Sunday was an amazing day in college basketball. Two of the highest seeds in the NCAA Tournament, Duke and Tennessee were almost upset on their way to the Sweet 16 but both teams rallied for the win. Top seeded Duke coming from behind late to hold off UCF 77-76 while the 2nd seeded Volunteers played as well as they have all season leading Iowa by 21 in the first half, then played as poorly as ever in the second half winding up with a win in overtime. (More on that later this week.) For Big Orange faithful, Duke's struggles with UCF should give them a feeling of optimism. Maybe the Vols didn't really play as badly as we thought. In the NCAA Tournament just about every team will play their "A" game especially if they're the underdog.
Iowa had nothing left to lose trailing by as many as 26 points in the first half so the Hawkeyes put it all on the line in the second half and almost came all the way back.
With that being said, the Sweet 16 is set with one-fourth of the field being teams from the SEC. The Vols face third seed Purdue Thursday night in Louisville in the South Region semi-finals. And...Auburn takes on number one seed North Carolina in the Midwest semi-finals on Friday night. Auburn is a very very good basketball team and the Tigers are more than capable of winning a national championship, and yes I'm going to say it, they have one of the best coaches in the country. Bruce Pearl has proven time after time he can flat out coach. He is also a master of motivation with his teams always seemingly playing with a huge chip on their shoulders. The Tigers have beaten Tennessee three straight times and in two of those wins they thumped the Vols pretty good, including a twenty point blow out in this year's SEC Tournament Finals.
There will always be a huge chain around Bruce's neck because he lied to NCAA investigators and was fired at Tennessee. Auburn took a chance on him and he has turned the Tiger's hoops program around. They made their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2003 with a big upset of Kansas which by the way was Auburn's tenth straight win.
What a lot of people don't realize is that after being fired by Tennessee, he worked for three years for a wholesale grocery distributor in Knoxville before being hired at Auburn and even though his name has been brought up on more than one occasion in the recent NCAA FBI scandal, he remains unscathed. The time he spent stocking shelves changed him quite a bit. He is more humble and as he puts it, much wiser now. He and I developed a good friendship when he was at Tennessee and he also became friends with my wife Shelia. She was the guidance counselor at East Ridge high school when he was recruiting Pioneer stand out Phillip Jurick.
I still have shirts and vests that he gave me when he was coaching the Volunteers and I was broadcasting their games on CSS and SportSouth. He was always friendly and cordial with me and when he first got into trouble he spoke at length with my broadcast partner Bill Justus and me about that situation. He excites the fan base as no other coach in the country can do and his positive outlook on college basketball is absolutely contagious.
Of course I'm pulling for the Volunteers to win but I've been sold on Bruce Pearl since I first interviewed him in 2005 when he was coaching Wisconsin-Green Bay in the NCAA Tournament in Cleveland, Ohio. So if the Vols can't win the NCAA Tournament, I hope Auburn does. No one deserves it any more than Bruce Pearl.
* * *
Randy Smith can be reached at email@example.com