April: the busiest month?

As a nation we’re wild about football from September through the Super Bowl and national signing day in early February.
March has the great nickname: March Madness.
But as sports months go, April is underrated.
I don’t know about madness in April but its 30 days are chock full, a sporting smorgasbord with a little something for just about everyone.
April arrives with a dizzying rush. Take the seven days of April 6-12. What other week of the 52 can throw three major events at you?
The Final Four, men’s and women’s versions, have leaked over into April for some time now. The men’s season ended with “One Shining Moment” on a Monday night. The following evening UConn’s women cut down yet another net.
The end of college hoops coincides with the arrival of Major League Baseball, from Fenway to San Diego. All my Cubs, Cardinals, Braves, Reds and Pirates fan buddies toe the starting line of their six-month (maybe seven?) marathon.
But wait, as they say on TV, there’s more! A lot more, in fact: The Masters. Nothing says April like Amen Corner, pink azaleas and green jackets.
As we hit the April halfway point, things are getting more busy, not less.
The NBA playoffs begin this week. In other words, the real season. The dreadful pretenders, the Knicks, Sixers, Timberwolves (and Lakers), etc., are dismissed.
Likewise, the Stanley Cup playoffs. See you next fall, Oilers, Maple Leafs, Sabres and Coyotes. The wheat is separated from the chaff.
Here in East Tennessee, we’ve got a lot going on. Besides allergies, that is.
The Tennessee Smokies have returned to town. Well, to Kodak anyway.
Inside the city limits, there’s playoff hockey. The Ice Bears have advanced to the Southern Professional Hockey League title round. It is their good fortune to host the entire best-of-three Presidents Cup finals beginning Thursday night.
There’s something stirring in the Tri-Cities, too. NASCAR comes to Bristol Motor Speedway twice a year, April and August. The Food City 500 is one of the more popular stops on the circuit.
I’m not a big fan of spring football practice, but it does give a hungry Vol Nation something to occupy part the long gap between signing day and opening day.
It rarely pays to put great stock in the results of a spring scrimmage but it is interesting to scope out the early enrollees. The Orange & White Game will be quite the event if fans heed coach Butch Jones’ plea to fill Neyland Stadium.
There’s one last bit of college hoops in April, albeit a low-key one. The spring signing period began Wednesday but only 11 of the top 100 national prospects were unaccounted for. Still, new Vols coach Rick Barnes has spots to fill so stay tuned for a surprise or two.

SEC hoops: What happened? What’s next?

With the end of college basketball season, let’s review the state of SEC hoops:

Alabama
Record:
19-15, 8-10 SEC
Record last year: 13-19, 7-11.
How it ended: Alabama won an NIT game then lost to Miami in the second round.
Upshot: Anthony Grant got fired after his sixth season. His tenure included only one NCAA tournament trip and zero wins. After a prolonged coaching search that included a no-thanks from Gregg Marshall, the Tide hired NBA veteran Avery Johnson. An interesting hire.
What’s next: The Tide lose their two best players, Levi Randolph (15.4 ppg) and Rodney Cooper (11.1). Ricky Tarrant won’t be back either. The talented (but injured) guard is transferring. On the bright side, Jimmie Taylor is a promising big man. The top signee so far is big man Donta’ Hall, No. 146 in the 247sports.com composite.

Arkansas
Record:
27-9, 13-5 SEC.
Record last year: 22-12, 10-8.
How it ended: The Razorbacks lost to Kentucky in the SEC tournament finals. An NCAA bid ended a seven-year drought. Arkansas beat Wofford then lost to North Carolina in the second round.
Upshot: Mike Anderson’s fourth team finally woke up the echoes of the old days. The 27 wins were the most since 1994-95.
What’s next: Senior starters Alandise Harris and Rashad Madden depart, but the bad news is the two best players on the team are leaving for the NBA draft. That would be SEC player of the year Bobby Portis (a sophomore) and No. 2 scorer Michael Qualls (a junior). Sustaining the Razorbacks’ resurgence just got really hard. The signing class includes top-50 big man Ted Kapita and shooting guard Jimmy Whitt.

