March Madness is here

Jamie H. Vaught/The Sports Zone

March 12, 2014

Some random thoughts and tidbits on March Madness (Part One)…..

— Entering this week’s SEC tournament in Atlanta, ex-LSU coach Dale Brown says there is no dominant team in college basketball and several schools have a chance to capture the Big Dance.

“I feel the NCAA tournament is wide open probably more so than any other in my memory due to the fact there are no overpowering teams but some very good ones,” Brown said via e-mail with this sports columnist.

Brown, who has beaten the Kentucky Wildcats more than any other coach with 18 victories, likes Florida, which is currently ranked No. 1 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll.

“The Florida Gators have had a brilliant season and would be one of my favorites to win the national championship,” he said.

Brown listed several factors that would make the experienced Gators a good choice to win it all. He said Florida is an unselfish team that has good veteran talent with no “one and done” performers.

Brown, now a motivational speaker based in Baton Rouge, added the 29-2 Gators, who actually have no true superstars, are tough-minded and well-disciplined, and have one of the best defensive teams in the country. According to NCAA statistics as of Sunday, Florida’s scoring defense ranks fifth in the nation at 58.5 points per game, also fewest in the SEC.

And the Gators — led by senior Scottie Wilbekin who this week became the second player in team history to claim the SEC Player of the Year award — are 4-2 vs. ranked opponents this season with a home win against Kansas, a win at Madison Square Garden vs. Memphis and two wins against Kentucky.

Brown said another reason the Gators are tough is because of excellent coaching.

“Coach Billy Donovan is a major asset,” he said, “because he is one of the greatest coaches in the country, a disciplinarian, a motivator, tenacious, and under control at all times.”

Earlier this week, Donovan received the SEC Coach of the Year honors for the third time in the past four seasons.

— Sixth-ranked Lincoln Memorial University continues to make noise in college basketball as the Division II Railsplitters, 27-2, participate in the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed this weekend after capturing the South Atlantic Conference tournament and regular season titles.

Big congratulations are in order for the LMU squad and coach Josh Schertz, who has done a remarkable job in rebuilding the school’s roundball program to be one of the best in the country since he arrived at Harrogate in 2008.

If LMU wins three games in Southeast Regional in a four-day period in South Carolina, it would advance to Elite Eight in Evansville, Ind. (There is no Final Four event in Division II.) The national championship game on Saturday, March 29 will be televised by CBS.

— It is sure going to be awfully sweet to follow another Kentucky school besides UK and U of L in the NCAA tourney. Eastern Kentucky, which defeated ex-LMU mentor Rick Byrd’s Belmont team 79-73 for the automatic NCAA bid last Saturday night, is expected to be seeded at either No. 15 or 16.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology on Monday night has the No. 15-seed Colonels facing No. 2-seed Coach K’s Duke in the first game. Ouch!

— UK is not ranked at all in this week’s AP Top 25 poll. I certainly don’t agree.

Yes, the 22-9 Wildcats have been a big disappointment (partly because of pre-season media hype). But they still should be ranked around No. 20 or so because of their tough schedule, and their awesome talent actually can beat most clubs on a given night. Three of the RPIs (Ratings Percentage Index) that I have seen has Kentucky at No. 19 with its strength of schedule at either No. 4 or No. 6 in the country.

The Wildcats, though, still had enough votes to be mentioned in both polls with AP showing UK at No. 31 and USA Today Coaches placing Kentucky at No. 26.

— Who is the winningest father-son (coach-player) tandem in Division I basketball history?

If you said Tubby and Saul Smith, who were at Kentucky from 1997-2001, you are definitely correct. According to Friday, March 7 edition of the Wall Street Journal, the Smiths combined to win 110 games at UK, the most in the country.

Currently on WSJ’s list at No. 2 is Greg and Doug McDermott of Creighton with 104 victories, including last Saturday’s win over Providence. Indiana’s duo of Bobby and Patrick Knight (100 victories) and Tennessee’s Bruce and Steven Pearl (99 victories) are ranked No. 3 and No. 4, respectively.

Gentlemanly Tubby Smith, by the way, is likely finishing his first season at Texas Tech on a losing note. His Red Raiders were 14-17 going into Wednesday’s Big 12 tournament matchup with coach Travis Ford and his Oklahoma State Cowboys.

— Despite a heartbreaking 71-70 setback to rival Tennessee in last Sunday’s SEC tournament title game, Kentucky’s women’s team is still on a roll, winning five of the last six games, after a mid-season slump.

Kentucky is 6-4 vs. ranked opponents this season, including 4-4 against teams ranked in the top 10. The 10th-ranked Wildcats have a decent chance to become the first UK team to reach the women’s NCAA Final Four in school history.

It’s appears that Kentucky wouldn’t have to travel very far to reach that coveted goal since the NCAA tournament sites include the first/second round games in Lexington, the Louisville Regional (semifinal and final) and Nashville (Final Four). The women’s tournament pairings will be announced on Monday.

Unlike the men’s NCAA tourney, the women’s event allows the teams to play on their own home floor to attract bigger crowds and local interest.

UK coach Mathew Mitchell is optimistic with his 24-8 squad.

“The good thing for us is we’ve become a team, so we have a team heading into the NCAA tournament,” Mitchell told reporters shortly after his team’s loss to the Lady Vols. “That’s what we needed to be to have a chance to get to the Final Four. I think we’ve accomplished that.

“Now I’m really excited about the NCAA tournament. A lot of people thought we were dead in the water. We’re not. We’re here and we’re ready to roll. I’m glad I’m coaching Kentucky.”

— When I was a kid, it got pretty tiresome to watch legendary coach John Wooden and his UCLA boys winning all those NCAA titles on television. Same old March Madness every year.

But if you are an avid reader and a hoops fan, you will enjoy a recently-published biography about Wooden which is coming out on the 50th anniversary of his first NCAA title at UCLA in 1964. The 593-page book — titled “Wooden: A Coach’s Life” and published by Times Books — is written by author and TV analyst Seth Davis. So far, the book has had good reviews.

Wooden, a Hall of Famer who was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, led UCLA to 10 national championships in a 12-year period. He died in 2010 at the age of 99.

— If I was a betting man in men’s SEC tournament, I’d still take a struggling Kentucky team over the winner of the LSU-Alabama contest in Friday night’s 7 p.m. matchup (SEC TV & ESPN3), but the baby Wildcats are sure hard to predict, though.

As you know, UK was 1-1 against LSU this winter with both contests being very close (87-82 loss at Baton Rouge and 77-76 overtime victory at Rupp Arena), and the Wildcats came up with an ugly home victory against the lowly Crimson Tide.

Also, if John Calipari’s Cats advance to Saturday afternoon’s semifinal, I’ll pick them over the likely opponent of either Georgia or Ole Miss.

That brings a possible rematch of Kentucky and Florida in Sunday’s championship showdown, which tips off pretty late (at 3:15 p.m.) on ESPN, and I have a fearless forecast: Florida by 6.

But if UK somehow stuns the Gators, it probably won’t matter much, if any, as far as the NCAA seedings are concerned. That’s because the tournament selection committee likely will have already finalized the pairings by then.

— Another fearless (and perhaps optimistic) prediction: Kentucky will be either a No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the Big Dance (if it wins at least one SEC tourney matchup) and three other SEC teams — Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas — get NCAA invitations.

And yours truly will have another installment of the March Madness tidbits (Part Two) in next week’s column.

Enjoy the festive March Madness while you can!

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Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is currently a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro and can be reached by e-mail at jamiehv22@gmail.com.