Dale Ellis finishes his speech

When Dale Ellis was on the court at Thompson-Boling Arena last March to see his jersey raised to the rafters, he got cut off without finishing what he had to say. There was a game to tip off.

“I’d wake up every morning for about two months after that, and think about what I could have said, who I could have acknowledged,” Ellis said Wednesday in Greeneville, where he and ex-Vols Reggie Johnson, Damon Johnson and Skylar McBee were working a clinic for the Boys and Girls Club.

So I gave Ellis a chance to finish his acknowledgements. One of the first people he mentioned was Ed Balloff, the friend of the program who was buried Tuesday at age 94.

Another was Dr. Robert Overholt. Said Ellis, “I’ve had an opportunity to travel the world through the game of basketball. That’s always been my life’s dream. I met a lot of beautiful people. None were more beautiful than Dr. Robert Overholt. I grew up without a father and I always looked at him as somewhat of a father figure to me.”

And Don DeVoe, his coach.

“He prepared me for that next level,” Ellis said. “It wasn’t like you could take a day off with Don. If you scored 30 points last night, he wanted to know what had tonight. It didn’t matter what you did on a test last week, he wanted to know what you’re gonna do this week in school. He was teaching me how to be a professional, off and on the floor.”

The UT fans: “You guys pushed me to come with it every single day. I want to thank you, too.”

Perhaps most of all, his Tennessee teammates.

Wednesday he mentioned Reggie Johnson, Michael Brooks, Gary Carter, Howard Wood and others. “I would take something from their game and I brought it to my game. It’s an individual honor. But that ’14′ — I took my twin brother’s number to honor him. We went to different schools. The ’1979-83′ — that repesents my teammates. That’s a team honor.”

Ed Balloff was a gentle friend of Vol basketball

Ed Balloff died Saturday at age 94. Mr. Balloff was many things in his long life: World War II veteran, Vanderbilt alum, attorney, clothing merchant, pillar of the community in Campbell County. He was also a consumate gentleman, one of the nicest human beings on the planet. If you ever met him, I’m not telling you anything you hadn’t already figured out. But he was also a diehard Tennessee basketball fan and played a unique role in some of the program’s best days.

I wasn’t in Knoxville yet so I don’t know how it came to be that “Mr. B” became John Ward’s driver on basketball road trips. But for years Ed Balloff drove John around the SEC and elsewhere so John could bring the game back home over the Vol Network radio waves. Ward, signing off, would refer to Mr. Balloff as ‘director of transportation’ or something like that.

From talking to Ed and others, the road trips were meticuously planned and adhered to time-honored routines. When I’d show up at a gym in Starkville or Tuscaloosa, Ed would be in the media room, happy to chat. But during the games he would often disappear. He couldn’t stand the tension of a tight game in which the Vols might be in peril of defeat. A couple of years ago I asked him to confirm the story of a game in Memorial Coliseum in Lexington during the “Ernie & Bernie” years. He admitted, yes, he did retreat to the men’s restroom under the stands to suffer in solitude.

“True story,” Mr. Balloff said. “I’d hear the roar when Kentucky scored. So I turned on all the faucets and flushed all the toilets and went from one to the other doing that. Then it got very quiet. And I knew we won the game.”

That was the 90-88 overtime when in 1976 when Ernie Grunfeld scored 43 points and Bernard King made the game-winning shot virtually from the seat of his pants.

Mr. Balloff had a special relationship with Grunfeld. He told me when Grunfeld came on his recruiting visit from New York, coach Ray Mears asked Ed, who was Jewish, to take Grunfeld to lunch. Mr. Balloff and Grunfeld remained friends for life.

After John Ward called his last game in 1999, I didn’t see Mr. Balloff around very often. It was a treat when I did. He remained active until the end, practicing law in LaFollette. The world would be better off with more kind souls like Ed Balloff.