Auburn
Record:
15-20, 4-14.
Record last year: 14-16, 6-12.
How it ended: The Tigers got to the SEC tournament semifinals, a preview of things to come.
Upshot: The first year of the Bruce Pearl era showed more advancement in ticket sales and excitement level than on the court. The first losing season of Pearls’ career as a head coach was a foregone conclusion due to the roster he inherited.
What’s next: Pearl will have to build an almost new team in his second year. He loses four seniors who played a ton of minutes, including SEC scoring leader K.T. Harrell. Big man Cinmeon Bowers will be back to post more double-doubles in the post. Pearl’s first full recruiting class includes top-100 prospects Horace Spencer and Danjel Purifoy. Transfer guard Kareem Canty (from Marshall) has been on campus a year and will be an impact addition.

Florida
Record: 16-17, 8-10 SEC.
Record last year: 36-3, 18-0.
How it ended: At the SEC tournament. The Gators missed the Big Dance for the first time since 2009.
Upshot: Injuries and suspensions played a role in sabotaging what was expected to be another credible season for the Gators, who were coming off the 2014 Final Four. The result was an early tumble out of the top 25 and the program’s first losing season since 1998.
What’s next: Guard Michael Frazier has opted for the draft and grad transfer Jon Horford is done. Virtually everyone else is back, including Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, Eli Carter, Chris Walker and Devin Robinson. Signee Kevaughn Allen is a top-60 point guard. Noah Davidson, Keith Stone and KeVarrius Hayes are top-100 caliber additions. Gator fans have a right to be a little nervous about the talk that Billy Donovan still has a yen to try the NBA.

Georgia
Record:
21-12, 11-7.
Record last year: 20-14, 12-6.
How it ended: In a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Michigan State. Drawing Tom Izzo was tough luck.
Upshot: Mark Fox has put together back-to-back 20-win seasons, indicating he’s got the program at least on solid ground. This was Fox’s second NCAA bid (the other 2011) but he still hasn’t got a W.
What’s next: Big men Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic must be replaced but a capable perimeter group of Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann and J.J. Frazier return. The signing class is fair, but without star power.

Kentucky
Record:
38-1, 18-0 SEC.
Record last year: 29-11, 16-2.
How it ended: In a Final Four semifinals upset to Wisconsin.
Upshot: The Wildcats took Big Blue Nation on a helluva journey, even if the ending was a heartbreaker. John Calipari deserves credit for keeping his all-star roster happy with limited minutes in subservience to the big picture.
What’s next: Another mass exodus to the NBA draft — Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, Dakari Johnson and the Harrison twins. Of course, a little help is on the way. Skal Labissiere (6-10) is a top-5 recruit. Guards Isaiah Briscoe and Charles Matthews are blue-chippers. Alex Poythress returns from an injury season, Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee are sticking around. The Wildcats will be very good again but (probably) no fans will be getting 40-0 tattoos in October.

LSU
Record:
22-11, 11-7 SEC.
Record last year: 20-14, 9-9.
How it ended: The Tigers choked big time in a first-round loss to N.C. State.
Upshot: Modest improvement for Johnny Jones in his third year. Fair or not, the come-from-ahead loss to N.C. State did nothing to enhance Jones’ rep as a floor coach. At times throughout the season, the Tigers looked like an Elite Eight team. But at others they looked rudderless.
What’s next: Big men Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey are leaving for the draft. Perimeter starters Keith Hornsby, Tim Quarterman and Jalyn Patterson return. Arriving for one season, probably no more, is Ben Simmons, generally regarded as the nation’s top recruit. Shooting guard Anthony Blakeney is also a big-timer. If the Tigers land Malik Newman, it will be another recruiting coup for Jones.

Ole Miss
Record:
21-13, 11-7 SEC.
Record last year: 19-14, 9-9.
How it ended: The Rebels got a First Four win over BYU but were eliminated by Xavier in the first round.
Upshot: The arrival of junior-college shooter Stephan Moody propelled the Rebels to a nice season and a second NCAA bid in three years. Success was important in coach Andy Kennedy’s ninth season because Ole Miss is moving into a much needed new arena next winter. This was Kennedy’s seventh 20-win season in his nine years.
What’s next: Three key players depart, guards Jarvis Summers and Ladarius White and big man M.J. Rhett. Moody and his 16.6 ppg average are back, along with starters, Martavious Newby and Sebastian Saiz. Kennedy is going to have to find scoring help somewhere. Guard Donte Fitzpatrick is a top-150 recruit.

