Not feeling very confident about Florida’s 3 teams in NCAA tournament

So who goes the farthest in the NCAA tournament among our state’s three entrants?

Not sure it’s going to matter since I don’t expect the Hurricanes, Gators or Seminoles to make it out of the first weekend. Each has flaws, though Miami does a better job of masking them. Each is prone to lay a major egg every now and again.

Miami head coach Jim Larranaga reacts during a game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

If we’re assigning personality traits, FSU is tough, Florida is soft and Miami is smart. Any of them could surprise, like the Gators did last year in advancing all the way to the Elite Eight, but you could say that about most tournament teams from major conferences.

So we’ll go by who got the best draw. That’s always a good place to start.

The Gators get the break of knowing their first opponent, a No. 11 seed, won’t be coming in fresh. St. Bonaventure and UCLA are in a play-in game Tuesday night, and the winner will have to travel to Dallas and turn everything around pretty quick. That’s a potential plus for Florida, or at least it’s as much of a break as any No. 6 could ask to have.

If Florida advances, it probably will be Texas Tech waiting in the next round. The game would be in Texas, which makes that neutral court a little nastier, plus the Red Raiders won at Kansas in January. They’re well able to establish dominance in any setting.

Put it all together and I’ll give the Gators a 40 percent chance of advancing to the Sweet 16 round, and that’s only because Florida has mixed in some big wins here and there, including two over Kentucky, one over Cincinnati, a No. 2 seed, and one over Gonzaga, last year’s national finalist.

Miami’s first opponent is Loyola of Chicago, the Cinderella pick of all the national blabbers. The Ramblers are a legitimate threat, with a 10-game winning streak right now and a road upset of Florida in December, back when the Gators were feeling their oats at No. 5 in the AP poll.

The Hurricanes certainly can handle Loyola, a No. 11 seed, on a good night. Just a few weeks ago Miami beat North Carolina, a No. 2, on the road. Even if this potential trapdoor is avoided, however, it’s likely that Tennessee comes next, and in my opinion any team at the top of the SEC is a potential powerhouse.

Nobody but the Tournament Selection Committee seems to remember that the SEC had three teams in the Elite Eight last year, or that South Carolina, a No. 7 seed, reached the Final Four. As it is, a record eight SEC teams are in the 2018 NCAA tournament. Only the regal ACC has more.

So I’ll give Miami a 33 percent chance to making the Sweet 16, because there are not one but two difficult wins between here and there.

As for FSU, there are two things to know and they’re drawn from the same game, a 59-55 loss to Virginia in February.

First, the Seminoles led what might be the best team in the nation 32-22 at halftime and hung tough to the end, outrebounding the Cavaliers and playing great defense. Second, Virginia won by showing the kind of versatility you expect of a No. 1 seed and locking down to stifle FSU in the closing minutes.

That tells me FSU is dangerous enough to watch closely and good enough to beat Missouri in an opening 8-9 game, but then comes No. 1 seed Xavier, and nobody needs to be bumping heads with them so early in the brackets.

Make it a 25 percent chance, then, on advancing to the Sweet 16, and recognize that if the Seminoles beat those arbitrary odds, it will be from the bonus any ACC team gets playing against consistently rugged competition inside the league.

Overall, Florida has two national titles, back to back in 2006 and 2007, and five trips to the Final Four. FSU’s only Final Four appearance was in 1972 and Miami has never been.

You’ve got to be in it to win it, right? Having three state schools in the tournament field is a mad dash no matter how it turns out. Would love to think it will last beyond this weekend for fans of the Hurricanes, Gators and Seminoles, but then you’ve already read my predictions about that and you’re already mad so I’ll just shut up now and watch like everybody else.

[Justin Thomas’ climb to No. 2 in world boosts Honda Classic again]

[Players Tribune, a Derek Jeter project, gives Kevin Love an important platform]

[Marlins’ inaugural spring training 25 years ago was a Space Coast blast]

 

Before Mark Richt became available, Miami interviewed Greg Schiano and Dan Mullen, too

Miami Hurricanes administrators can sit back and grin, satisfied that they’ve got the right football coach in Mark Richt.

In just his second season at the school, Richt has Miami in Saturday night’s ACC Championship game against defending national champion Clemson, and a win there should lead to a spot in the College Football Playoff field.

