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ESPN Upstate Blog

Join us here everyday for thoughts, predictions, scores, and more with some of the best sports authorities in the Upstate.  We have blogs from Greg McKinney of the Huddle, Mark Sturgis and Price Atkinson from Straight up with Sturg and guest blogs from Regie Eller!


Lookout for some very special, talented athletes in the Upstate tomorrow



Sometimes the glitz and glamour isn't what it's all about in sports. The South is dominated by college football with a sprinkle of college baseball and maybe a small touch of college basketball.

Individual sports equal the country club variety and usually come with a select following, especially in this area of the country.

But if you're looking to see some of the Superhuman-type athletes that have graced our area playing fields like former collegiate standouts and now NFL-ers Sammy Watkins and Jadeveon Clowney, check out some of the triathletes in the Upstate this weekend.

The 2015 USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships begins tomorrow morning in Clemson. Triathlon equals swim, bike and run (in that order) and trust me, having done several, they aren't an easy task. Over 1,000 athletes at the peak will be primed and ready to hit the course starting at Clemson's Campus Beach over the next two days.

The next "wave" of Olympians will be on display tomorrow and Saturday, as college athletics once again provides the Olympic movement with the ultimate training ground. And triathlon is no different.

The Buffs from the University of Colorado are the defending champs (winning five straight) and show no signs of relenting their title, while several schools are chomping at the bit. The Palmetto state will also be on full display with the Clemson Triathlon Club competing as well as athletes from across the state, including Furman and South Carolina.

I can't lie though…my heart will be with the University of Arizona Tricats squad and a very special young lady - Mary Kate Callahan. Sturg and I had the distinct opportunity and pleasure of talking with her Wednesday afternoon on the show.

Mary Kate isn't your average triathlete. Actually, she's an above average paratriathlete ranked in the top-five in the world in her particular classification. Losing the use of her legs from before she even turned a year old, the 19—year old has represented Team USA at the 2012 and 2014 World Triathlon Championships.

She's no joke. But more importantly, she's an inspiration to other athletes around the country facing daily obstacles and challenges. It's no stretch to say…in 19 years she's done more than I've done in 40 years.

I marvel at Mary Kate's courage, grit, fight and determination. And like I told her Wednesday on the show, I'm also jealous of her. Having come up short in competing at the highest level of my own sport (swimming), she's summited the mountain by earning the right to wear the stars and stripes as a competitor at the very top of her sport.

There's no greater honor in sports than being able to wear the United States flag on your chest or uniform in an international competition. I always dreamed of experiencing that feeling. But Mary Kate has lived it. She's breathed it in rarified air that I and many others dream of.

The crazy thing? At 19-years old, she's just beginning.

I'll be there cheering for her tomorrow and this weekend, wearing a smile while watching in awe as she and others in the paratriathlon wave compete Saturday morning at 9:45 a.m.

We can all learn something about self discipline and commitment by watching these special athletes compete in a sport that's driven by individual determination. But Mary Kate and the other paratriathletes redefine all that and more. Thanks for bringing your talent and shining examples to Clemson. It's gong to be an honor watching you.

Something tells me Mary Kate has many, many more mountains that she'll summit over the coming years because there isn't a peak too high for her.

Friday, April 24
Time Event Location
9 a.m. Men's Draft-Legal Collegiate Championships Start Campus Beach
9:58 a.m. Estimated First Men's Finishers Campus Beach
11 a.m. Women's Draft-Legal Collegiate Championships Start Campus Beach
12:02 p.m. Estimated First Women's Finishers Campus Beach

Saturday, April 25
Time Event Location
7:30 a.m. Men's Collegiate Club National Championships Start Campus Beach
9:25 a.m. Estimated First Men's Finishers Campus Beach
9:45 a.m. Paratriathlon Collegiate Club National Championships Start Campus Beach
10:40 a.m. Women's Collegiate Club National Championships Start Campus Beach
12:35 p.m. Estimated First Women's Finishers Campus Beach
4:15 p.m. Mixed Team Relay Start Campus Beach
5:20 p.m. Estimated First Mixed Team Relay Finishers Campus Beach
8-9:30 p.m. Awards Ceremony D.W. Daniel High School

#USATCN15


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The Quest for Perfection



38-1 and you are a failure. Not in my book. Are you the 2015 National Champions Kentucky Wildcats, no you are not? But regardless of who wins the national title between Duke and Wisconsin, this version of the Kentucky Wildcats will be the single greatest storyline from this season.

There are a few teams in college athletics that are expected to compete at the games highest level, and it's actually a "Catch 22". If said team wins, well hey, that was expected, and what's the big deal in that? However, if they lose, watch out, it's incoming, and everything those teams accomplished along the way are seemingly dismissed as not that big of a deal.

