Vols’ Sweet 16 connections

A year ago Tennessee’s men were in Indianapolis for what turned out to be a thrilling Sweet 16 game with Michigan. This year, of course, they’re watching it on TV. And so am I. So I spent part of my afternoon digging up links between the Vols and each of the Sweet 16 teams.

Notice coaching searches are a recurring theme. Without further ado …

Last meeting:
A 66-48 loss in January.
Series record: 67-151.
Connection: Tennessee’s 67 wins are the most any program holds against Kentucky. On the other hand, Kentucky has beaten the Vols more times than any other opponent.

West Virginia
Last meeting:
A 74-72 win in November 2007.
Series record: 3-5.
Connection: The Mountaineers elimiated UT in a 1989 first-round game in Greensboro, after which Don DeVoe was fired. Also, in a 1992 game against Bob Huggins-coached Cincinnati, Allan Houston passed John Stroud to become the second-leading career score in SEC history behind Pete Maravich. He still is.

Notre Dame
Last meeting:
A 73-67 loss in March 1979.
Series record: 0-1.
Connection: The Irish ousted Tennessee from the 1979 tournament with a 73-67 decision in Murfreesboro. Also, coach Mike Brey, then a Duke assistant, got some consideration in 1989 before UT hired Wade Houston.

Wichita State
Last meeting:
A 71-60 loss in Wichita in December 2013.
Series record: 1-2.
Connection: Wichita State assistant Steve Forbes was on Bruce Pearl’s staff for five years and helped recruit most of the players from that successful era. Word has it Forbes might be coming back to this area as ETSU’s next coach. Also, Wichita coach Gregg Marshall interviewed at UT in 2001 before Buzz Peterson was hired. Finally, freshman Rashard Kelly was a teammate of Tennessee’s Jabari McGhee at Hargrave Military Academy last year.

Last meeting:
A 65-62 loss in Madison in December 2001.
Series record: 2-1.
Connection: Coach Bo Ryan indirectly helped Bruce Pearl get to Tennessee. Ryan left the Wisconsin-Milwaukee job in 2001 for the Badgers. Milwaukee hired Pearl from D2 Southern Indiana and the rest is history.

North Carolina
Last meeting:
A 101-87 loss in Maui in 2004.
Series record: 1-8.
Connection: Buzz Peterson, then best known as Michael Jordan’s roomate at Carolina, was hired to coach the Vols from 2001-05. Also, current Tar Heel assistant Steve Robinson was in the running for the UT job, either in 1989 or 1994. Those job searches have run together in my mind.

Last meeting:
A 64-49 win in the Paradise Jam in November 2013.
Series record: 12-5.
Connection: Larry Austin, a Cuonzo Martin signee who was released after Martin left Tennessee, landed at Xavier. Austin played sparingly, scoring 17 total points in 25 games.

Last meeting:
A 73-72 loss in November ’98 in Albuquerque, N.M.
Series record: 3-1.
Connection: Tennessee accepted two transfers from Arizona with good credentials but neither panned out. Etdrick Bohannon averaged 3.9 points in 1994-95 then left. Emmanuel Negedu averaged 1.9 points in 2008-09 then left because of a coronary issue.

N.C. State
Last meeting:
An 83-72 loss in December.
Series record: 3-7.
Connection: Mark Gottfried was 8-4 against the Vols as Alabama’s coach and, while at Murray State, was scouted by UT during the 1997 coaching search that produced Jerry Green. Also, in a 1991 game in Knoxville, Wolfpack guard Chris Corchiani broke the NCAA career assist record. His son, Chris Jr., plays for State this year. Finally, Wolfpack stalwarts Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner both played against UT in the SEC (for Alabama and LSU, respectively) before transferring to Raleigh.

Last meeting:
A 79-60 loss in the 2008 Sweet 16 in Charlotte.
Series record: 7-12.
Connection: Chris Jones, a one-time UT signee, played most of two seasons at Louisville before being kicked off the team earlier this month. Coach Rick Pitino holds a 14-game winning streak against the Vols, his last nine at Kentucky and all five at Louisville.

