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Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
2/24/2008 02:42:00 PM

The Weekend That Was: Parting Thoughts From Memphis

Bob Rosato/SI

Sitting in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel on Sunday afternoon, reflecting on what might have been the most chaotic high-stakes college hoops game I've ever seen, and admiring the killer photo of J.P. Prince above (taken by SI's Bob Rosato) ...

1. I liked Bruce Pearl's admission that he wasn't sure coming into Saturday's game -- and still might not be sure -- that Tennessee is the nation's best team. He said that all he kept telling his Vols was, "I don't know if we're the best team in the country, but can you believe we're 40 minutes away from being No. 1?"

Now that Tennessee has dethroned Memphis 66-62 and is less than 24 hours away from officially being named No. 1 in The Associated Press and Coaches' Polls, it's worth revisiting the subject: Should the Vols now be considered the favorites to win the national title?

There's only a small pack of legitimate title hopefuls: Tennessee, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Memphis and Texas. Our national champion won't come from outside that group, because the drop-off to the crowd that includes the rulers of the Big East (Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame, and UConn) and Big Ten (Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana) is too big. Of the seven contenders, none has the mix of athleticism and quality depth that the Volunteers do. But if I were to fill out a bracket today, I'd be inclined to set up a Tennessee-UCLA title game with the Bruins winning, for three reasons:

• Much of UCLA's roster already has either one or two Final Fours under its belt ...
• Florida, the only team the Bruins have ever seemed to cower and hide from, is finally out of the picture
• The lone UCLA starter without Final Four experience, Kevin Love, gives them an interior dimension that the Vols simply do not have.

2. In ascending order of craziness, the memorable things that happened in or around Saturday's game:

• Pearl conducting an interview with Entertainment Tonight -- yes, ET -- after he finished talking to basketball reporters. Pearl, never turning down the opportunity to ham it up, asked the reporter for a "J-O-B" and told them that entertainment news might be his true calling instead of coaching.

• That Memphis' final possession while it had a lead, at 61-60 with 43 seconds left, ended with teammates Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier tying each other up on an offensive rebound, and being called for a travel. Dorsey's stat line: one point, six boards, four fouls.

• That Tennessee won without Chris Lofton making a single three-pointer.

• The awkward silence of Memphis locker room, in which packs of media members trying, mostly in vain, to get any comments on the loss. The players are not required by any NCAA rule to speak, and Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and Antonio Anderson in particular opted not to -- which was unfortunate, considering how loud they had been before the game, "woofing" (as Tyler Smith put it) into Tennessee's huddle in the tunnel of FexEx Forum.

• Pearl giving some "love" (or at least that's one way to describe it) to Erin Andrews in the halftime interview. I didn't witness Pearl's defensive demonstration live, but it has spread like wildfire on the Web. The man is single now: you have to give him some credit for trying.

• That Memphis, the 225th-ranked three-point shooting team in the country, attempted 27 threes. The Tigers were 0-for-7 in the second half.

• Looking up from my computer during a first-half timeout to see Lindsay Davenport and James Blake, both clad in Tiger tees, hitting tennis balls (rather aggressively, it may be noted) into the crowd as part of a promotion for a Memphis tournament.

• That Antonio Anderson, and not Chris Douglas-Roberts or Derrick Rose, took Memphis' final meaningful shot.

• That in the media room at halftime, the person behind me in the pretzel-and-popcorn line was Priscilla Presley. She took a look at the ravaged serving dishes of snacks and decided to pass.

Luke Winn/SI

3. About Memphis: One loss obviously doesn't mean the Tigers should be written off. It's still going to take an extremely unfavorable Elite Eight matchup for me to keep them out of the Final Four. But after seeing Saturday's game, it's a lot tougher for me to envision Memphis cutting down the nets in San Antonio.