I'm no Kentucky basketball fan. In the long run, as an unabashed "Bama Man", it helps my Crimson Tide Basketball program in the long run, with or without coach, that Kentucky doesn't go 40-0 and add yet another feather to that very sweet hat of theirs. Maybe it's the Alabama in me that allows me to see that win the ultimate mission was not accomplished; it's just unfair in my opinion to label these kids that are 18-20 years old as failures.

Think about it, they can't go in a bar and legally buy a drink, yet those players still have so much to be proud of. Those Freshmen and Sophomores won 38 games in a row, no team has ever accomplished that. In the long run, that simple fact may have very well been Kentucky's undoing.

The last four teams that enter the Final Four on a 30 or more game winning streak have all seen their season end right there in the semifinals. The Final Four is the game's biggest stage, yet it's the worst time to see some things happen that you haven't dealt with all season. It's the wrong time to get out-hustled by older players that understand losing, because you don't know what it feels like to be out-hustled, and actually lose a game. Sometimes the fear of losing another game because you know how much it hurts can be the ultimate motivating factor.

The 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats are not failures in my book, but again, they are not the National Champions either. They did however captivate our attention for all but 48 hours of this season with their story. Failure is such a harsh word and should be reserved for things and/or people in life that actually deserve that label, not a group of college basketball players… or football players… or baseball players…


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My 10 predictions for the Sweet 16/Elite Eight



It’s been a long week. Mostly because I’ve begun to have trouble sleeping. Nerves have fully set-in with Kentucky remaining undefeated and of course still alive as the hunted in the Sweet 16, which gets going tonight and continues tomorrow.

I didn’t expect it nor do I think it’s possible for a team to go 40-0 in my lifetime. And still don’t, even with the Cats on the cusp at 36-0. Sure, I picked UK in my bracket, not because they’re my team but because I just don’t know who will be the first and only to knock them off. This weekend will be tougher and more pressure-packed for UK to get thru than if they’re able to advance to the Final Four

Four more fun-full days of college basketball begins again this evening, as four teams will punch their ticket to the Final Four in Indianapolis, starting Saturday and finishing Sunday afternoon in the Elite Eight.

So it got me thinking and here are my 10 predictions for the Sweet 16/Elite Eight:

1.) Kentucky is tested by West Virginia tonight before pulling away to win by a dozen points. Teams have flirted with it for a half this season and Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers will be the next “almost.” But like the others who tried and failed, WVU will get worn down by UK’s length and depth before falling.


2.) A UK-Wichita State Midwest Regional Final. The Shockers are playing outstanding basketball and I expect Gregg Marshall’s team to land a date with destiny and a matchup with UK in the regional final. The basketball gods will be all over this one. Remember the Cats upset then undefeated-Wichita last year in the Round of 32. The shoe will be on the other foot this time…could the Shockers play the spoiler?


3.) One thing synonymous with March is Tom Izzo and the Sweet 16. Almost as much as Tom Izzo in the Final Four. Izzo’s Michigan State team pulled one of the biggest upsets in the Tournament so far last weekend, beating No. 2 seed Virginia at its own game…tough defense. We knew the East Region was up for grabs and could get wild. The affable coach is anything but wild except on the court at times, which is where Sparty advances past Oklahoma and the Louisville-N.C. State winner en route to Indy. 


4.) Gonzaga will throttle UCLA back to Westwood and into the Elite Eight in a matchup against Duke that I’m dying to see. The Zags have size inside, perimeter shooting and experienced guard play led by Canadian Kevin Pangos. If Gonzaga lands in Mark Few’s first-ever Final Four as head coach like I’ve predicted, Pangos will be the one to take them there. 


5). N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried will screw something up for the Wolfpack. I joke often that Gottfried is good for at least 6-8 points for the opposing team almost every time out because of his boneheaded coaching decisions. Luckily this Pack squad has plenty of talent (that Gottfried personally assembled) to withstand those dumb decisions and get past an offensively-challenged Louisville team.


6.) By halftime tonight, we’ll all be sick of the Sean Miller coaching against his former team Xavier storyline. We know Miller left Cincy for Tucson. We also know current Xavier head coach Chris Mack and Miller are close friends. But spare us this one guys and call us an exciting game, something I don’t think we’re going to get. 


7.) Frank the Tank’s mojo and game wins out tonight against the Tar Heels’ size. Despite an up-and-down finish to the regular season, UNC has finally found some mojo of its own, thanks to freshman shooting guard Justin Jackson scoring in double figures in 10 of the last-11 games. With Kennedy Meeks doubtful tonight, Brice Johnson is likely to get the assignment on Kaminsky. But it won’t matter as the 7-footer and Wisky are on a collision course against Arizona in the West Regional Final.


8.) Utah senior Delon Wright is a stat-sheet stuffer, who’ll show why he’s the top point guard in the country tonight. At 6-foot-5, he’ll be a matchup nightmare for Duke’s smaller backcourt of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. The problem for the Utes is they don’t have an animal inside big enough to contain Duke frosh Jahlil Okafor, which is the sole reason why Utah and Wright will fall to the Blue Devils.