Last meeting:
A 55-49 win in December 1968.
Series record: 1-0.
Connection: Coach Lon Kruger has been around, including six years at Florida (1990-96). He lost his first game to Tennessee then ran off 11 wins in a row against Wade Houston and Kevin O’Neill.

Michigan State
Last meeting:
A 70-69 Elite Eight loss in St. Louis in 2010.
Series record: 2-5.
Connection: Tom Izzo and the Spartans spoiled the party in Tennessee’s only Elite Eight experience. Also, former News Sentinel basketball beat writer Mike Griffith is covering the Spartans for Mlive.com out of Lansing. He competes for page hits with another former News Sentinel basketball beat writer Brendan Quinn, who covers Michigan for Mlive.com in Ann Arbor. Current News Sentinel basketball beat writer Ben Frederickson is awaiting a call from Kalamazoo.

Last meeting:
A 77-67 loss in Maui in November 2011.
Series record: 7-8.
Connection: Guess who was Mike Krzyzewski’s freshman coach at Army in the 1960s? Don Devoe, then a young assistant to Bobby Knight. Also, Tennessee made a great contribution to Duke in the person of David Cutcliffe.

Last meeting:
An 80-71 loss in December 1978.
Series record: 0-2.
Connection: This one’s thin. Coach Larry Krystowiak was teammates with ex-Vol great Dale Ellis with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1991-92.

Last meeting:
A 103-89 loss in January 1977.
Series record: 0-1.
Connection: Kevon Looney, a touted forward prospect out of Milwaukee picked the Bruins over Tennessee a year ago. He’s been an impact freshman, averaging 11.6 points and 9.2 boards. Also, coach Steve Alford was scouted by Tennessee in the 1997 coaching search. He was at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State). UT should have hired him, if for no other reason than to avoid an 81-51 embarrassment to Alford and SW Missouri State in a second-round NCAA game in 1999.

Last meeting:
An 89-79 loss in January 2009.
Series record: 1-2.
Connection: Kyle Wiltjer, before transferring to Gonzaga, was the leading scorer in both of Kentucky’s games with Tennessee in 2012-13. He scored 17 in a Kentucky win in Lexington and 18 in an 88-58 UT romp in Knoxville.

Pearl savoring return to SEC tournament

For three years Bruce Pearl was banished from the SEC tournament, at least as a coach. Now that he’s back, nobody can get him to go home. Auburn upset LSU 73-70 in overtime on Friday. That’s three wins in three days for the 13 seed Tigers. They’re still here Saturday to face Kentucky in the semifinals.

Pearl was last seen at the event in 2011 as Tennessee’s coach. He would be fired within a week. Pearl dropped a Tennessee reference Friday almost as soon as hit hit the podium for his postgame press conference. “This is reminiscent of my days at Tennessee,” he said. “All things were equal out there except we had No. 5 and you don’t. That’s Chris Lofton. Now all things are equal out there except we have No. 1 and you don’t.”

Number 1 is KT Harrell who scored 29 against LSU, including the 3-point shot to send the game to overtime. Pearl’s first season at Auburn is lasting longer than anyone thought. Pearl also dropped more references of his six years with the Vols. He mentioned UT’s win over Marquette (SEC/Big East Challenge) in Bridgestone Arena as well as a win over Oklahoma State here on a Dane Bradshaw tip-in: “Bridgestone has been good to me, better than I deserve. Those were great non-conference wins in this building for us. Now I’m just trying to get Auburn relevant.”

Now, Kentucky. “I told my team during the season we could beat any team in the league except Kentucky. I truly wanted them to think they could beat Ole Miss or Georgia.”

In defense of Anthony Grant — Billy Donovan

Alabama’s quick exit from the SEC tournament on Thursday officially opened the door for questions about Anthony Grant’s job security. Florida ousted Alabama, 69-61. That clinches it that Grant will end his sixth season with only one NCAA tournament bid (a first-round loss in 2012).

Grant’s postgame presser drew the obligatory question and he gave an obligatory answer: “I haven’t given it any thought. Our focus is on this year’s team.” This year’s team finished 18-14 and is still a possibility for the NIT.

