Posted on: March 10, 2011 4:25 pm
Edited on: March 10, 2011 4:26 pm

Matt's SEC Conference tournament journal: Part I

Posted by MATT JONES

This is one of my favorite four-day periods of the year. Sure any old sports fan can like next weekend, when wall-to-wall basketball allows even the most casual college hoop aficionado to claim to be his city's Dick Vitale. But for those of us that are real hoop heads, those of us who would know Ian Eagle or Jim Spanarkel if we saw them in public, then Championship Week is the first great weekend of the year. I appreciate the beginning of the week and the chance to seem teams from oddly spelled conferences like the MAAC do their thing, but as with any sporting event, it is at its best when played at its highest level. And Thursday-Sunday, when the major conferences like the Big East and the once major conferences like the ACC take the court, it is time for wall to wall great basketball.

For the 19th consecutive year, I am attending the SEC men's basketball tournament. Among the great college basketball traditions, the SEC basketball tournament is not usually considered one of the best. SEC basketball is often assumed to be a little brother to its more popular football head of the family and usually its tournament is given little notice nationally. Kentucky has dominated the festivities in the past two decades, winning 10 of the 18 gatherings I have attended. The Big Blue Nation descends on the host city and makes it their own, turning even games in which Kentucky does not play into a sea of blue. 

This is my first time covering the events for CBSSports.com and I must admit that it may cause me to approach the festivities a bit differently. Take today. The first game of the tournament was a total snoozer, with Georgia beating Auburn, quite possibly the worst SEC team that I can remember seeing play over my 19 years in the event. If this were the old days and I was simply here for my own gratification, I would have made jokes about the fact that Georgia coach Mark Fox looks like David Wallace from "The Office" or pointed out that in the entire building I saw only eight Auburn fans, one of whom was dressed like Elvis. But this is a new age, one in which I must take my journalism much more seriously.

With that in mind, I will point out the details that matter from an investigative journalism standpoint. I am sitting directly behind Jimmy Dykes of ESPN, who is calling the games for the SEC Network. If you have ever heard a Jimmy Dykes-called game, then you know that his modus operandi is to use a number of catchphrases or allegedly clever plays on words. Whether he is reminding someone to "guard their yard", "drive to the nail", have a "violent cut" or simply utilize a "cautious cutback", Jimmy generally calls a game as some bizarre mix of James Naismath and Dr. Seuss. I used to think the entire gimmick was simply an act, intended to display a deep knowledge of the game that could potentially make him an heir apparent to the "funny announcer" role that will be left behind when Dick Vitale hangs it up. But after sitting behind Dykes today for two games, I am confident enough to say that his announcing is no gimmick. Even when the network goes to commercial, Dykes is still doing the same gesturing and rhyming, shouting so loudly that he gains the attention of all near him. It is as if he fancies himself the SEC's Glenn Beck, minus the chalkboard and the comparisons of Darrin Horn to some European neo-socialist group. It is all a bit exhausting, but I have determined that it is authentic.

So far today, the games have been dreadful. I am assigned the SEC, Big Ten and Conference USA. Here in Atlanta, Georgia beat Auburn in a game that even the players' families stopped following about five minutes in. The celebrity watch has been dreadfully unimpressive, with a passing glance by Kevin Stallings the closest thing I have been to starstruck. The games from around the nation have been exciting however. We saw Kemba Walker do his thing, UAB fall in the first round and potentially watch its NCAA Tournament hopes crash and Tubby Smith finalize one of the worst collapses I can remember in recent years. 

While I wait for some of that excitement to arrive here in Atlanta, I will grace the one part of this game that has garnered the most attention from me. I have met three sportswriters here, all of whom are well known to those who follow sports on a national level. Of those three, two have unbelievable amounts of nose hair. That may not mean a great deal to you, but when you are left watching Ole Miss and South Carolina throw up brick after brick, it can become the highlight of your day.
Posted on: January 25, 2011 9:47 pm
Edited on: January 25, 2011 10:28 pm

Shocker of the season in Syracuse

Posted by MATT JONES

I began suspecting that Syracuse was overrated early in the season. When the Orange became one of the four remaining undefeated teams, some crowned Jim Boeheim's club as a Final Four contender, but I refused to give in.

Yes, the 'Cuse had been in the house with early season wins over Michigan State, Michigan and Georgia Tech, but it had also barely squeaked by in wins over William and Mary and Iona. The undefeated record confirmed that this was a team with talent, but the mediocrity seen often on the court showcased that with no Wesley Johnson on the roster, a legitimate contender it was not.

This initial suspicion has been confirmed over the course of Syracuse's recent three-game losing streak, culminating on Tuesday in a 90-68 loss to Seton Hall in the Carrier Dome that is as shocking a result as we have seen this year in college basketball. Boeheim's team was whipped from the very beginning, falling down by as many as 20 in the first half and never making a run that could even cause Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard to sweat a drop in the second. From the opening tip, Syracuse was unable to put the ball in the basket, but even more shockingly, defended as poorly as any game I can remember in the Boeheim era.