9.) The pair of regional finals I expect between No. 1 and No. 2 seeds (Wisconsin vs. Arizona and Duke vs. Gonzaga) will give us a pair of must-see games Saturday and Sunday. And two games where both No. 2 seeds win and advance to the Final Four.

10.) Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter will be TV gold, while working as an guest analyst for CBS, TBS and TNT over the next four days. He’s not likely to issue any in-studio challenge to Barkley on the on-set basketball goal with his torn achilles. However, we’re virtually all guaranteed to smile at a coach who loves life and the game. Christmas in March? We’ve got it. Thank you CBS!



Will they all happen? Heck no. Maybe even half? Doubtful. But no matter what it’ll be four exciting days of college basketball!


 
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My March Madness picks by region: Which way did you go?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Kentucky vs Michigan


(Photo credit: USA Today sports)

Got your NCAA Tournament picks locked in? Last-minute cram session, researching the teams and matchups to win your office pool? 

Time is ticking with the best-two days in sports officially tipping off this afternoon at 12:15 pm. I know it technically got underway the last-two nights with the “First Four” in Dayton. But most everyone’s “official” start isn’t until the Tournament’s first game on Thursday (No. 3 seed Notre Dame vs No. 14 Northeastern in Pittsburgh). 

That Thursday obviously being today, as sports bars around the country will be packed, employees will take longer-than-normal lunches (last at least 2 hours), iPads are loaded with the “March Madness” app and packed into your briefcase to use at your desk. Or if you’re one of the lucky ones, taking today and tomorrow off for stay-cation at home with nothing but college basketball filling your afternoon and evening 12-hour block of time. 

Sturg and I spent the last couple of days breaking down brackets, regions and teams on the show. We all have a reason (some stupid or not) for picking every game/team along with Final Four picks and the ultimate winner. 

I’ll save you the question and tell you, yes…as a diehard member of Big Blue Nation, I am picking my Kentucky Wildcats to win it all (though I still believe I'll never see a 40-0 in my lifetime but just don't know who beats 'em). In fact most people are at an alarming, yet understandable rate. In a twisted way, logic says you can’t afford not to and that you’re rolling the dice by not picking UK. 

It’s your bracket and we went to bed one more time last night, content and knowing our picks were indeed safe from elimination for just a few hours longer. Winning your bracket isn’t always about being the smartest college basketball fan or “knowing” the most about every team, player and matchup. There’s a lot of luck is involved. 

As the lone college basketball guy around ESPN Upstate surrounded by nothing but college football talk 24/7, here’s a look at each of the four regions thru my eyes, including my picks, upsets, sleepers:


Midwest Region (Cleveland)

The lowdown: 
It’s undefeated Kentucky’s world and we’re just living in it. At least until the Final Four arrives in Indianapolis. While the Selection Committee did a great job with balance this year, I think the Midwest Region is the weakest on paper and provides Big Blue smooth sailing to Indy.

Sleeper: No. 12 Buffalo 
Bobby Hurley’s Bulls have won eight in a row and do a great job taking care of the ball, which they’ll have to do against No. 5 West Virginia’s pressure defense. This is a team that led UK by five at Rupp back in November and was still in it until the last five minutes before the Cats used a 9-0 run to pull away. Led by power forward Justin Moss (17.7, 9.3 rpg), I like Buffalo to upset WVU and advance to the Sweet 16.

Best Round of 32 game: No. 2 Kansas vs No. 7 Wichita State 
The game every Shocker fans has been dreaming of…and they finally get it.

My regional final: No. 1 Kentucky vs No. 7 Wichita State
The Shockers are a different type of team this year compared to last year’s undefeated group. However, experienced guards and WSU’s two-leading scorers Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are still around. Gregg Marshall’s team has a very difficult path but my gut tells me we get a rematch from last year’s second-round game when under-seeded UK dethroned undefeated Wichita.

My pick: Kentucky
Notre Dame is probably the team that gives the Cats the most problems with their ability to defend, spread teams out defensively with their array of shooters plus a big time scorer in senior Jerian Grant. 


West Region (Los Angeles)

The lowdown: 
Easily the toughest overall region with the most depth. And unfortunately it includes our local entrant into Madness, the No. 12 seed Wofford Terriers who drew the worst possible matchup on the planet in No. 5 Arkansas.

Sleeper: No. 11 Ole Miss
The “First Four” seemingly provides one team that makes a bit of a run every year, just as Tennessee did to the Sweet 16 last season. Make it two years in a row that an SEC team does the same. The Rebels rallied from a 17-point halftime deficit against BYU on Tuesday night and have more talent and athleticism to get past No. 6 Xavier today. No. 3 Baylor will be tricky in the Round of 32 but 5-10 gunner Stefan Moody will shoot them into the Sweet 16 against Arizona.

Best Round of 32 game: No. 4 North Carolina vs No. 5 Arkansas
Can you imagine the pace at which these two teams would go at it? I could see both eclipsing 100 points.