The coach of the team that eliminated Alabama was passionate in Grant’s defense. That’s no surprise since Grant was once an assistant for Billy Donovan at Florida before he got his head coaching start at VCU.

“There’s no coach I’d rather have my son play for than Anthony Grant,” Donovan said. (His son Billy plays for him at Florida).
Donovan added: “(People ask) Should they have won more? I get it. But you’re not gonna tell me those kids are not better off for having been there for four years. Let me put it this way, Alabama better hope he comes back.”

As a side note to Grant’s predicament, Bruce Pearl coached Auburn to victory over Mississippi State on Wednesday night, then upset Texas A&M 66-59 on Thursday. Thus the Tigers were sure to stick around Nashville an extra 24 hours after the Tide has departed.

Sankey is official

The timing was a surprise, but not the news. The SEC on Thursday announced Greg Sankey will be promoted to succeed Mike Slive as commissioner when Slive steps down this summer. Sankey has been on the staff for 13 years. He was previously with the Southland Conference. But his roots are up north. He was born in New York State and educated at SUNY-Courtland, with a grad degree from Syracuse.

Knocking off No. 1

With No. 1 ranked Kentucky coming to Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday night, how about a history lesson.

Tennessee has had 16 encounters with No.l ranked teams. Ten were against Kentucky, including the first nine, between 1949 and 1966. The others: South Carolina (1969), Florida (2007, 2014), Ohio State (2007), Memphis (2008) and Kansas (2010).

Kentucky, on Tuesday, will be only the second No. 1 to play Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena. The other was Kansas.

Here’s a look at Tennessee’s four wins over No.1 teams:

1966: On the final day of the regular season, the Vols upset Kentucky 69-62 in Armory-Fieldhouse. “Rupps Runts” would finish 27-2, their only other loss to Texas Western in the NCAA championship game. The Vols finished 19-8.

1969: On the opening day of the 1969-70 season, Ray Mears went to South Carolina and knocked off Frank McGuire’s top-ranked Gamecocks, 55-54. UT finished 16-9. South Carolina went 25-3 and won the ACC title at 14-0. The Gamecocks finished No. 6.

2008: The 2nd-ranked Vols beat No. 1 Memphis 66-62 in FedExForum in what was ESPN’s most-watched college basketball game ever. Tennessee became the new No. 1 but lost at Vanderbilt in its next game. The Vols finished 31-5, won the SEC title and lost to Louisville in the Sweet 16. Memphis went 38-2, its only other loss to Kansas in the NCAA title game.

2010: UT stunned Kansas 76-68 in early January, a week after suspending four players, including starter Tyler Smith. Tennessee went on to a 28-9 record (with all the suspendees except Smith returning) and lost to Michigan State in the Elite 8. Kansas finished 33-3, was the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed but was upset by Northern Iowa in the second round.

Vols show me in ‘Show Me State’

Last Sunday morning, an ugly loss to Alabama fresh in my brain, I sat on the sports Source TV set and predicted Tennessee’s basketball men would go 0-2 this week. I elaborated that the Vols could probably beat Missouri if the game were in Knoxville, but not in Columbia. And that they wouldn’t beat Arkansas anywhere.

Wrong and wrong.

The Vols did beat No. 19 Arkansas in Thompson-Boling and I just watched them beat Mizzou 59-51 here in Columbia.

Vols 2-0. Me 0-2.

Both wins were impressive. But in my book road wins are especially impressive. Tennessee has won at Mississippi State and Missouri to get off to a surprising 3-1 SEC start. Now, Starkville and Mizzou might turn out to be the two least difficult venues to knock off a road win but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. A road win is a road win.