Vols’ Ferguson not dwelling on what might have been

Riley Ferguson talked with the media for the first time Friday as a Tennessee quarterback. After the opening day of spring practice, coach Butch Jones sent all four quarterback candidates — Justin Worley, Joshua Dobbs, Nathan Peterman and Ferguson — to face the question-askers.

The obvious question for Ferguson was when and how did he suffer the stress fracture in his right leg that denied him a golden opportunity to play in 2013 and ultimately forced a redshirt. To rewind the timeline, Peterman was lost to a hand injury at Florida on Sept. 21 and Worley to a thumb injury at Alabama on Oct. 26. The tea leaves seemed to indicate that by late October Ferguson was ahead of Dobbs and would have succeeded Worley.

So when did the injury arise? “The week of the Alabama game, maybe the week before that,” Ferguson said.

How did it happen? “We do not know, really,” Ferguson said. “It might be from over-pressing when I’m dropping to throw. It got to the point where it was really sore. They took me to get an MRI and I had a stress fracture.”

So, given that Dobbs took over for Worley in the second half at Alabama and started the final four games, wasn’t that terrible timing for you? “I was thinking that at first,” Ferguson said. “But my family and everybody here, they were telling me things happen for a reason. Just move forward and try to get better.”

And so he did. “That was last year,” Ferguson said. “I’m focused on this year. I don’t really worry about if I’d have went in or wouldn’t have, or if was hurt or wasn’t hurt.”

Ferguson can’t wait to get in a game and put Jones’ offense to work. He embraces the tempo: “I love to line up and see a corner have to run all the way across the field just to match up with my receiver. And I can hike the ball before he’s over there and get it there quick.”

Jones liked what he saw from all four quarterbacks Friday, or so he said. As for Ferguson, “I liked his quarterback intangibles. He was extremely accurate with the football. He looked very confident and he made some big-time throws today.”

C.M. Newton shares memories, suggestions

It would be hard to think of an individual who interacted more with University of Tennessee sports without actually being a Vol than C.M. Newton. Newton spoke to the Big Orange Tipoff Club on Wednesday. His topic was his memories of his brushes with UT sports, particularly basketball. There were plenty. Retired from a long career as a coach and administrator, Newton noted that he spent the bulk of his career at Kentucky, Alabama and Vanderbilt, all of whom considered Tennessee a prime rival.

Newton was born in Rockwood, Tenn., the son of a huge UT football fan who owned a hardware store in Harriman. The family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but Newton said his dad never strayed from his devotion to Big Orange football. His sister once dated Bowden Wyatt. His cousin married News Sentinel sports editor Tom Siler. As a high school hoops star in Fort Lauderdale, he once played against against a pretty good athlete from St. Petersburg named Jim Haslam.

Newton played basketball for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, helping the Wildcats win an NCAA title in 1951. He later coached at Transylvania University in Lexington, then at Alabama and Vanderbilt. He finished his career as athletic director at Kentucky and has, in retirement, served the SEC as a basketball consultant.

Newton recounted how Rupp dreaded coming to Knoxville, especially in the old days of Alumni Gynasium. At Transylvania, Newton encountered another hot small-college coach — Ray Mears. Newton recalled Transy beating Mears’ Wittenberg University team 38-36 before an audience that included Rupp. Expecting to be congratlated by Rupp, Newton was surprised. “He said we set the game of basketball back a hundred years.” Newton holds a distinction of significance in Kentucky: “I’m the only guy who ever played for (Rupp) that beat him.”

That would have been at Alabama, where Bear Bryant hired Newton to coach in 1968. His teams won three consecutive SEC titles from 1974-76. That includes two years of the Ernie & Bernie Show at Tennessee. One of his benchwarmers at Alabama was Dave Hart. The two sat together Tuesday night at the Vols’ win over Georgia.
At Vanderbilt, Newton’s battles were with Don DeVoe from 1981-89. As AD at Kentucky, Newton hired both Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, both of whom won NCAA titles.