My regional final: No. 1 Wisconsin vs No. 2 Arizona
This is one of the two regions I think is on a collision course for the top-two seeds to meet in the region final. One of most well-coached teams in the country against one of the most talented. They provided must-see, high-level basketball in the region final last year when the second-seeded Badgers edged the top-seed Wildcats, 64-63. 

My pick: Arizona
Unlike last year, the roles are reversed this time and I think talent wins out with Arizona advancing. Stud frosh Stanley Johnson, a likely top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, will power the Cats thru while playing in his hometown.


East Region (Syracuse)

The lowdown: 
Here’s the biggest tossup of all the regions where I expect chaos and bracket busting to reign supreme. If there’s a region to roll the dice, this is it (though I chickened out).

Sleeper: No. 11 Dayton
For many of the same reasons I like Ole Miss above, I like Dayton to bust thru the West Region and advance to its second-consecutive Sweet 16. Archie Miller’s team isn’t deep (playing only seven players), but showcased their toughness in getting past Boise State in the First Four with leading scorer Jordan Sibert saddled with major foul trouble.

Best Round of 32 game: No. 4 Louisville vs No. 5 Northern Iowa
If fortunate enough o see it because both teams face very tough tests in their opener, this would provide an outstanding interior matchup between UofL’s Montrezl Harrell and NIU’s Seth Tuttle. 

My regional final: No. 2 Virginia vs No. 5 Northern Iowa
Get side for a wild ride thru this region but I love NIU’s squad of shooters on the perimeter with Tuttle anchoring the interior. The Panthers have only lost once (at Wichita State) since Jan. 4 and shoot nearly 50% from the field. Tony Bennett’s Wahoos play outstanding defense and have experienced guard play, which combined can take a team far.

My pick: Virginia
Admittedly, I was completely torn by picking Virginia over NIU, primarily because of the hand injury to Cavaliers guard Justin Anderson. UVA was close last season until Tom Izzo’s Michigan State knocked them off in Madison Square Garden. The loss to Duke in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament last week may ultimately refocus and inspire this team for a run to Indy.


South Region (Houston)

The lowdown: 
This one mirrors the West Region in that I think there’s two teams that are a cut above the rest. Not as deep as the West, this was probably the toughest overall region to pick because I expect several upsets here.

Sleeper: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin
I hate SFA has become everyone else’s sleeper coming off the Lumberjacks success last season but for good reason. After a 1-3 start, SFA has only lost once in the last 29 games! Their incredibly unselfish, leading the country with 17.8 assists per game and face an up-and-down No. 5 Utah they’ll get past en route to the Sweet 16.

My regional final: No. 1 Duke vs No. 2 Gonzaga
After these two teams, nobody else scares me here, which is why we’re on a collision course for this one. The Zags’ toughest test will come in the Round of 32 against Atlantic-10 regular season champ Davidson.

My pick: Gonzaga
Everybody has watched for years as head coach Mark Few’s team put together a great regular season only to be ousted early from the Big Dance. However, this is the breakthrough season for the Zags to finally reach their first Final Four. Gonzaga has three veteran senior guards, including UK transfer and leading scorer Kyle Wiltjer (16.7, 6.0). This is Few’s most well-built squad yet and think they’ve got all the parts to make a run and play UK in the title game.


Final Four: Kentucky, Arizona, Virginia, Gonzaga
National Championship: Kentucky over Gonzaga




 
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SoCon delivers a fantastic event & an absolute classic last night



(Sturg gets all the chicks, while I'm working and slaving away...do you think he was involved in the Wofford court storming last night? Listen to today's "Straight Up With Sturg" starting at 4:00 pm to find out!)

The game

I’m still drained and emotionally empty a day later. Ironically, it has nothing to do with my cold or being up at the crack of dawn with my two munchkins. 

After the 24-hour buildup for the “dream” All-Upstate, Southern Conference final between rivals top-seed Wofford and cinderella Furman, who really thought the game would live up to the hype? It more than lived up to it. The game featured 11 lead changes, the score tied 13 times and the largest lead by either team was six points (which was early in the first half).

Sitting court side with Sturg in downtown Asheville and a national TV audience looking on, we all were left shaking our heads as the Paladins and Terriers went back and forth. The teams played to a 36-36 tie at the half. Questions about whether Furman would be able to “get up” again and if they’d worn down playing the fourth game in four days were gone. 

With Wofford trailing 60-58 and less than five minutes remaining, I even turned to Sturg and told him the strong gut feeling I had: “You know dude, I think Furman just might win this. I feel it.”

Then in another momentum swing, the Terriers got a big stop defensively and then SoCon Player of the Year and Wofford guard Karl Cochran came down and drained a deep three to reclaim the lead. 

Wofford got another big stop as Kendrec Ferrara’s shot in the paint rolled off. Sophomore point guard Eric Guard drilled his fourth and final three-pointer and ultimately the dagger into the Paladins with 2:36 left. 