It was appropriate that Kevin Punter knocked down the big shot tonight, a 3-pointer with 4:48 to play to end a 17-6 Missouri rally and knot the score at 46-46. Punter, a junior from The Bronx, was briefly a Missouri commitment while playing last year at State Fair Community College down I-70 in Sedalia, Mo. Punter had committed to the Tigers when Frank Haith was the coach. When Haith bolted for Tulsa, new UT coach Donnie Tyndall swooped in and stole Punter. Mizzou’s “The Antlers” student section is next level at heckling. They were on Punter from the moment he came on the court to warm up for before tipoff. I asked him about it later. No big deal, he said. Just another game. Approach them all the same. Punter also made four free throws in the final 42 seconds. There wasn’t much heckling going on at that point.

One last note: Tennessee had never won in Columbia in three previous tries. Two of them were pre-SEC and the third was last year.

From Heisman to Tobacco Road

Dec. 17

With a few minutes to kill here at PNC Arena in Raleigh before the Vols and NC State tipoff, I’ll belatedly reveal my Heisman Trophy ballot.
It’s boring this year. I’ve thrown out some wild-card votes in years past (Terrell Buckley, Bryant McKinnie). This year, however, it was strictly chalk: 1-Marcus Mariotta. 2-Melvin Gordon. 3-Amari Cooper. In a past era I was averse to voting for a quarterback who racked up a ton of passing yards. But the position has changed. I’ve got no problem voting for a quarterback who makes plays with both his arm and his legs. In fact, I like Mariotta so much I voted for him last year, too.

Meanwhile, on to hoops …

The Vols have their hands full tonight in their first true road game. But I’ll save that for the column. It occurs to me that other than the UCLA trophy case at Pauley Pavilion, nowhere is there a greater collection of NCAA basketball tournament hardware in close proximity than here in the Triangle.

North Carolina has five: 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009.
Duke has four: 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010.
N.C. State has two: 1974, 1983.

And they’re all within a few miles of each other.

Big 12 bests SEC again

Tennessee did its part Saturday in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, but the bottom line was already settled.

The Vols’ 65-64 win over Kansas State left the Big 12 a 6-4 victory in the second annual challenge between the two conferences. The SEC closed strong Saturday, with South Carolina routing previously unbeaten Oklahoma State.

At least the SEC improved on last year’s 7-3 loss.

Here’s the breakdown for 2014:

The SEC wins:

LSU over West Virginia
Kentucky over Texas
South Carolina over Oklahoma State.
Tennessee over Kansas State.

The Big 12 wins:

Kansas over Florida.
TCU over Ole Miss
Oklahoma over Missouri
Texas Tech over Auburn
Iowa State over Arkansas
Baylor over Vanderbilt

SEC/Big 12 Challenge, Round 2

The second annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge is off and running. Perhaps you missed the opening shots, a late-night 46-44 Texas Tech win over Auburn in Lubbock on Wednesday night. Bruce Pearl was apologetic about letting down the SEC. The AP story noted that Pearl declined to participate in the postgame handshake line. He might have been upset about his team’s poor showing or perhaps he and Tubby Smith have an old grudge from the days when they were border rivals.

Tennessee gets in the mix Saturday at home against Kansas State.

The Big 12 won the inaugural challenge 7-3. The SEC’s only wins came from Alabama, Missouri and Florida. Since the awkwardly named Big 12 has only 10 teams, four SEC schools have to sit out. Last year Tennessee was one of them. Georgia hasn’t joined in either year.

Here’s the schedule:
LSU at West Virginia
Baylor at Vanderbilt
Arkansas at Iowa State
TCU at Ole Miss

Texas at Kentucky
Florida at Kansas
Missouri at Oklahoma

Oklahoma State at South Carolina
Kansas State at Tennessee

Vols’ bowl history, on hold, about to expand

Tennessee’s bowl history has been stuck at 49 since 2010. The Vols will finally hit the half-century mark in the next month after logging a 6-6 finish in 2014. For your bowl edification, here’s a breakdown on which bowls the Vols have played in since the 1938 Vols broke new ground beating Okalhoma in the Orange Bowl.

Tennessee is 25-24 in bowl play. That doesn’t officially count a 13-0 win over New York University on Dec. 3, 1931 in the New York Charity Classic.