He also served on the basketball rules committee and helped bring in the shot clock and the 3-point shot. Newton still has some opinions about the game.

The season, he said, shouldn’t start until the winter semester: “It makes no sense to have your two profit-makers (football and basketball) going head to head for the entertainment dollar.”

He would also whittle the NCAA tourney field to a more managable size, honoring only confernce champions and runners-up: “You’ve got to be a bad team not to get in the postseason. I don’t think we have a true national championhsip. Sixty-eight teams is too many.”

He doesn’t like the one-and-done rule, which Kentucky’s John Calipari has elevated to an art form: “You’ve got great athletes who don’t know how to play basketball. It’s weakened the NBA and it’s weakened college basketball.”

He thinks college sports are headed to super-conferences in which the big leagues — the haves — separate from the have-nots. “The NCAA has outlived its usefulness, in my opinion. It can re-invent itself. I think it could do that with the have-nots.”

There’s winning on the road and then there’s Rupp

Any basketball coach will tell you winning on the road is never easy. But it’s harder some places than others. Nowhere is it harder than Rupp Arena. Not for Tennessee, any way, but I suspect that’s true for any program that visits there on a regular basis.

Here’s a look at Tennessee’s history in the current venue of all 13 SEC opponents, based on a comprehensive study by my crack research team. The records reflect games in which the Vols played the home team, not SEC tournament games (in Lexington, Nashville and Baton Rouge) against other teams.

Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum (opened 1968-69): 9-26.
Auburn’s Auburn Arena (opened 2010-11): 2-0.
Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena (opened 1993-94): 3-7.
Florida’s O’Connell Center (opened 1980-81): 12-20.
Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum (opened 1964-65): 23-26.
Kentucky’s Rupp Arena (opened 1976-77): 4-34.
LSU’s Maravich Assembly Center (opened 1972): 15-16.
Ole Miss’s Tad Smith Coliseum (opened 1966): 17-19.
Mississippi State’s Humphrey Coliseum (opened 1975-76): 13-14.
Missouri’s Mizzou Arena (opened 2004-05): 0-0.
South Carolina’s Colonial Center (opened 2012): 7-5.
Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym (opened 1952-53): 23-38.
Texas A&M’s Reed Arena (opened 1998-88): 1-1.

Here’s a look at how all SEC teams have fared in Rupp Arena:
Alabama: 5-22.
Auburn: 2-25.
Arkansas: 2-10.
Georgia: 4-31.
Florida: 6-31.
LSU: 5-23.
Ole Miss: 1-26.
Missouri: 0-3.
Mississippi State: 2-25.
South Carolina: 2-22.
Tennessee: 4-34.
Vanderbilt: 2-34.
Texas A&M: 1-3.

Butch at the QB Club

I wrote a column from Coach Butch Jones’ appearance Monday at the Knoxville Quarterback Club. But there was material left over and I submit some of it for your perusal here:

Jones thanked the crowd — and Tennessee fans in general — for their continued support through hard times. “I’m gonna tell you what,” he said, “you guys are the reason why our recruiting class is going so well. Because (recruits, visitors) do feel the positive energy. They did feel the 97,000-plus (Saturday night against Vanderbilt).”

Recruiting played a major role in the give-and-take between Jones and the audience. He said the most positive factor in the entire program right now is the large number of early enrollees who will start school on Jan. 4. “We will welcome between 14 and possibly 16 mid-year enrollees,” Jones said. “That may be the most in the country.”

Jones went into some detail about being able to back-count five signees to the Class of 2013, bumping the 25 allowed signings for 2014 to 30. Or will it stop at 30?
“We have a lot of good people who write a lot of good things,” Jones said, “but don’t believe everything you hear or read. We have a plan. We’re trying to gain every ounce of value in this recruiting class that we can.
“If we can find a way to sign 35 guys, I’m gonna sign ‘em. … If we have an individual who’s a great player who we feel we can’t turn down, we’re gonna find every imaginable way to bring him to Tennessee. So there is a plan in place. It’s very strategic, but it’s all going to work out. I promise you.”