Furman cut it to one inside of 15 seconds but Garcia’s two free throws ensured the Terriers were headed back to the Dance with a 67-64 victory. Wofford punched it’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in the last six years, leaving head coach Mike Young to say afterwards: “It never gets old. It’s the ultimate.”

Something else that never gets old is watching two historic rivals play each other to the absolute bone with so much on the line. Furman and Wofford provided us all with a special treat last night and being a college basketball nut, I can tell you it was an absolute joy to witness and watch.


The little guys vs the big dogs

We’re heading up to the ACC Tournament tonight and we’ll be there in Greensboro the next few days. But the truth is that it’s going to be a letdown after our time at the SoCon Tourney in Asheville. Why?

There’s something special about one-bid leagues because in a championship game, two teams have 40 minutes to live out a dream and ultimately make it a reality by leaving every single ounce of blood, sweat and tears on the court. Furman’s season ended last night and the kids were visibly emotional and upset afterwards that it was over. You think Louisville or UNC players will be crying in their hands if they lose in the ACC final to say Virginia or Duke? Nope. 


Most teams and schools in the smaller, “mid-major” conferences will tell you the challenges and negatives outweigh the perks and positives of being a member of one of the “Power 5” leagues. I’ll raise my hand to that, having worked as an SID at Kentucky in the mighty SEC and then four years at the Naval Academy in the Patriot League.

However, one of the perks of working with and in a league like the Southern Conference is the closeness and intimacy of which we’re involved in the event. There aren’t guarded “barriers” between the media and the coaches and players. You right there on top of things and have direct access to those who create the excitement and heartbreak out on the floor.

I spent a few minutes with Young last night after he had already addressed the media to get comments for today’s show. Even in defeat, Furman head coach Niko Medved who has been incredibly helpful and gracious to us, gave me a few minutes like he did after their exciting win against Mercer a night earlier in the semis.

Do you think Rick Pitino, Roy Williams or Brad Brownell is going to give us a one-on-one after meeting their postgame media responsibilities? Heck no. Win or lose, they’re outta there. The outstanding staff from the SoCon league office goes out of their way to help and they were fantastic over the last few days. 


The SoCon thank you's

SoCon Assistant AD for Media Relations Jason Yaman worked to secure a broadcast location on the course three weeks in advance, so we could bring you “Straight Up With Sturg” live from the arena. Which in turn provided the us the chance to have all the amazing guests join us like ESPN2’s Rich Hollenberg on his way into the building, Furman President Dr. Elizabeth Davis, Furman and Wofford Athletic Directors Gary Clark and Richard Johnson and many more I hope you heard yesterday (if not click here).

Jason and his media relations staff worked the night before to make sure SoCon Commissioner John Iamarino had 10 minutes to join us live on the show. (By the way, stop holding your breath now that we’ll have ACC Commissioner John Swofford join us live on “Straight Up With Sturg” tomorrow or Thursday.)

It was an outstanding experience topped off by the unlikely chance to have both our area schools playing for a bid to March Madness on national TV. Thanks to everyone from the SoCon (Jason, Shawn, Erica, Chandler, Davis and Commish Iamarino), our guests on the show and most importantly the players, coaches and staff from Furman and Wofford who allowed us access and the opportunity to promote their respective schools on a very special night in Asheville.

I’ll check in again tomorrow from Greensboro (fingers crossed no additional Sturg speeding tickets tonight)!




Photo gallery from our afternoon broadcast of "Straight Up With Sturg" before the game...

 
 

 
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Was Roy Williams strategically calling out UNC fans?



The day before a public memorial is being held for former UNC head coach Dean Smith, current head Tar Heel Roy Williams decided to invoke his mentor one more time. 

And Williams wasn’t trying to shower any UNC fans with praise. Instead ripping the Tar Heel fan base in his postgame media session for a lack of passion, energy and enthusiasm inside the house Dean built.

Before the full dismantling of lowly Georgia Tech began yesterday afternoon, Williams opened the game with a classy tribute and nod to his mentor by running Smith’s patent four-corners offense. Evidently, the plan was to run the shot clock down under 20 seconds, while the bench stood with four fingers in the air. 

However, Marcus Paige found Brice Johnson for a quicker-than-expected backdoor, layup. Before you could blink, the opening possession and tribute to Smith was over and it was game on for the Tar Heels. For a late-arriving crowd to a noon tipoff, they hardly noticed. But Williams obviously did. Which is what spurred is post game comments directed at the UNC fanbase.

“I’m a little disappointed more of our crowd didn’t have more savvy, but I felt like they were asleep most of the day anyway,” Williams said. “It’s not intended to be criticism, but it’s criticism.”

To steal one of ‘ol Roy’s favorite words, you’re “daggum” right it was criticism. But was it actually intended? I think it was definitely intentional.

“If you want to act like I’m chastising the fans, then tell them to come in and invest. Come in and invest. We need some help when we play back here.”