Miami Hurricanes defensive coordinator Greg Schiano (center) with Mike Boireau(left) and Damione Lewis (right) after a 1999 practice. Staff photo by Allen Eyestone, Palm Beach Post.

Could it have gone this well with any other coach available to at the end of the 2015 season? Impossible to know, but Richt was not the only candidate who got serious consideration.

Greg Schiano interviewed with Miami back then. The opportunity came at a time in his life when the former UM defensive coordinator would have given anything to be the boss in Coral Gables. Schiano was between jobs, having been fired as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach. He was volunteering as a high school coach, as a matter of fact, at Tampa Berkeley Prep.

There was reason to believe that something would come of it, too, since former UM star Jonathan Vilma, who played for Schiano, was a member of the six-person advisory staff that athletic Blake James put together to assist in the search process.

It’s a matter of timing in these things, though. Earlier, when Larry Coker got fired at Miami, the Hurricanes were turned away by Schiano. That was in 2006, when he was building something of his own at Rutgers, and formally asked to have his name removed from Miami’s list of candidates.

Lately, Schiano’s name was turned toxic when Tennessee pulled back from a decision to hire him because of an ugly social media reaction, buoyed by campus protests.

The advertised reason for the uproar was an unsubstantiated narrative that the coach somehow ignored or condoned Jerry Sandusky’s child molestation crimes while the two were assistants at Penn State. More likely a ton of Vols fans just thought they could do better than Schiano and coalesced around a convenient rationale to scare Tennessee administrators away from what had seemed a fairly straightforward hire of a well-respected coach.

So who else did Miami interview in November and December of 2015 before Richt got the job?

Dan Mullen, freshly introduced as Florida’s new coach, talked with James and his search staff. At that time he was 54-35 in seven seasons at Mississippi State. Had he gotten the Miami job, he would have been just as enthusiastic about flashing the “U” hand signal as he was about doing the Gator Chomp in Gainesville on Monday.

Butch Davis also interviewed with Miami before the Richt hire. He had been out of coaching for a couple of years and was eager to a second stint as head coach of the Hurricanes. These days Butch is coaching at FIU and waiting to see which minor bowl assignment his 7-4 Golden Panthers will get.

All questions were answered, and quickly, when Georgia fired Richt on Nov. 30, 2015. Four days later he was announced as Miami’s coach.

No need to be smug when one of these frantic coach searches works out. For every athletic director who nails it there are 10 who regret ever being put in the position to choose, and scores who fear the moment when they will be out there scrambling to find the right man again.

[For Gators, Dan Mullen is a good solution who wants to be great]

[Because hiring Chip Kelly wasn’t easy for Florida, nothing else would have been]

[Hurricanes finally bring out the beast in antiseptic Hard Rock Stadium]

Lane Kiffin’s breakup with Alabama before national title game does FAU no favors

 

Lane Kiffin always was an odd fit at Alabama.

You can’t say it was a bad fit. Not even close. Not with College Football Playoff appearances all three years he was the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator and a shot a second straight national title for Alabama next week. If Kiffin was doing a lousy job, Nick Saban would have kicked him to the curb right away.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 31: Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Head Coach Nick Saben of the Alabama Crimson Tide walk during pre game of the 2016 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome on December 31, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA – DECEMBER 31: Former offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Head Coach Nick Saban talk during pre game of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome on December 31, 2016. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

When the announcement came Monday, however, that Kiffin won’t be calling plays for the championship game against Clemson, the personality gap between this flashy, me-first coach and every other Saban assistant was made evident one last time.

“We made the decision because it was in the best interest of our players, our program and for Lane for him to assume his duties at Florida Atlantic,” Saban said. “We mutually agreed that this was best for both programs.”

Compare that to what Saban was saying about Kirby Smart last January, back when Georgia had already hired Alabama’s former defensive coordinator as head coach but Smart was permitted to stay with the Tide through the College Football Playoff title game against Clemson.

“You know, it’s sort of like you have a son and he’s moving away, and you want to see him do really, really well,” Saban said of Smart at the time.

“I certainly appreciate the fact that he’s stuck here with us and done a really good job as far as trying to finish this year for our players. I think that’s the number one reason that he’s here.”

