Wiedmer: College basketball is about to get serious as madness begins

Wiedmer: College basketball is about to get serious as madness begins

February 28th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

Six days from today Kentucky visits Tennessee in the final regular season game of the Southeastern Conference schedule.

Given that the Wildcats can't win on the road - 1-6 in SEC play - and the Volunteers are almost as bad at home (seven losses with Saturday's 70-69 mindbender to Mississippi State) it's highly possible it could go 12 overtimes and not end until after dark despite the high noon tip-off.

On that same Sunday, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's team could face the College of Charleston for a spot in next Monday night's Southern Conference championship game if it can get past the Furman-Samford winner on Saturday night.

A lot of Mocs fans might have initially considered UTC's second-place showing in the SoCon North a disappointment. But consider what that finish delivered the Mocs in this weekend's tourney at McKenzie Arena.

By finishing second to Western Carolina, UTC is in a bracket that it went 7-1 against during the regular season. It went 5-5 against the other half of the bracket. Beyond that, the Mocs play at 7 p.m. on Saturday, while Charleston won't take the court against the Elon-Citadel winner until sometime around 9:30.

Home court AND a better night's sleep?

No wonder the SoCon tourney isn't likely to ever return to Bigger Mac.

But the best thing about this week is that every game really could matter to most every school. Mid-major conferences like the Southern, Ohio Valley and such are all set to crown their tourney champ and the automatic NCAA berth that goes with it.

High majors like the Atlantic Coast, SEC, Big Ten, Big East and Big XII are figuring who's in and who's out - without a conference tourney title - before their league tourneys begin.

And then there's bracketology for all those who believe their schools have already earned their way into the 68-team NCAA tourney, but worry about where they'll be seeded.

It's all been pretty much fun and games to this point, but now it gets serious. Now it's pretty much win or go home, as close to football season as basketball's regular-season ever gets.

Consider, for instance, that for even the most successful SEC program to this point - Florida - the Gators are guaranteed no more than four more games: two regular-season contests, one SEC tourney game and one NCAA tourney game.

That's it. Anything more will have to be earned on the court.

Which briefly brings us back to UT and embattled coach, Bruce Pearl.

If Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton is right that most Big Orange fans remain firmly in Pearl's corner, one play from Saturday's loss could explain why.

With 11.1 seconds to play, Pearl's inbounds play to free freshman forward Tobias Harris for a go-ahead dunk was a thing of brilliance, and yet another example of why he remains one of the top five or six coaches in the game coming out of a timeout.

On the other hand, Pearl's decision to call a timeout before State's Wendell Lewis shot a free throw with 3.4 seconds left is why some believe Pearl's NCAA troubles have begun to affect his coaching.

The timeout was UT's last. And because Pearl took it before Lewis shot his "and one" freebie after his dunk put State on top by the final margin, he gave Bulldog boss Rick Stansbury the last word.

Stansbury correctly ordered Lewis to miss, which meant the Vols - now out of timeouts - could do nothing but scramble to get up a desperation halfcourt heave from Scotty Hopson ahead of the horn.

Had Pearl held the timeout until after the free throw, Stansbury might have told Lewis to attempt to make it, figuring the Vols would go for the tie and overtime at home.

And had State hit the freebie, a lot could have happened in 3.4 seconds off a set play, especially when the coach is as creative as Pearl. Even a State miss might have given the Vols around 3 seconds to run a set play following a timeout.

But that scenario never materialized because the Vols were out of timeouts. It's hard to believe Pearl would have made such a decision three years ago, or even three months ago.

Still, the Vols would probably have to lose at South Carolina, to Kentucky and in the opening round of the SEC tourney to miss March Madness.

The same cannot probably be said for Michigan State, which has reached the last two Final Fours and was a preseason favorite to get there again. Instead, the Spartans lost for the seventh time in their last 11 games on Sunday when they were beaten 67-47 at home by Purdue's Boilermakers, who waxed Ohio State last week.

"For some reason our players looked tired, even though I gave them two days off," said State coach Tom Izzo. "Maybe they are just wearing down a bit."

There's a lot of that going around this time of year. Those who can avoid it should roar into March like lions. Or at the very least, Kansas Jayhawks and Boilermakers.