What type of Jim Boeheim team allows an opponent as dreadful as Seton Hall (8-12 overall, 2-6 in the Big East going into the game) to come into the Carrier Dome and shoot 54 percent for the game and 58 percent from the three point line? This Seton Hall team came into the game ranked 293rd in America in field goal percentage, yet the Orange found a way to make them seem as if they were carrying a starting five of Rick Mount, Craig Ehlo, Craig Hodges, J.J. Redick and the college version of Chris Jackson. Anyone can lose a game, but to do so by making a cellar dweller in the Big East look like a Championship contender ... well that takes a special type of atrocious performance.

We have seen some upsets this year that were head-scratchers. Anyone who has had the misfortune of watching an Auburn game is baffled at how the Tigers upset Florida State. And for an Illinois-Chicago team that is 0-8 in the Horizon League to have upset Bruce Weber's Illinois team is also beyond perplexing. But for Seton Hall to take a Syracuse team that just 10 days ago was undefeated, and destroy them in such a thorough, embarassing way, well that is downright shocking.

Boeheim will surely have the Orange playing better before the season is over, but remember this game come March. No team that is a legitimate national player loses a game like this, in a manner this humiliating. Mark Jan. 25 as the date that the 'Cuse was officially eliminated from Final Four contender status.
Posted on: December 27, 2010 7:22 pm
Edited on: March 6, 2011 7:05 pm

The SEC is hurting my soul

Posted by Matt Jones

It has not been a stellar year for the SEC on the basketball court.  While their football brethren are basking in the glow of a potential fifth straight national champion from the conference, the basketball teams have taken a decidedly different direction in the start of their 2010-2011 campaigns.  In fact, to say that SEC basketball has performed “poorly” thus far this season is an understatement as large as saying that the NCAA is “inconsistent” in the way it hands out punishments for rules violations.  The SEC has been downright pathetic and an embarrassment to the good names of Wimp Sanderson, Sonny Smith, Hugh Durham, Dale Brown and even Don Devoe.  Take a look at a partial list of teams that have notched a victory over an SEC opponent thus far this season:

UNC Asheville
St. Peter
Nicholls State
Coastal Carolina
North Texas
Florida Atlantic
East Tennessee State

That is a list of teams so bad that ESPN wouldn’t even package them together, stick them on a random Caribbean island and try to sell them as a viable “holiday tournament.”  It is a group so poor that only one has even been invited to participate in "Bracket Buster" weekend.  Yet they all were invited into an SEC team's home arena and came away with a victory.  As bad as the losses have been however, the wins have not been much better.  As of now, the conference as a whole only has three wins against teams that are currently ranked in the Top 25, and the two biggest marquee victories (Tennessee’s upsets of Villanova and Pittsburgh) are muted a bit by later losses to Oakland and Charlotte.

The SEC East has been awful, with the Vols losing three of their last four, Florida falling at home to an Artis Gilmore-less Jacksonville squad and South Carolina taking a 16 point stoning at home to Furman that caused South Carolina fans to yearn for the return of Devan Downey.  But the SEC East has looked like the 1985 Big East in comparison to the SEC West, which may have the most miserable collection of BCS teams in a division in the history of major college basketball.  The best team in the division is likely Arkansas, whose most distinguishing quality is that they are the only team in the division not to have lost to a team outside the RPI Top 100.  While at the bottom, Auburn has celebrated the christening of its new arena by insulting the good name of Chris Porter and taking the early lead over Oregon State and Depaul for worst BCS program in the land.

How did it get this bad?  In theory, the SEC should have some real potential.  One could make the argument that it has its best assortment of coaches in the last 15 years, with three of the top 15 in the game (Calipari, Pearl and Donovan), four rising up and comers that were coveted by a number of programs (Anthony Grant, John Pelphrey, Darrin Horn and Andy Kennedy) and four solid X and O guys who have had sustained success in the past (Kevin Stallings, Mark Fox, Rick Stansbury and Trent Johnson).    Over the last few years, many of these programs have kept good Southern talent in-state and the rise in national exposure that has come with Florida’s national championships, Bruce Pearl’s emergence as a media darling and John Calipari’s explosion of talent at Kentucky would seem to have benefited the conference to such a degree that it should be contending for top spot in all of America.  Instead, the conference is at best eighth in the country and an argument can be made that if the NCAA Tournament were held today, only three teams (Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt) would be a lock to be a part of the festivities.

To be fair, it isn’t all bad.  Kentucky will be one of the ten best teams in the nation come NCAA Tournament time.  Vanderbilt and Georgia have played a bit above their preseason rankings and could make some noise in conference play.  And one has to assume that Tennessee and Florida will get out of their December funks to create a solid SEC East.  But with the Western Division giving the conference more dead weight than “Blades of Glory” in a Will Ferrell movie marathon, the prognosis for the SEC does not look bright.  We all know that with the exception of Kentucky and occasionally Vandy, none of these schools care one bit about basketball and would rather obsess over the inseam measurement of a Defensive Line prospect out of Alabama than celebrate the talent of Trey Thompkins or Chris Warren.  But for those of us who do care about basketball in the SEC (meaning Kentucky fans and random old men in stuffy gyms watching high school games throughout the South), couldn’t they fake it just a little bit better?

Photo: AP
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com