Tennessee was the first team the Tigers have faced this year that could match their level of athleticism (as much as Georgetown, Arizona, UConn or USC would like to believe they could, they're not in the same league). Without a considerable advantage in quickness on the perimeter, Memphis' much-discussed (and SI-featured) offense, the Dribble-Drive Motion or DDM, devolved into a couple of things: An epidemic of out-of-the-flow three-point shooting swept over the Tigers in the first half, and they made enough treys (8-of-20) to give them false hope that they would win the game that way. In the second, the offense was better described, as I did in the game column, with the acronym DRD. That stands for Derrick Rose Driving -- because he was the only guard who still had the quickness to beat his man off the dribble every time.

No defender in the country can keep up with Rose, but when a team like Tennessee or Kansas or UCLA can keep the rest of the Memphians in check, is this what will happen again in the NCAA tournament? That's a scary thought, because we know the Tigers can't win a game from the three-point line or the charity stripe.

4. All of the Memphis fans wearing those shirts that say "Associated Press No. 1" on the front -- many of the folks not wearing the "I HATE ORANGE" shirts had these on -- shouldn't pack them away for the rest of the season. The Tigers will probably be back in the top spot by the final poll before the NCAA tournament. I don't see them dropping any lower than No. 3 in the polls that come out Monday; and Tennessee and North Carolina, the first two teams behind them, are hardly guaranteed to run the table from here until the dance begins.

5. A good point made by Andy Cox at the Crashing The Dance blog this week: If Tennessee wins the SEC and holds onto No. 1, the Vols, and not Duke or North Carolina, would likely get slotted into the Charlotte regional of the NCAA tournament. The bigger question, and the scary thing for Tennessee is, would the Blue Devils or Tar Heels get to stay in the state of North Carolina as a No. 2 seed? The crowd making the trek from Tobacco Road, especially if the team were UNC, would make for quite the unfair advantage. Would the selection committee really be that cruel to the Vols?

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2/23/2008 07:14:00 PM

Live from The Center Of The College Hoops Universe

The scene outside FedEx Forum three hours before tip of No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 1 Memphis: The weather was a tad cold for the mid-South, blue-clad fans were mobbing Beale Street, isolated packs of Tennessee fans were being heckled, and scalpers were still trying to get $200 apiece for upper-level tickets ...

Outside Memphis-Tennessee
Luke Winn/SI

The fellow below had the ultimate Tigers-fan combo: A blue goatee and an "I HATE ORANGE" t-shirt.

Outside Memphis-Tennessee
Luke Winn/SI

Memphis students lined up before 5 a.m. Saturday to gain access to the ESPN GameDay set. Then they lined up again later in the day to secure the choicest seats for the game.

Outside Memphis-Tennessee
Luke Winn/SI

A pep rally -- with plenty of media coverage, and an awkward "we're No. 1 chant" in progress as this pic was snapped -- was being held on the FedEx Forum's massive patio.

Outside Memphis-Tennessee
Luke Winn/SI

I'll check back in post-game. Feel free to kill time in the comments section ...

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2/17/2008 02:34:00 PM

The Weekend That Was: Four Parting Thoughts

Tigers win
Memphis is still unbeaten -- but only after Robert Vaden's last-second shot missed the mark for UAB.
(Consider this a warmup for all the tourney blogging that awaits next month ... and beware, there's a minuscule Wire spoiler in part 2.)

1. If ESPN were to begin hyping up Tennessee-Memphis six days early, as if it were college hoops' Super Bowl, I wouldn't have any problem with it. Given what's on the line, the battle for Volunteer State supremacy feels about 10 times more important than the Nos. 2-vs.-3 Duke-Carolina game on Feb. 6. And yet I can't escape the feeling that if the Tigers were going to actually lose during the regular season, it would've happened in an out-of-the-spotlight, on-the-road situation like Saturday night's game in Birmingham.

Memphis-UAB was only televised regionally by CSS, and therefore most of the country only caught the Tigers' amazing comeback (and the ugly postgame melee, with classless Blazers fans throwing debris, and Joey Dorsey being restrained from attacking them) via highlight reels. Down 77-70 with 1:23 to go, the Tigers went on an 9-1 run -- with six of the points coming from All-America lock Chris Douglas-Roberts -- to close the game and save their undefeated season. Whereas Memphis has been prone to cold streaks from the field and the free-throw line in less-hyped Conference USA games, it has looked unbeatable in its marquee matchups at FedEx Forum. Just ask Georgetown, Arizona and Gonzaga how difficult it is to pull off an upset in that building.