Basketball debuts can be misleading

Tennessee opens a new basketball season Tuesday night at Xavier, in which five new Vols will be making their debut. There’s considerable excitement about a couple of them, freshman Robert Hubbs and Memphis transfer Antonio Barton.

A reminder of Bernard King’s amazing 1974 debut — courtesy of ESPN Films’ “30 for 30″ doc on “Bernie and Ernie” — triggered a thought train on debuts in general. It’s unlikely anyone will ever top King’s debut. He scored 42 points against Wisconsin-Milwaukee to tip off the 74-75 season. That still ranks as the ninth-best scoring game ever by a Volunteer.

King’s buddy had a pretty nice debut, too. Ernie Grunfeld rang up 28 against North Texas in his debut one year before King. Grunfeld left in 1977 as the school’s all-time scoring leader with 2,249 points. King (1,962 points, 25.8 ppg) would have topped him if he’d stuck around for his senior year.

As for the current Vols, Jarnell Stokes turned heads with his 9 points on 4-of-5 shooting in 17 minutes against No. 2 Kentucky on Jan. 14, 2012. Fresh to campus from early high school graduation, Stokes held his own against the eventual national champions.

But in most cases, you can’t rush to judgement based on first impressions of a player, especially a freshman. Dale Ellis would score 2,065 points at UT, which ranks sixth on the career list. He only got one of them on opening night in 1979.

Dyron Nix ranks eighth, with 1,877 points. Not a one of them came in his 1985 debut against Southeast Louisiana. Nix isn’t the only Vol great who walked off the court with a goose egg in his debut box score: Carl Widseth (1,683 points, 10th) in 1952; Steve Hamer (1,418 points, 18th) in 1992; Lang Wiseman (1,156 points, 38th) in 1989.

The most misleading debut on my watch came on Nov. 24, 1996. Freshman guard Cornelius Jackson scored 23 points against Morehead State. He was 8-of-11 from the field and 4-of-4 from 3-point range. And he would never score more than 8 points again in a freshman year in which he shot 26 percent from the field and 20.4 percent from 3-point range. Jackson transferred after his one season to Marshall. He’d peaked on opening night.

Allan Houston, whose 2,801 points, top UT’s list and rank No. 2 in SEC history, opened with 17 points in a win over Austin Peay in 1989.

Here’s a list of some other impressive debuts, none of which were false advertising. All went on to join the 1,000-point club:

Gene Tormohlen, 23 points vs Furman, 1956.
Austin “Red” Robbins, 18 vs Richmond, 1964.
A.W. Davis, 17 vs ETSU, 1962.
Ron Widby, 16 vs Richmond, 1964.
Ron Slay, 17 vs Elon, 1999.
Scotty Hopson, 17 vs Chattanooga, 2008.

Tobias Harris rang up 18 points against Chattanooga in 2010, hitting 7 of 11 shots. There were, no doubt, NBA scouts in the house. Harris was gone after his freshman season.

Somewhere between big splash and no splash, there have been the quiet debuts. Tony White, who ranks third with 2,219 points and twice led the SEC in scoring, got 9 points against Ohio Northern in 1983.

Chris Lofton, No. 4 with 2,131 points, got 5 points against Stanford in the opening round of the 2004 Maui Classic. He was 1 of 4 from 3-point range.

Reggie Johnson, No. 5 with 2,103 points, scored 5 against South Florida in the 1976-77 season-opener. He would average 11.0 ppg as a freshman, which was only good for fourth on the team behind King, Grunfeld and Mike Jackson.

Vincent Yarbrough, No. 9 with 1,737 points, would just as soon forget his debut. The McDonald’s All-American scored 2 points, going 1-of-8 against Arizona in 1998.