Mississippi State
Record:
13-19, 6-12 SEC.
Record last year: 14-19, 3-15.
How it ended: Coach Rick Ray was fired shortly after a first-round SEC tournament loss.
Upshot: Ray came to Starkville an unknown and is gone after three years that showed little progress. Ben Howland is a splashy hire, with the three Final Four trips at UCLA on his resume. He’s an acknowledged floor master but we’ll see if he can recruit in Starkville.
What’s next: Almost everyone returns, including guard Craig Sword and big man Gavin Ware. But Howland needs an injection of talent more than he needs some of the Bulldogs’ veterans. Watch the transfer wire in the coming weeks.

Missouri
Record:
9-23, 3-15 SEC.
Record last year: 23-12, 9-9.
How it ended: Mercifully, in a first-round SEC tournament loss.
Upshot: Mizzou knew it was in for a rebuilding job but an opening-night loss to Missouri-Kansas City was a wake-up call. Things never got much better in Kim Anderson’s maiden voyage. The Tigers were last in the SEC in scoring and shooting.
What’s next: Forward Jonathan Williams, the team’s best player, is transferring. Most everyone else is back, including a handful of freshmen who saw extensive action. As of this writing, there have been no recruiting headliners.

South Carolina
Record:
17-16, 6-12 SEC.
Record last year: 14-20, 5-13.
How it ended: At the SEC tournament.
Upshot: Frank Martin’s third team showed modest progress and produced (barely) his first winning season since arriving with fanfare from Kansas State. After three years, Martin is 47-54 overall, 15-39 SEC. More was expected.
What’s next: Most everyone returns, including guards Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice and the two Lithuanian bigs (whose names I don’t feel like looking up). Guard Perry Dozier is a top-40 signee who should provide needed scoring pop. Big man Chris Silva is another nice pick-up.

Tennessee
Record:
16-16, 7-11 SEC.
Record last year: 24-13, 11-7.
How it ended: A second-round SEC tournament loss to Arkansas.
Upshot: Donnie Tyndall was a good floor coach. But ultimately he will be remembered as the guy who got fired after one year because of the NCAA investigation he brought with him from Southern Miss. Josh Richardson had a terrific senior season but the absence of any credible post presence made the Vols fatally one-dimensional.
What’s next: Rick Barnes brings instant credibility after a long run of success — and a clean slate — at Texas. However, he inherits a Richardson-less roster that is worse than the one Tyndall played with. If Barnes can get to .500 next year it’ll be an accomplishment.

Texas A&M
Record:
21-12, 11-7 SEC.
Record last year: 18-16, 8-10.
How it ended: In the NIT second round.
Upshot: The Aggies turned in their best effort as an SEC member, their first winning SEC slate in three tries. Transfers Danuel House (14.8 ppg) and Jalen Jones (13.7 ppg) elevated the program.
What’s next: Things are looking up. House and Jones return, along with SEC assist leader Alex Caruso at the point. Coach Billy Kennedy has a stellar recruiting class on the way that includes three top-50 big men.

Vanderbilt
Record:
21-14, 9-9 SEC.
Record last year: 15-16, 7-11.
How it ended: Vandy won two NIT games before a quarterfinal loss at Stanford.
Upshot: A nice bounce-back year for coach Kevin Stallings. Vandy led the SEC in shooting and 3-point percentage.
What’s next: Other than tough forward James Siakam, everybody returns. Big man Damian Jones is top shelf and the freshmen who surround him should be tougher next year. The signing class offers no McDonald’s All-Americans but four 3-star prospects who could fill needs.

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 …

Kentucky
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.

Wisconsin
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.

Xavier
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.

Arizona
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.

Louisville
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.

Oklahoma
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.

Duke
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.

Utah
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.

UCLA
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.

Gonzaga
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:
Thursday:
LSU at West Virginia
Baylor at Vanderbilt
Arkansas at Iowa State
TCU at Ole Miss

Friday
Texas at Kentucky
Florida at Kansas
Missouri at Oklahoma

Saturday
Oklahoma State at South Carolina
Kansas State at Tennessee