(Update: Thanks to this photo posted on the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Web site Sunday, there's evidence of a player identified as Tigers forward Pierre Niles slapping a fan in the UAB student section. So it appears -- beyond what was presented in the highlights -- that there was a lack of class on both sides. Conference USA said on Sunday night that it was investigating the matter.)

2. Damn, Indiana. Did you really go from treating Kelvin Sampson like persona non grata when he walked onto Assembly Hall's court on Saturday night, to chanting his name with less than two minutes left in that 80-61 win over Michigan State? Sampson's entry was met with a mix of boos and groans and uncomfortable silence. Somehow he managed to walk off the court like Sen. Clay Davis emerged from this week's grand jury hearing in The Wire: gleefully victorious. I'm happy there will be no postseason ban for the Hoosiers. None of the players had anything to do with Sampson's deceptions and disregard for NCAA rules, after all. But letting Sampson continue to coach while IU sharpens the guillotine -- and athletic director Rick Greenspan figures out ways to suggest he wasn't solely to blame for Sampson's hiring -- just makes for sad theater.

3. Brook and Robin Lopez put on quite the show for Stanford on Saturday at Arizona, with Brook (23 points, 10 boards) hitting the game-winning free throws, and Robin (14 points, eight rebounds) swatting Chase Budinger's last-second layup attempt. Brook, who seems to get at least one touch on every Cardinal offensive possession, is already listed as the fourth pick in DraftExpress' 2008 mock, but you have to wonder: If there were just one Lopez, rather than twins, and he had Brook's offensive skills and Robin's defensive skills, would he be regarded as a better NBA prospect than Greg Oden was last year?

4. I just watched Notre Dame barely survive against Rutgers at the RAC, and was reminded of something that Irish guard Kyle McAlarney had pointed out after Wednesday's loss to UConn: That meeting with the Huskies -- which took place on Feb. 13, mind you -- was Notre Dame's first road game in an on-campus arena all season. How in the name of Kelly Tripucka could that happen? To start, the Irish didn't play a single true road game outside of the Big East: they played only neutral-site affairs in St. Thomas (the Paradise Jam) and New York (the Jimmy V). And then their first four Big East road games were all at off-campus, NBA-style arenas used by Marquette (Bradley Center), Georgetown (Verizon Center), Villanova (Wachovia Center) and Seton Hall (Prudential Center). The Irish are a high-quality team with a legit All-America candidate in Luke Harangody, but they haven't exactly been battle-tested away from South Bend.

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11/24/2007 11:19:00 PM

The Early Word On ... Texas

Connor Atchley (32) is emerging for Texas in his junior season.
NEWARK, N.J. -- Four things we learned about No. 15 Texas from its 97-78 win over No. 7 Tennessee in Saturday's Legends Classic Final -- a game in which a fan, with 7:20 left in the second half, yelled, "Bring the girls team next time, Tennessee!" ...

1. It seems crazy saying this, but A.J. Abrams looks like a better two-guard than Chris Lofton.

Remember last year's Texas-Tennessee game? The one where cold-blooded Lofton was on full display, hitting a beyond-NBA-length 3 over Kevin Durant to keep the Vols alive in regulation -- and finishing with 35 points in an overtime win? That Chris Lofton wasn't at the Prudential Center on Saturday. He hasn't been present all year, for that matter, as he's been averaging just 13.8 points through six games.

Lofton put up 18 on Saturday, but many came during garbage time; he was dogged by Abrams and was barely a factor in a game that saw Texas hold a double-digit lead for all but the first 11 seconds of the second half. Longhorns point guard D.J. Augustin said the neutralization of Lofton began on the offensive end, when he was chasing Abrams: "We wanted to get [Lofton] tired and run him off of so many screens with A.J. that, by the time he got on offense, he wasn't as energized."