Here’s how some other notable Vols fared in their opening games:

Brandon Wharton (1,651 points, No. 11) 10 points, 7 assists vs Georgia State in 1996.
Wayne Chism (1,608 points, No. 12) 10 points in 11 minutes vs MTSU in 2006.
Tony Harris (1,588 points, No. 14) 9 points vs Winthrop in 1997.
C.J. Watson (1,424 points, No. 17) 3 points in 34 minutes vs Gardner-Webb in 2002.
JaJuan Smith (1,384 points, No. 20) 0 points in 1 minute vs Stanford in 2004.
Isiah Victor (1,304 points, No. 24) 10 points vs Winthrop in 1997.
Brandon Crump (1,267 points, No. 24) 12 points vs Tennessee Tech in 2001.
C.J. Black (1,261 points, No. 26) 8 points, 10 rebounds vs Morehead State in 1996.
Tyler Smith (1,219 points,No. 30) 9 points vs Temple, in 2008.

Bobby Maze deserves a mention. He had 12 points and 11 assists in his 2008 debut against Chattanooga. Big Charles Hathaway had 11 points and 8 rebounds against Morehead State in 1996.

In the Didn’t Keep It Going Department, Josh Tabb scored 13 points in his 2006 debut against MTSU, and Jemere Hendrix had 12 points and 9 boards against Wofford in 2003.

Finally, Xavier won’t be Antonio Barton’s first debut. He scored 17 as a Memphis freshman agaisnt Centenary in 2010. I’m pretty sure Vol fans and coach Cuonzo Martin would take that.

Malzahn leads the quick-fix category

With Auburn headed to Neyland Stadium for a battle of first-year head coaches on Saturday, it’s an appropriate time to review how the pack of schools that made coaching changes for 2013 are faring. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is clearly the quick-fix leader. The Tigers were 3-9, 0-8 SEC a year ago. Now they’re 8-1, 4-1 SEC and ranked No. 7.

There are two undefeated new coaches, Mark Helfrich at Oregon and Rod Carey at Northern Illinois. But both inherited big winners and have been able to maintain. At the other end of the spectrum, Trent Miles and Todd Monken are still winless at Georgia State and Southern Miss, respectively.

Here’s the complete rundown:

Arkansas, Bret Bielema: 2012 4-8/2-6. 2013 3-6/0-5

Arkansas State, Bryan Harsen: 2012 10-3/7-1. 2013 4-4/2-1.

Auburn, Gus Malzahn: 2012 3-9/0-8. 2013 8-1/4-1.

Boston College, Steve Addazzio: 2012 2-10/1-7. 2013 4-4/2-3.

California, Sonny Dykes: 2012 3-9/2-7. 2013 1-8/0-6.

Cincinnati, Tommy Tuberville: 2012 10-3/5-2. 2013 6-2/3-1.

Colorado, Mike MacIntyre: 2012 1-11/1-8. 2013 3-5/0-5.

Fla. International, Ron Turner: 2012 3-9/2-6. 2013 1-7/1-3.

Georgia State, Trent Miles: 2012 1-10. 2013 0-9/0-4.

Idaho, Paul Petrino: 2012 1-11/1-5. 2013 1-8.

Kent State, Paul Haynes: 2012 11-3/8-0. 2013 2-8/1-5.

Kentucky, Mark Stoops: 2012 2-10/0-8. 2013 2-6/0-4.

La. Tech, Skip Holtz: 2012 9-3/4-2. 2013 3-5/2-2.

NC State, Dave Doeren: 2012 7-6/4-4. 2013 3-5/0-5.

Nevada, Brian Polian: 2012 7-6/4-4. 2013 3-6/2-4.

No. Illinois, Rod Carey: 2012 12-2/8-0. 2013 9-0/5-0.

Oregon, Mark Helfrich: 2012 12-1/8-1. 2013 8-0/5-0.

Purdue, Darrell Hazell: 2012 6-7/3-5. 2013 1-7/0-4.

San Jose State, Ron Caragher: 2012 11-2/5-1. 2013 5-3/4-1.