It’s hard not to be brittle if you’re Williams. His team was coming off a 92-90 overtime loss to archival Duke, in a building that’s one of if not THE most hostile environments in the country. 

No. 15 UNC has two home games left this season, including Tuesday against N.C. State and the regular season finale against the Blue Devils (Saturday, March 7). Having lost four of the last six, the Tar Heels aren’t exactly gaining strength heading down the stretch.

It’s obviously risky, but maybe Williams was indirectly trying to ignite his team down the stretch by firing up a fan base for two big home games? The Heels need a shot in the arm. A dose of confidence would do wonders. And winning is the only remedy for two mentally taxing postseason tourneys on the horizon. 

Drawing that preverbal line in the sand between a coach and their fan base is risky. Actually, more like borderline stupid because it’s virtually a lose-lose situation. Even as the head honcho of Carolina basketball, it’s a calculated risk. 

Williams is smart. Very smart. He knows the buttons to push. Take a trip back to last season when he tried to push anything and everything he could, while figuring his team out. Ultimately, he decided to play with just one postman and go with four-out, one-in to spread the floor and push tempo. It worked. 

UNC fan or not, everyone knows the home crowd at the Smith Center is virtually sterile for a large, home arena. UNC is not mislabeled as “wine and cheese” crowd. The label fits.

But this is calculated and far from a guarantee. The only way we’ll know if it works? If UNC puts together a strong close to the regular season and makes noise in the ACC Tournament but ultimately March Madness that’s just around the corner. 


 

(video courtesy of the Raleigh News & Observer)

 
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Two titanic matchups dot the ACC, college basketball schedule



It’s the first weekend in months without football of any kind. And there’s no better way to transition into college basketball than a pair of Top-10 games that will shape the outcome of the ACC regular season title race.

No. 10 Notre Dame at No. 4 Duke 
(Saturday, 1 pm, CBS)

Less than 10 days after the Irish scored their biggest win of the season, a 77-73 comeback against the Blue Devils, two of the ACC’s best will go at it again tomorrow. It first meeting was a signature win for Mike Brey and the Irish with many not believing the hype until rallying from 10 down midway thru the second half.

Two of the top ACC Player of the Year candidates went to toe-to-toe and they didn’t disappoint. Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant stepped up with one of the league’s most complete games this season, tallying a game-high 23 points and 12 assists along with six rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Duke frosh Jahlil Okafor had a monster outing (22 points, 17 rebounds), but the Blue Devils suffered at the free throw line (10-for-20).

But the Irish will be making their first visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium since joining the ACC. There’s no need to go on and on about the difficulty on playing in that bandbox. But Notre Dame could pull off the rare “double” by sweeping the Blue Devils this weekend, something that would go a very long way in making the Irish a candidate for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

Meanwhile, Duke has rebounded back-to-back losses to NC State and Miami, winning five of its last six. Coach K has tightened his rotation to seven guys and the reduction to just eight total scholarship players won’t be a factor unless referees call games close and the Blue Devils face significant foul trouble. 


No. 9 Louisville at No. 3 Virginia
(Saturday, 7 pm, ESPN)

In Charlottesville, Virginia hosts another ACC-tilting game against the upstart Louisville Cardinals (Saturday, 7 pm on ESPN). UVA was knocked from UK’s pedestal as one of the last two unbeatens last Saturday evening when Duke scored 11-straight points to end the games…as well as the Cavaliers’ winning streak.

UVA atoned for the loss, marching into the Smith Center Monday night and putting on another impressive second half display defensively to defeat then No. 12 North Carolina. Holding the Tar Heels to just one transition basket shows the strength of the Cavs on the defensive end of the floor. 

Tony Bennett’s team is squarely in the hunt for a No. 1 seed but they’re still looking for the first win over a Top-10 team. Here’s one of UVA’s last chances as UofL is the last ranked team they’ll face before the ACC Tourney. The Cavs and Cards will also square off again in the regular season finale (March 7). 

Don’t write off Rick Pitino’s squad just yet. Since getting blown at home to the Blue Devils, UofL has won four straight (three of which were road games) behind shooting guard Terry Rozier. Rozier has scored more than 22 points during the Cards’ winning streak and is showing why he’s likely to declare for the upcoming NBA Draft.

After UVA, the Cards have just three road games left and finish the regular season with back-to-back games at home against Notre Dame and Virginia. But the NCAA Selection Committee values quality road wins and UofL has had success away from the KFC Yum! Center this season. 


Possible upsets to keep an eye on…

No. 1 Kentucky at Florida
(Saturday, 9 pm, ESPN)

Could UK (22-0, 9-0 SEC) finally get knocked off in one of the SEC’s toughest places to play? ESPN’s College Gameday awaits the Wildcats in Gainesville, though John Calipari’s team has struggled mightily against the Gators lately. Big Blue still rides into town with a ton of confidence and the best defensive unit in the country. Oh yeah, and a pair of shooters in Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker when they’re knocking down perimeter shots, UK becomes virtually unbeatable. 