(The year listed below refers to that football season, not necessarily the date the game was played)

Rose Bowl (0-2): L 1939; L 1944. Comment: In the Grandaddy of them all, the Vols have been outscored by Southern Cal by a combined 39-0.

Sugar Bowl (4-3): L 1940; W 1942; L 1951; L 1956; W 1970; W 1985; W 1990. Comment: Three undefeated teams lost in the Sugar (1940, 1951, 1956); but the 1985 win made up for a lot of disappointment.

Orange (1-3): W 1938; L 1946; L 1967; L 1997. Comment: A gimpy-kneed Peyton Manning was oddly irrelevant in his final college game, a 42-17 loss to Nebraska.

Cotton (3-3): W 1950; L 1952; L 1968; W 1989; L 2000; W 2004. Comment: General Neyland’s last game as head coach was a 16-0 loss to Texas on Jan. 1, 1953.

Fiesta (1-2): L 1990; W 1998; L 1999. Comment: In between losses to traditional powers Penn State and Nebraska, there was a pretty nice win over Florida State.

Peach/Chick-fil-A (1-4): L 1982; W 1987; L 2002; L 2003; L 2009: Comment: The only win was a 27-22 thriller over Indiana in Fulton County Stadium. Once the game moved to the Georgia Dome, the curse set in.

Hall of Fame/Outback (2-1): W 1992; L 2006; W 2007: Comment: After a 21-17 win over Wisconsin on Jan. 1, 2008, who would have guessed Tennessee wouldn’t win a bowl game for the next six (and counting) years.

Citrus/Capital One (4-1): W 1983; L 1993; W 1995; W 1996; W 2001. Comment: Steve Spurrier used to say you couldn’t spell Citrus without a U and a T, but this bowl has been very, very good to the Vols. By 2001, Vol fans were jaded and saw Orlando as a symbol of a season that fell short. The tune has changed by now.

Gator (3-2): W 1957; W 1966; L 1969; L 1973; W 1994. Comment: The ’94 Gator Bowl was moved from Jacksonville to Gainesville because of stadium renovation. A 45-23 win over Virginia Tech gave UT fans a rare opportunity to celebrate in The Swamp.

Liberty (3-0): W 1971; W 1974; W 1986. Comment: Arkansas fans of a certain age still grouse about Tennessee’s 14-13 win in 1971.

Bluebonnet (2-1): W 1965; W 1972; L 1979. Comment: Once there was a Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston. In 1979, Johnny Majors’ third season back at UT, the Vols finally made it to a bowl, losing 27-22 to Purdue.

Garden State (1-0): W 1981. Comment: This New Jersey bowl lasted only four years. The Vols closed it down with a 28-21 win over Wisconsin.

Sun (0-1): L 1984. Comment: The Vols blew a 21-0 halftime lead to Bobby Ross-coached Maryland, losing 28-27.

Music City (0-1): L 2010. Comment: Derek Dooley’s only bowl, a controversial 2OT loss to North Carolina — after which a 2011 rule, the 10-second run-off, was created to avoid a team that’s behind getting an extra snap at the end of a game due to committing a penalty.

No Vols, but plenty of Vol foes in Bracketology

Today (Thursday, Nov. 13) is the eve of college basketball season. So, why not a little Bracketology before even the first tip-off. Joe Lunardi’s first bracket is up on ESPN.com for consideration. No Vols, of course. Still, it’s a useful tool for getting an early handle on Tennessee’s schedule.

Here are Tennessee opponents who tip off with enough cred to get a mention in the early, early field of 65:

VCU (@Annapolis, Nov. 14) is a 4 seed.
Texas Southern (here Nov. 20) is a 16 seed, picked to win the SWAC bid as it did last year.
Kansas (possible foe in the Orlando Classic Nov. 27-30) is a 2 seed.
Kansas State (here Dec. 6) is an 8 seed.
Arkansas (here Jan. 13, @Jan. 27) is a 9 seed.
LSU (here Feb. 14, @March 4) is an 11 seed, reporting to Dayton for the First Four.
Kentucky (here Feb. 17) is a 1 seed.
Florida (@Feb. 28) is a 2 seed.