Vols forward Wayne Chism explained last week that Lofton was merely "chillin'," or biding his time before acting like the marksman that we've come to know over the past two seasons. He would be wise stop chillin' soon, lest his All-America campaign be shut down. Abrams, meanwhile, is on an amazing long-distance shooting tear to start the season: he's hit 55.6 percent of his 3s thus far, including 12-of-20 in Texas' two wins at the Prudential Center. Apropos of the arena name, a harder-than-normal, composite ball called "The Rock" has been used in Legends Classic games. Of Abrams, Texas coach Rick Barnes said, "He might want to invest in that [ball], because he's had a pretty good week with it."

Abrams scored 31 against New Mexico State and 21 against Tennessee, outshining Lofton, who entered the tournament as its biggest name but walked through the handshake line afterwards with his jersey tugged up over his head, as if to shroud himself from the reality of an ugly, 19-point loss. Augustin was named the Legends Classic's MVP, but he was expected to be the best point guard on the floor. Abrams wasn't expected to be the best two-guard in Newark. "I had [outplaying Lofton] in the back of my mind," he said. "He's an All-American, but I didn't want to come out and just say 'I'm going to outplay him.' I wanted to win this tournament." Abrams managed to accomplish both.

2. This is Connor Atchley's breakout year.

Atchley, a redshirt junior, is the only Texas starter from Saturday who does not appear on the front cover of the Longhorns' media guide. There are a few reasons for this: The other four starters -- Augustin, Abrams, Justin Mason and Damion James -- all started last year, too, while the 6-foot-11 Atchley averaged 17.9 minutes and only 3.9 points off the bench. And Atchley, when the season began, was considered by most to be merely keeping the fifth starting spot warm for five-star freshman Gary Johnson, who was waiting for medical clearance for an undisclosed heart condition.

Five games into this season, Johnson is still on the bench in a V-neck sweater and untucked dress shirt, while an ultra-confident Atchley is the team's third-leading scorer. On Saturday, he poured in a career-high 22 points for his fourth straight game in double-digits. In the first 5:09 of the game, he had one layup and one 3-pointer assisted by Augustin, plus another layup and a dunk on fast-breaks. "His conditioning is off the charts," Barnes said of Atchley. "He runs so well and D.J. trusts him, so if he's open, D.J. will get him the ball."

The timing of Atchley's breakout is impeccable, considering Texas otherwise has a sizable void in its frontcourt; this would be LaMarcus Aldridge's senior season, but he's been in the NBA for two years; this would be Mike Williams' junior season, but he transferred to Cincinnati at the same time Aldridge turned pro. Six-foot-10 sophomore Matt Hill is on the bench in a boot, sitting in street clothes alongside Johnson. Atchley waited four years for his turn, and now, in an offense with a speedy, penetrating point guard (Augustin), and a sharpshooter (Abrams), Atchley should continue to get his fair share of open looks against stretched-out and befuddled transition defenses.

3. The Texas fastbreak overwhelmed Tennessee's athletes.

The Vols' vaunted press is still effective when they can set it up after made baskets, but the Longhorns thrived off of misses, when Tennessee's transition defense was often all but helpless. Texas had a massive 23-6 advantage in fast-break points, with everyone from Augustin, to Abrams, to Mason, to Atchley streaking downcourt for open layups and dunks. After putting up 97 on the Vols, the 'Horns are now averaging 99.7 points over their past three games. "We were focusing on our transition offense," said Abrams. "We looked on the film and noticed that [Tennessee] sometimes didn't get back on defense, so we wanted to get down [court] on them."

Augustin and Mason were also extremely adept -- in both fast-break and half-court situations -- at drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line. Between them, they shot 17 free throws, making 13, while Tennessee was 10-of-16 from the stripe combined. At one point late in the first half, after Augustin had drawn yet another whistle, Vols coach Bruce Pearl yelled to his less-aggressive guards, "Drive into them one time! Initiate contact!"