However, Billy Donovan’s team has lost four of its last six, including one of the worst losses since coming to Florida (12-10, 5-4). The Gators lost at Vanderbilt 67-61 this week and will have to put together in their final nine games of the regular season if they’re going to make the Big Dance.


No. 8 Kansas at Oklahoma State
(Saturday, 2 pm, ESPN)

Oklahoma State (15-7, 5-5 Big 12) is squarely on the bubble heading own the stretch. With five games left against ranked teams, the Cowboys have an opportunity for several resume-building wins starting with Kansas tomorrow. OSU is one of just four unranked Big 12 teams and have the caliber of talent to compete with every team in the league.

Don’t look now but here’s Kansas (19-3, 8-1) yet again leading the Big 12. Just when everyone thought the streak of 10 consecutive league titles could be in jeopardy, Bill Self has seen his young team continue to blossom. The Jayhawks won the first meeting 67-57 at Allen Fieldhouse and are playing their best basketball of the season with five straight wins.


 
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NCAA "bubble" talk now a reality for Clemson basketball



Don’t look now but Clemson has quietly played its way onto the proverbial March Madness “bubble” and into the conversation for a possible postseason bid.

After outlasting Florida State in Tallahassee last night 62-56, the Tigers have now won four-straight games (tied for longest in the ACC this season) and six of their last eight. Clemson is now 14-8 overall and 6-4 in the ACC (6th place, since Syracuse no longer counts). 

Common basketball sense tells you that sitting in sixth place in the country’s best basketball conference at worst puts you in the bubble conversation. Need proof? ESPN’s Mr. Bracketology Joe Lunardi has Clemson in his “first four out” in his updated bracket after last night.

I know, this sounds like crazy talk right? Sure it does, especially if you saw this team play early in the season. Or even if you saw the Tigers play last week because it’s not pretty at times.

But style points has nothing to do with wins and losses, primarily the “Ws” because that’s the name of the game no matter how you chalk them up. 

Think No. 3 Virginia or its fans care that they play a boring, slow-down style of hoops? They’ve chalked up 20 wins so far with just one loss and not a single player on the roster was a Top-100 rated recruit coming out of high school.

Which brings me to the ringleader of this conversation we’re having right now: Clemson head coach Brad Brownell.

I’ve said repeatedly that Brownell is one of the outstanding floor coaches in college basketball. He’s showing it once again this season by turning in likely his best coaching job since arriving in Clemson.

The Tigers aren’t blessed with an abundance of overall talent, something Brownell is fully responsible for as the head coach. He doesn’t have a KJ McDaniels-caliber player with the ability to play above the rim or take over in large stretches. He has two incredibly talented young forwards (Donte Grantham and Jaron Blossomgame), a veteran backcourt and three bigs turning in solid, rim-protecting play in the lane.

Instead, he’s winning again with the most important calling card and the signature of any Brownell-coached team: defense, rebounding and toughness. His team’s commitment to those three pillars have kept and will continue to keep the Tigers in and winning games against teams far superior in talent. Will they get blown out from time to time? Sure because this team struggles to score points.

They didn’t beat Louisville, but they went toe-to-toe with the Cards and avoided getting blown out when it looked like a 20-point rout was coming to start the second half. A lead that ballooned to more than 15 points was whistled to three inside of the final minute before falling to then No. 5 Louisville 58-52.

Three ACC road wins later and Clemson has squarely positioned itself on the bubble. The Tigers’ RPI (75) is still borderline from where it needs to be in order to feel comfortable and they do have a pair of wins over RPI Top-40 teams (Arkansas, LSU). They’re also 5-4 in road and neutral site games combined, much better than many bubbles ahead of them.

With eight games remaining, Clemson has three chances for signature, resume-building wins (twice against No. 10 Notre Dame and at No. 4 Duke). They also have three home games remaining against teams (Georgia Tech, NC State, Virginia Tech) with a combined 7-23 conference record. 

Clearly more work is left to be done for Brownell’s team. But they’re again positioned to control their own NCAA fate by winning against quality competition. 

And at this point in the season, that’s something most Clemson fans wouldn’t admit to believing was possible a month ago, including me with that murderous schedule to begin ACC play.

 
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Here's our Super Bowl picks...who you got?



After a long two weeks, the wait is finally over as Super Bowl XLIX is here. It’s Seattle against New England in one of the closest games to pick in years.

We say that every year but everyone seems split on who has the edge and will. Our friend and USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan still has the Patriots as a one-point favorite. Only twice in history has the Super Bowl gone off as a one-point game and never has it been a “pick ‘em.”

Will it be the dominating Seahawks with the hard-hitting defense and poise of QB Russell Wilson? Or can the cerebral Bill Belichick-Tom Brady tandem find a way one more time? So who’s your pick for the big game?

Our ESPN Upstate picks of on-air hosts, producers as well as our good friends around the Entercom Upstate building weighed in and it’s pretty evenly split (five Seahawks, four Patriots)…


Steve Sinicropi (VP/GM - Entercom Upstate)
New England, 34-17
Why: New England by 17 in one of the most lopsided wins in recent Super Bowl history.