The Georgia job is a whole lot bigger than FAU, with more impactful recruiting energy to be spent in keeping up with the SEC neighbors. Yet Smart saw the value of standing in the confetti shower of a national championship celebration and decided to do it the hard way, postponing many of his new duties at Georgia to get his hands on another trophy at Alabama.

“Kids see it,” Smart said after Alabama beat Clemson 45-40, not exactly his greatest night as a coordinator but a trophy moment all the same. “They identify with it. Me being on TV and being in the national championship did way more for me tonight than say somebody who wasn’t.”

Now Kiffin joins the vast majority coaches who won’t be on the field at Tampa next Monday when Alabama and Clemson do it again.

That’s too bad for him and too bad for FAU, which can use every precious syllable of network TV conversation in the raising of its Div. I football profile. That’s why the Owls hired Kiffin in the first place. Win games in the fall, sure, but get people talking all year round.

[Some leftover nuggets from Lane Kiffin’s introduction at FAU]

[The Lane Kiffin revival tent puts down stakes in Boca Raton]

[Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign drew comparisons to Tim Tebow’s]

What caused the breakup at this critical moment for Alabama football? Probably nothing major, but when you lose focus on Saban’s objectives for even an instant, that’s a tidal wave of trouble in Tuscaloosa.

A couple of times Kiffin was late to meetings prior to the Peach Bowl national semifinal, including Media Day, when he missed the bus back to the team hotel. Then, in an easy win over Washington, the Alabama offense was good but not great.

Couldn’t have helped, either, when Sports Illustrated came out with a long article about Kiffin house-hunting in Boca Raton during Christmas week, with $4 million waterfront homes on his target list so that boats and jet-skis will always be at the ready.

Made me think of the more common SEC coaching profile, Will Muschamp. When he was plucked off Texas’ staff to be head coach of the Florida Gators, Muschamp lived in a Gainesville hotel for several months while waiting on his family to finish school and join him. All work, no play, the Saban way.

That takes us back to that recent SI story. While referencing the relative social isolation of life in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin told the writer who tagged along on his house search, “This will come across wrong, but it’s like dog years. Three years is like 21.”

He knew it would come out wrong but he said it anyway. That’s Kiffin, who always goes back to smooth things over, but the joke too frequently is on him.

Why would a guy who desperately needed the structure of Saban’s system to restore credibility to his own career get sloppy the moment that the payoff of a new job is secured? It doesn’t say much about the maturity that Kiffin supposedly has gained since his days at Tennessee and USC, or about his stated desire at the FAU introductory press conference to keep it boring for a while.

None of this means, of course, that Kiffin can’t be successful at FAU, or that the Owls won’t benefit from his magnetism and his coaching, or that Nick Saban regrets the modernization that Kiffin brought to the Alabama offense.

The bottom line is that Kiffin has been quiet for a long time. It’s bound to get noisy at FAU, and fast, because the goal is to keep him around for more than a few crazy headlines, and it’s unlikely that anyone over there is going to have the nerve to tell him to tone it down or else.

 

 

 

 

Confident Jim McElwain is remaking the Gators again

The Florida Gators barely beat FAU last year. In overtime.

They edged Vanderbilt 9-7, struggling mightily to outscore a team that completed three passes for 30 yards.

Florida coach Jim McElwain speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Monday, July 11, 2016, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
HOOVER, Ala. – Florida coach Jim McElwain speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference football media days, Monday, July 11, 2016 (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Against Florida State, the Gators would have been shut out at home if not for a safety that the Seminoles gifted them in the fourth quarter.

Finally, in a bowl game that only Jim Harbaugh could love, Florida got rolled 41-7 by Michigan.

Is it any wonder that the Gators are flying under the radar at this week’s SEC Media Days in Alabama? Based on the results listed above, and the fact that coach Jim McElwain’s best quarterback from last season has transferred to West Virginia under the cloud of NCAA suspension, Florida’s ability to win a second consecutive SEC East title deserves to be doubted in every way.

Except one.

The Gators offense has to be better this year for the simple fact that it can’t possibly get worse.

McElwain has four quarterbacks from which to choose, with everyone figuring that Luke Del Rio will be the one, but really, it all comes down to this assessment from the 2015 SEC Coach of the Year.

