Friday, March 09, 2007

Second Season

The Wildcats and the Illini both began their attempts to erase some memories of a misbegotten season yesterday -- both successfully, but not without some harrowing moments.

The Wildcat faithful seem to be culminating a month-long meltdown, a meltdown that has reached the ears of the ubiquitous national college basketball media. 20 wins, a winning conference record, a likely 16th-straight NCAA bid all result in ... a clamor to fire the coach.

Cooler heads will prevail, and Tubby Smith will the coach next year (albeit with some new faces in the suits near him on the bench), if only because firing him will only make things much, much worse (particularly in the aforementioned national media). What these so-called "dynasty defenders" can't seem to figure out is that there is no way the higher-ups at UK will take the PR hit that would come from firing the first and only black coach in the history of a program that has taken its share of racial PR hits in the past. Particularly one who has had as much success as Tubby, and without a lot of real problems (it's been several years since the last DUI arrest, for instance).

All of which leads back to the issue at hand, which is the current team and the current postseason. Back again in the previously unfamiliar position of playing in the SEC Tournament's opening round on Thursday, the Cats started slow then fed the big man (17 and 11 for Randolph Morris) on the way to beating a hobbled Alabama team spiraling it's way to an NIT bid.

A 12-point win wasn't the type of blowout that would allow the starters to get some rest for the hoped-for 4-games in 4-days trek, but at least it wasn't the sort of tight one that this team has made a habit of losing this year. What it did do was probably lock up an NCAA bid. With 20 wins against the toughest schedule in the country, there probably wasn't much doubt about that, but with 21 wins against that schedule there is no doubt.

A young but dangerous Mississippi State team is in today's quarterfinal future -- that an 8-8 conference record won them a share of the division title tells you all you need to know about this year's SEC West -- with Vandy or Arkansas awaiting a possible Semifinal on Saturday. At the moment, the Cats are looking at about an 8 seed, but every win this weekend may serve to nudge that up a bit further.

Here in Chicago, the newly Chief-less Fighting Illini (not that the Big Ten would ever allow Chief to get closer to the Big Ten Tournament than Stickney) also found themselves with an unfamiliar Thursday game against the lowly Nittany Lions. For a while, the Lions were just that, but a barrage of three-pointers and a spell of disinterestedness by the Illini lopped 10 points off of a 12-point lead in the last 10 minutes, and the Illini (and their fans) eventually had to sweat out a 6-point win that was much, much closer than that.

So it's on to Round 3 of the Weber/Sampson grudge match (sans handshakes again?) in tonight's final quarter, with Wisconsin likely awaiting the winner on Saturday.

The year has been at least as rough on Coach Weber as it has been on Coach Smith, with similarly unrequited grumblings of firing from segments of the fan base. In Bruce's case it hasn't only been the on-court problems, though there have been plenty of grumbles about that. The off-court issues have loomed even larger, led by the preseason and midseason driving mishaps of Richard McBride and Jamar Smith respectively. Smith's tequila-fueled February spin-out resulted in his suspension (and likely eviction) from the team, along with landing teammate Brian Carlwell in the hospital. A nice two-for-one that was exactly what this shaky team did not need.

Yesterday's win probably sealed a bid on Sunday, although less certainly than a loss would have served to unseal one. At the moment, a 9, 10 or 11 seed is a real possibility, making every win this weekend important, since a 9, 10 or 11 seed is not where you want to see yourself come Sunday afternoon.


At 7:19 PM, Blogger Phil said...

Guys, do you think these coaches are overrated and just had good players?? Hmm, let's see they do with their seniors graduated and in the NBA.

Vote on these coaches' pictures on Spock. The picture you have on this blog is on there! Check it out:


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