4. The Texas portion of the Big 12 is much scarier than we expected at the beginning of the season.

Baylor took down Notre Dame and Winthrop this week to win the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas. Texas A&M slaughtered unranked Ohio State to win the NIT Season Tip-Off on Friday (that beat-down was covered in yesterday's blog). And Texas one-upped the Aggies by dismantling a top-10 team on a neutral floor on Saturday. "I knew we were going to be a great team," Augustin said on Saturday, after being asked about what he expected from the 'Horns in Year 1 post-Kevin Durant. But did anyone think they'd be this good, even before Johnson was added to the lineup? Neither Texas nor A&M began '07-08 in the top 10 of any polls. And Baylor wasn't even ranked. Less than a month into the season, Texas -- and not California, North Carolina, Tennessee or Washington -- looks like the most powerful state in college basketball.

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11/24/2007 06:50:00 PM

Journey to Newark

A few photos from the trip to Newark, N.J., on Saturday evening for the Legends Classic final between No. 15 Texas and No. 7 Tennessee ....

Newark Penn Station
Luke Winn/SI

The train ride only took 20 minutes from one Penn Station (New York's) to another (Newark's), which was dressed up in New Jersey Devils signage rather than college hoops advertisements ...

Prudential Center
Luke Winn/SI

Then a four-block walk from the train station to the shiny new Prudential Center, during which I encountered zero fans clad in either Longhorns or Vols gear. It was foreshadowing for the nearly empty arena I'd soon enter ...

Prudential Center
Luke Winn/SI

That shot was taken with about five minutes left in the West Virginia-New Mexico State consolation game, and the crowd did not swell in size for the nightcap. Although a number of Tennessee fans did vacate the Prudential Center's mezzanine-level bar, where they had been watching the Vols' quadruple-overtime win over Kentucky in football.

Prudential Center
Luke Winn/SI

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1/09/2007 04:07:00 PM

Blog Q&A With ... Tennessee's Chris Lofton

Chris Lofton and the Vols are set to face No. 5 Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday.
Al Tielemans/SI
As part of an ongoing series of Blog Q&As, I chatted with Tennessee sharpshooter Chris Lofton earlier this week. The junior two-guard, who already has five 30-plus-point games, is averaging 22.2 points and should be considered one of the frontrunners for the Wooden Award. I spoke with Chris a few minutes after he finished an afternoon practice in Knoxville, while I was in a Glendale, Ariz., press box awaiting the start of the BCS National Championship Game.

Luke Winn: I'm sitting here waiting for Florida and Ohio State to take the field. I heard you were a pretty good high school wide receiver back in Maysville, Ky. How much do you still care about football, and will you be watching tonight?

Chris Lofton: I'll be watching. I love football. I was mostly a wide receiver, but I played a little corner, too. I was basically a possession receiver. I wasn't all that athletic, but I could catch the ball real well.

LW: A little more about Maysville: Can you describe the basketball court that you liked to shoot on as a kid?

CL: I learned on a few different courts, inside and out, but the main one was where my Mom grew up, in a small town called Flemingsburg [17 miles south of Maysville]. I used to go up there, hang out with the family, and shoot all the time. It was in a place called Hillside Park. A cement court outside.

LW: Do you remember what the rims were like?

CL: The rims were tight there. I think it made me a better shooter. When you play on rims that tight, it's harder -- and you get used to being more accurate.

LW: Are you bigger in Maysville than the town's other favorite son, George Clooney?

CL: No, I think he is. George Clooney's a millionaire and I'm still in college.

LW: Your orange Tennessee jersey does get sold back home in the middle of Kentucky Wildcat country, though, so there might be equal representation for you and George.

CL: That part might be about even. There's a festival named after his aunt [The Rosemary Clooney Music Festival], which happens every year. So their name is around.

LW: Have you met George?

CL: Haven't met him yet.

LW: Favorite Clooney movie?

CL: Batman.

LW: Any reason?

CL: I can't think of any others off the top of my head.

LW: I've heard you're a pretty avid "night shooter." What's your routine when you do that?