“We’ve really got good arm talent,” McElwain said, “and I’m looking forward to stretching the field vertically.”

Good arm talent is the beginning point for any quarterback. It’s the opposite of what Treon Harris displayed last year. It’s the reason every play felt like fourth-and-long in the season’s final month.

A little foot power comes in handy, too. That’s why McElwain put so much energy into flipping powerful place-kicker Eddy Pineiro’s commitment from Alabama to Florida in February. Austin Hardin, the Gators’ previous best, made five field goals last season and missed three extra points. That’s middle-school stuff.

[Dolphins’ stadium, the one rushing renovations, also had a bumpy debut in 1987]

[The upside on Hassan Whiteside, who was Riley’s first free-agent priority]

[My strangest day in the business, an afternoon with Macho Camacho]

So we’ll talk more in the weeks to come about specific players at specific positions and what kind of magic potion it’s going to take to beat Tennessee again.

For now it figures that the defense will be good and Antonio Callaway will find his way back in the lineup and McElwain will go into his second Gainesville season quite happy that nothing spectacular is expected of the Gators.

One game, that 38-10 rout of Ole Miss, is all it took last year to get people believing in Florida again.

One game, maybe that trip to Knoxville Sept. 24, could do it again.

Pat Summitt was one of Steve Spurrier’s best friends and inspirations

Way back in 2001 I did a long interview with Steve Spurrier for a personality profile on the colorful coach, who at the time was still pestering everyone in the SEC as boss of the Florida Gators.

FILE-- Pat Summitt, coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols, talks with player Shannon Bobbitt during the last minutes of their game against the University of North Carolina during the semifinal round of the NCAA women's Final Four tournament at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, April 1, 2007. Summitt, who was at the forefront of a broad ascendance of women’s sports, winning eight national basketball championships at Tennessee and more games than any other Division I college coach, male or female, died on June 28, 2016. She was 64. (Suzy Allman/The New York Times)
Pat Summitt, coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols, talks with player Shannon Bobbitt during the last minutes of their game against the University of North Carolina during the semifinal round of the 2007 NCAA women’s Final Four. Summitt, who was at the forefront of a broad ascendance of women’s sports, winning eight national basketball championships at Tennessee and more games than any other Division I college coach, male or female, died on June 28, 2016. She was 64. (Suzy Allman/The New York Times)

We started talking about how he used to hang out with basketball coaches at the conference’s annual meetings as much or more than he spent time with his football peers. The way that basketball coaches really dig in on the sidelines to personally and passionately motivate, direct and correct their players really made an impression on Spurrier.

One of the first names he mentioned was Pat Summitt, who Spurrier called a personal friend. Consider it just one more example of the way that Summitt, who died on Tuesday, connected with and inspired the leaders of every sport. Men and women. Celebrities and small-town strivers.

Spurrier’s other major hero from the world of basketball? John Wooden.

This week Spurrier talked with The State newspaper in South Carolina about Summitt, who in 38 seasons at Tennessee won eight national titles and a Div. I record 1,098 games. The two first met at the SEC spring meetings when Spurrier became Florida’s coach in 1990. Summitt also invited Spurrier and his wife Jerri to visit her beach house in Florida’s panhandle, which they often did.

“She (Summitt) sort of always liked me for some reason, and I always liked her,” Spurrier said. “There’s a fact of life that people who win a lot, they admire and respect other people who win a lot. Winners admire and respect other winners. We were both doing pretty well at that time, so we got along very well.”

Summitt was tough-minded, too, or she wouldn’t have been able to stand or appreciate Spurrier’s jabs, many of which were aimed at her fellow Tennessee staffer, Vols football coach Phil Fulmer.

Summitt, whose last name was the perfect tagline, would have been a winner in any walk of life, and more specifically she would have been successful as coach of any men’s basketball team, too.

[Buddy Ryan always loved a good fight, even with a giant like Shula]

[If Warriors climbed out of 3-1 hole, why can’t Cavs do it now?]

[My strange day spent with Macho Camacho at his Clewiston camp]

This is a big loss for American sports, and twice as cruel because Alzheimer’s was involved.

