tussle / brawl between Vandy's Corey Smith and USC's Renaldo Balkman resulted in a one-game suspension for both players, and could easily have resulted in some very serious injuries.
It's an incident that two weeks later both teams and coaches are struggling to put behind them-- but one that fans of both teams can't seem to forget. It's an event that will cast an eerie pall over Saturday's rematch-- and that's a shame.
The game really should be about two Top 25 caliber teams battling for an NCAA berth; instead, fans will watch the game morbidly wondering if more fireworks will erupt.
For the record, exactly what happened on Jan. 28 is still in dispute. The tape, which most of us have now seen several times, seemed to show Balkman turn 180 degrees to give Smith a right hook as both players were running full-speed on a break late in the first half. But was it actually a punch, and did Balkman actually land it on Smith? The tape is inconclusive.
Balkman insists he was not the aggressor, and Coach Dave Odom stood behind him. (Stallings and Smith vehemently disagreed, and so did the conference office, which handed Balkman the requisite one-game suspension to match Smith's. But I digress.)
What happened next is not disputed. Corey Smith began flailing away at Balkman just in front of the Vanderbilt bench, and had he not been restrained by his coaches, might still be pummeling Balkman. After a lenghty discussion and consultation with both benches, the officials ejected both players.
Before his ejection, an angry Balkman allegedly made a throat-slashing and a crotch-grabbing gesture before the already-stirred-up crowd. (Shouldn't such displays be confined to places where they belong... like Super Bowl halftime shows?)
The Gamecocks (officially, the media guide lists USC's nickname as "Fighting Gamecocks") went on to a bitterly contested, 57-55 win. That both teams were able to go on and finish the game without further incident was a wonder.
Gamecock fans took offense to Kevin Stallings' remarks after the game, and rightly so. In the heat of the moment, Stallings said Balkman had picked on the wrong guy (Smith) and should be worried about his teeth when the two teams met in Columbia. (The SEC subsequently censured Stallings, who issued a public apology.)
Will the two teams be able to sweep the simmering emotion under the rug on Saturday? Both coaches said yes on Thursday's teleconference.
"I think all that is over," Stallings said of the Jan. 28 skirmish. "Our team certainly understands that there's no place for that kind of stuff in college basketball.
"I expect it to be a very hard-fought game, a very tough game between two teams that want to win a game very, very badly, but I don't expect any of the stuff that we saw in the first game."
South Carolina's Odom agreed.
"I think both sides are past that now," Odom said. "The two players involved, I'm certain now are past that. We're adults, and our players listen to us as coaching staffs. Our fans will follow our lead, and I do not expect anything like that of a residual nature in Saturday night's game.
"I'll be very disappointed if it is. I will direct that to my team, but only briefly, because I think they're well past that."
Odom continued. "You can't play the game mad. You can't get in the game and be thinking of doing something to someone else that's going to be harmful. You just can't play the game that way. I don't want my team playing that way, and I'm absolutely certain Kevin Stallings does not want his team playing that way.
"I do not expect it to be any problem. And I'm going to be encouraging our students to be cheering as hard as they possibly can, for our team, but not against Vanderbilt."
Highly commendable, but will the fans be able to rise above it all? Let's hope so... but knowing fans as I do, I have my doubts. (That's not a slam on Carolina fans, who are some of the classiest in the conference. Memorial Maniacs would have difficulty under the same circumstances.)
Vanderbilt will be seeking its first SEC road victory in 14 tries, and South Carolina will be trying to shake off two bitter, narrow losses. It will doubtless be one of the toughest environments in which Vanderbilt has had to play in all season, and one of the sternest mental challenges the senior-led Commodore team will face.
Smith and Balkman now understand that under SEC rules, even the hint of another scrum could mean suspension for the rest of the season. Fans at the Colonial Center Saturday need to get the message as well.
Fans must understand that any extra-curricular activity could literally ruin a season that, for both teams, still has a chance to be unusually special.
Speaking of grudge matches, the Tennessee Lady Vols make their annual appearance in Memorial Gymnasium Sunday afternoon. Vanderbilt's women's team will need all the help in can get against Pat Summitt's top-ranked Lady Vols, which handled the Commodores easily Jan. 22 in Knoxville.
Tipoff time, I am asked to pass along, is 4 p.m. CT (not 2 p.m., which was printed on some early schedule cards). The game will be televised on local cable by CSS.