Southern Miss, Todd Monken: 2012 0-12/0-8. 2013 0-8/0-4.

Syracuse, Scott Shafer: 2012 8-5/5-2. 2013 4-4/2-2.

Temple, Matt Rhule: 2012 4-7/2-5. 2013 1-8/0-5.

Tennessee, Butch Jones: 2012 5-7/1-7. 2013 4-5/1-4.

Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury: 2012 8-5/4-5. 2013: 7-2/4-2.

South Florida, Willie Taggert: 2012 3-9/1-6. 2013 2-6/2-2.

UTEP, Sean Kugler: 2012 3-9/2-6. 2013 1-7/0-4.

Utah State, Matt Wells: 2012 11-2/6-0. 2013 5-4/1-4.

Western Ky., Bobby Petrino: 2012 7-6/4-4. 2013 5-4/2-3.

Western Michigan, P.J. Fleck: 2012 4-8/2-5. 2013 1-8/1-4.

Wisconsin, Gary Andersen: 2012 8-6/4-4. 2013 6-2/4-1.

SEC Hoops talk from Birmingham, Day 2

South Carolina coach Frank Martin is best known for what?
Winning big at Kansas State, yes, there’s that. But I’d contend the first thing that comes to mind about Martin from college basketball fans is his intense glare when something goes wrong, like he’d like to come on the court and strangle somebody. It’s like Pat Summitt’s stare, only with the threat of implied violence. Martin said that’s misleading.

“So there might be 30 10-second snippets of me in a foul mood,” Martin said. “That’s about 300 seconds of the year. The rest of the time I love life. I love making people laugh. I understand we get judged by the camera, but I’m not the big grizzly bear everybody thinks I am.”

I went on record a year ago saying that when South Carolina hired Martin away from Kansas State that the Gamecocks will emerge as a threat to Tennessee’s position in the SEC. Even after a four-SEC win I believe that will come to pass. Martin has purged much of the Gamecocks’ roster and brought in a posse of recruits whom he thinks fit his style of play.

“We’re bigger, we’re longer, we’re thicker,” Martin said. “Every one of those (new) kids understood the state of the program and said they want in.”

Florida is shorthanded in October. Billy Donovan, beginning his 18th season in Gainesville, ticked off the missing persons due to injuries: Will Yeguete, Michael Frazier, Damontre Harris, Eli Carter. Frazier is being evaluated for mononucleosis. The Gators are left with seven scholarship players, including guard Scottie Wilbekin, who is suspended from games until further notice. All-SEC post Patric Young has dropped weight. “He got too big and too strong last year,” Donovan said. “He doesn’t look as tight and rigid as he did a year ago.”

Donovan went hard after Julius Randle, the Dallas forward who signed with Kentucky and is the SEC’s preseason player of the year. “I love him,” said Donovan. “He’s as quick of a 6-9, 240-pound guy as I’ve ever seen.”

Arkansas lost its only double-figures scorers in guard BJ Young and forward Marshawn Powell. But coach Mike Anderson reloaded and reshaped with two 6-10 freshmen, Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley. Both of them can get up and down the floor, Anderson said.

“The fastest 40 minutes will get faster this year,” Anderson said.

Georgia lost its best player when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left for the NBA. It wasn’t exactly a development coach Mark Fox needed in his bid to make Georgia relevant but it wasn’t unexpected. Replacing Caldwell-Pope’s 18.5 ppg is the biggest task facing the Bulldogs. The leading returning scorer is Nemanja Djurisic (7.9 ppg) but Fox mentioned wing guard Kenny Gaines as a featured option. Gaines averaged 3.7 ppg last year but scored 12 in a 68-62 win over the Vols in Knoxville last year.

“Kenny is obviously the number-one candidate to replace Kentavious in the lineup,” said Fox, “but we cannot say, ‘hey Kenny, go get 20 a night.’ That’s not fair.” Or realistic.