Think of it. A women’s basketball program drawing major attention in the heart of SEC football country. That’s the kind of innovation that not even an improvisational wizard like Spurrier could ever hope to match.

Harris suspension leaves Gators scary thin at QB, but that’s the price of getting this right

You can’t count on Treon Harris, and at this point I don’t even care to know the reason behind his suspension for the Tennessee game.

That leaves the start of Florida’s SEC season in the hands of Will Grier. New coach Jim McElwain will need to have him ready for a better effort than the Gators showed in last week’s 14-9 win at Kentucky. Already what we’re seeing is too reminiscent of the Will Muschamp days, with the defense always on the hook to save the day.

GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 12: Treon Harris #3 of the Florida Gators scrambles for yardage during the game against the East Carolina Pirates at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
GAINESVILLE, FL – SEPTEMBER 12: Treon Harris of the Florida Gators scrambles for yardage during the game against the East Carolina Pirates at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Either way, McElwain has to keep grinding away at the rough edges of his team. When player discipline is needed, nothing else will do. Even if it means a few losses, even if some of Florida’s best players have to sit out, to compromise on that would be to undermine what McElwain is building for the long run.

Don’t want to hear that? Let’s dig in a little deeper, then. I don’t think Kelvin Taylor should have been carrying the ball late in the 31-24 win over East Carolina if McElwain was angry enough to scream and spew at the running back for drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty a few minutes earlier.

Taylor was flagged for doing a throat-slashing gesture in the end zone following the fourth-quarter touchdown run that put Florida up 31-17.

McElwain went ballistic on the sidelines while confronting Taylor. Later, before the media, the coach said, “Our lack of discipline and understanding of how you play the game crept up, and it was embarrassing. We’ve got a long ways to go. It starts with understanding selfish acts hurt the team and will be dealt with. And it’s not how it’s going to be around here anymore.”

Those words didn’t match the coach’s actions. After East Carolina scored to pull within a touchdown, Taylor was right back on the field as Florida attempted to run out the clock. Three times he took handoffs, gaining a net of 5 yards. It wasn’t enough to avoid a punt, or to avoid giving the ball right back to the Pirates, but in that situation, with a potentially disastrous home loss to an unranked opponent on the line, McElwain clearly trusted Taylor to handle the ball more than he did any other Gator running back.

Taylor didn’t miss any playing time the following week against Kentucky, either. Other than six carries by freshman Jordan Cronkrite, Taylor got every handoff in a game that was tense from start to finish.

Not saying that Kelvin, a former Glades Day star and son of Gator great Fred Taylor, should be drummed out of the corps for one stupid mistake. McElwain’s sideline show of disgust didn’t translate, however, into a clear demonstration of accountability.

Every coach struggles with weighing the importance of teaching against the fear of losing. McElwain, a head coach for all of 41 games between Colorado State and Florida, will get better at this, and at everything else.

For now it’s a matter of proving he’s serious. The suspensions of Harris and starting cornerback Jalen Tabor for the Tennessee game is a major part of that. The Gators wouldn’t have beaten the Vols last year in Knoxville without them.

[Chris Bosh’s comeback is as much mental as physical]

[Matt Moore gives Dolphins the kind of insurance other teams crave]

[Deep throws aren’t landing in Mike Wallace’s mitts in Minnesota, either]

For me, Tennessee hasn’t looked as good as everybody seemed to expect. Sure, the Vols played No. 15 Oklahoma tough in a double-overtime loss. The Sooners didn’t look like anything special last week, however, in a 52-38 win over Tulsa.

Tulsa ran up 618 total yards in a season-opening win over Florida Atlantic. Well, against Oklahoma the Golden Hurricane didn’t slow down much, totaling 603 yards and getting 427 of those on the passing of Dane Evans, who threw for four touchdowns against Oklahoma and had Tulsa within 38-31 last in the third quarter.

Put it all together and 2-1 Tennessee hasn’t done anything more amazing than Florida has to this point. It’s an even match, and one that the Gator defense could certainly wind up winning.

Harris and Tabor won’t like missing it, and McElwain won’t like missing them. There are bigger problems coming down the road, though, with Ole Miss, Missouri, LSU and Georgia all in a row.

It’s time to get this right, from the playbook to player attitudes. Matter of fact, the second might be more important right now.