CL: I just try to shoot 25 shots, from seven different spots on the floor. All three-pointers. Then I do a little mid-range work after that.

LW: Are you doing this alone? How does it work?

CL: I'm usually shooting win a gun [a machine that fires basketballs out on a timer] or a rebounder.

LW: And how late are you going?

CL: Sometimes I do it right after practice, but if I have something else going on, I'll come back at night -- but not real late, not usually past 9.

LW: Night shooting isn't like night putting -- you can't get in trouble for it. Have you seen Caddyshack?

CL: I have not seen Caddyshack (laughing).

LW: There's a line in there about night putting -- a guy got kicked out of school for it. We'll move on. You're shooting 45.8 percent from beyond the arc this year, and are one of the country's most feared long-range gunners. Who taught you how to shoot threes, or rather, who, if anyone, helped you develop your stroke?

CL: No one, really. It just came from shooting all the time as a little kid. I continued to do that as I grew up, just kept putting up a lot of shots all the time.

LW: How early did that start?

CL: I can remember shooting back when I was 5 or 6 years old. I used a little ball back then, and then eventually moved on to the big one.

LW: Who are the best shooters -- of all-time -- that you admire?

CL: I think they would be Reggie Miller, Ray Allen and Michael Redd.

LW: Is Reggie your No. 1? Or ...

CL: Ray Allen is my No. 1. I like how he plays so smooth -- his shooting stroke is the smoothest in the league.

LW: He's a solid actor, too.

CL: Yeah, I sometimes call him Jesus Shuttlesworth -- from He Got Game -- instead of Ray.

LW: You almost always get the ball in crunch time for the Vols. What's said in the huddle, either by you or coach Pearl, before those big plays. Do you demand the ball?

CL: [Pearl] just calls the play -- and a lot of times it's for me. I usually try to take the shot. He says that when he calls the play for you, he wants you to be aggressive with it.

LW: What about the game-winner against Texas, where you hit that bomb over Kevin Durant?

CL: There was a play called. ... I was just trying to be aggressive. My mindset is that I want to take that shot.

LW: But did you realize how far out you were?

CL: At the time, not really. Not until I had seen it a couple of times on TV did I realize it.

LW: What's the biggest shot you've hit in your career? Describe how it happened.

CL: It was in the NCAA tournament last year, against Winthrop. It was a tie game, in the last few seconds, and coach Pearl called a special play for me, and all I had to do was shoot it.

LW: What was the special play?

CL: I'm pretty sure he just drew it up in the middle; he made it up on the spot. I set a screen and then came off a screen, and got free.

LW: You're an even-keel guy, but coach Pearl is known to be rather animated at times. What's your craziest Bruce Pearl story from the past two years?

CL: Probably when he ripped off his shirt after the Kentucky game last year. He came into the locker room and just tore off his dress shirt. It was pretty surprising -- and really funny. Hilarious.

LW: I've been asking a few of the other Blog Q&A subjects to pick their college dream team, but I wanted to change it up for you. In a hypothetical situation, if you couldn't take the last shot in a game, what current college player not at Tennessee would you pick to take a three-pointer?

CL: I'm thinking here. I would have said J.J. Redick or Adam Morrison last year. But right now, for a three, I'd take Lee Humphrey from Florida. He's the highest-percentage [long-range] shooter in the SEC, and he knocks down open shots.

LW: And what about if the clutch shot had to happen in the paint? Who would you take then?

CL: If I go inside, I'm going to either Joakim Noah, Tyler Hansbrough or Greg Oden. Noah plays so hard for 40 minutes; Hansbrough is a beast down low -- they beat us in November in New York -- and Oden is killing Division I basketball right now with one hand.

LW: Last question. You get hounded by opposing defenses. Who would you say is the best on-the-ball defender you've had to face in the past two seasons?

CL: Probably Corey Brewer [from Florida]. He's long and athletic. Either him or Garrett Temple from LSU. He's like Brewer -- long and athletic.

LW: But you still think you can drill shots over any of those guys ...

CL: That's the goal.

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