Talking SEC men’s hoops in Birmingham

Notes and quotes from SEC Media Days, the men’s basketball version, Wednesday in Birmingham.

We’ve got eight schools today and six more on Thursday (including Tennessee).

Vanderbilt looks to improve on a 16-17 season, but then the ‘Dores lost three of the top six scorers in the summer. Point guard Kedren Johnson was suspended from school, guard Kevin Bright signed with a German pro team and promising forward Sheldon Jeter transferred to Pitt.

“I’ve lost three guys in the summer before,’’ said coach Kevin Stallings. “Usually it’s been to graduation.
“The timing was a little peculiar. I look at those losses just like I do when a guy gets injured or graduates. You absorb losses, that’s what you do in college basketball.
“Are we disappointed about those losses? Absolutely. Would we have been a better team? Absolutely, if all those guys were back. We felt like our team at the end of last season was pretty good.’’

Stallings, like most coaches most seasons, doesn’t buy that his league is “down,’’ after a year in which only three teams made the NCAA tournament.
“Last year might not have been our best year,’’ Stallings said, “but don’t be surprised if this year is dramatically, dramatically different than that.
“If we get six or seven teams in the tournament this year, which would not surprise me in the least, nobody will be talking about that anymore.’’

Missouri coach Frank Haith predicts Tennessee will be one of those teams getting in the dance.
“I think Tennessee has a great nucleus returning,’’ said Haith. “Their front line is very, very good and I thought they were a team that could have played in the NCAA tournament last year.’’

Haith on commissioner Mike Slive’s imperative to improve non-conference scheduling:
“I thought we did a good job with our scheduling last year. This year we’ve got UCLA at home, we play at N.C. State. We’ve got Illinois, West Virginia. It’s important. We want go get ourselves ready for SEC play so we’re going to play a challenging schedule every year.

Haith on basketball’s niche in a league dominated by football: “I embrace it. I love college football. I believe we can have a really good football league and a really good basketball league. Sometimes because our football is so doggone good, it takes away from how good our basketball is in this league.’’

Most of Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy’s session was spent on questions about Marshall Henderson, the mercurial, talented (and suspended) guard. Henderson is back practicing with the team.

Henderson’s availability at the start of the regular season is still in limbo, Kennedy said, calling it a “fluid situation.’’
But Kennedy praised how Henderson has reacted to the suspension:
“The thing I’m most proud of is he’s owned it. He hadn’t tried to run from it. He hasn’t blamed anybody else internally.
“He’s done the things that have been demanded of him.’’

Kennedy on the fine line of Henderson channeling his emotions into positive production without the negative blowback when he goes overboard:
“It’s a Catch-22. Here’s a kid who plays with passion. Does that sometimes lead to negative connotations? There’s no doubt about it.
“I’ve always said you see the greatest improvement between years one and two and people always think I’m talking about from a freshman to a sophomore. But he’s only been in our program one year.
“He’s much more prepared both mentally and physically to handle the demands of the attention as well as the defensive schemes he’s going to see game in and game out in our league.

More on Henderson:
“Before he’s got to tone it down, he’s got to earn the right to get back on the floor.”

And more:
“He’s a basketball historian. He respects the game of basketball. I certainly don’t want to some of his antics to make it appear he does not.”

Bottom line:
“My hope is he can now walk the walk.”

Auburn coach Tony Barbee shrugged off his team being picked to finish last in the SEC in a media poll released Wednesday.
“The games aren’t won or lost on preseason polls,’’ Barbee said. “The only opinion that matters is ours inside that locker room.’’

Barbee has eight newcomers this year, his fourth at Auburn (he’s 35-59). He touted a summer trip to the Bahamas, working with a renowned sports psychologist and an energetic Midnight Madness that included hip-hop star Ludacris and rapper/comedian Mike Epps as steps in building momentum toward a pivotal season.
“For a team that struggled as much as we did last year,’’ said Barbee, “we’ve got a lot going on.’’