Mark Hendrix (Operations Manager - ESPN Upstate/Rock 101/93.3 The Planet)
Seattle, 31-24
Why: Marshawn Lynch’s battering ram running game.


Lonzo (ESPN Upstate)
Seattle, 42-35
Why: Close game, decided by a late pick six by the Seahawks.

FatBoy (The Rise Guys)
New England, 31-24
Why: I think New England wins the game 31-24. The Patriots have the best coach in the game with an explosive Offense. We've seen against Baltimore and other teams this year how New England can dominate the second half. The Pats Offense is potent and deep. Revis will prove to be enough on Defense to keep Seattle in a good bit of "three and outs" throughout the game which should prove to be enough for New England to control the time of possession and win the game.

Mattman (The Rise Guys)
Seattle, 34-20
Why: (Too good to tell us why.) 

Sturg (ESPN Upstate)
New England, 27-23
Why: They circle the wagons and pull out a win!!

"G-Mack" Greg McKinney (ESPN Upstate)
Seattle, 24-17
Why: The Patriots have problems hanging on to properly inflated footballs.

"Angry" Zack Adams (ESPN Upstate)
Seahawks, 31-20
Why: Lynch will have a big game, Seahawks control the ball and clock, and they get after Brady with their pass rush.

Price Atkinson (ESPN Upstate)
New England, 27-13
Why: Seattle has more overall talent and better players. But New England has the best coach in the game as well as likely the best player on the field in the most important position. The Panthers showed that a strong running game is critical to attacking the Seahawks defense. And I think LaGarrette Blount’s bruising running style will be the difference, moving the chains and giving Tom Brady time to make throws downfield. 





 
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Even in defeat, Gamecocks past the test against top-ranked Cats



COLUMBIA, S.C. - Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you. 

A visibly fatigued USC head coach Frank Martin plopped down for his traditional postgame interview with the media after yesterday’s 58-43 loss to top-ranked Kentucky and began with that exact line. 

Martin then quickly added, “And today the bear got us.”

But Kentucky is an awfully big bear, especially this year with the tallest collection of trees in college basketball. Only one NBA team sports a taller starting lineup the John Calipari’s Wildcats.

This isn’t your average UK team nor is it even your above-average. Calipari’s squad embarked on something special this fall and so far hasn’t disappointed, faltered or done anything to make Big Blue Nation or even the college basketball world think it will be anything but special. 

“Special” in this case being the Bluegrass’ ninth NCAA national championship. Special also includes the question of whether this merry bunch of Cats can put together a 40-0 season en route to No. 9. It also carries the biggest question of whether this team can in fact live up to the hysterical preseason hype and run the table.

As an objective critic and longtime college basketball observer, I’ve said several times on-air that I don’t think this UK team will go undefeated. I think they’ll lose one SEC game this season, whether it’s in the regular season or conference tourney, there’s a loss looming for this young but oh so talented team. 

In full disclosure as a UK grad and diehard Wildcat fan, I hope there’s a loss somewhere before the NCAA Tourney begins in March. If not, UK would be sitting at 34-0 before trying to win six straight and cut the nets down. The pressure would be greater than anyone could possibly imagine and law of averages wouldn’t exactly be on UK’s side (which I know many would be thrilled about). 

Back to yesterday, the USC athletic department wheeled out every possible weapon and trick to play into the hype of welcoming the nation’s No. 1 team to town before a sold-out crowd and a national TV audience on ESPN.
 
 

They handed out white “spirit” towels to students on the way in. There were fatheads, calls for Dickie V, chants and relentless heckling from garnet-clad students and of course the usual endless playings of Sandstorm. “Baseline Jesus” literally ran baseline to baseline at times, working to keep the crowd alive.

They trotted out Steve Spurrier to provide an indirect yet direct message to the football-crazed crowd and more importantly the 20 plus recruits visiting campus for the weekend. 

When USC took a 24-23 lead with less than five minutes to go before halftime, the Gamecock crowd nearly took the roof off Colonial Life Arena as Calipari called timeout to settle his troops. 

UK returned to the court and scored the next 11 points en route to a 34-24 halftime lead and a run that would effectively end any USC threat the rest of the way. 



Make no mistake about it…the Gamecocks fired their best shot. 

Martin was pleased his team showed the same passion, energy and grit it displayed while upsetting No. 9 Iowa State three weeks ago in Brooklyn.

“I’m really proud of our guys. I couldn’t be prouder of our fight,” Martin said. “The fight is where it needs to be.”

From the very tip Carolina came out physical, pounding and leaning all over the visitors.  Sitting courtside fourth row on press row, you could see Martin’s style of play written all over the five Gamecock starters. They did what they had to do in order to give themselves a fighting shot. But against this type of opponent, a team that can virtually win any and every possible way, it wasn’t enough. 

If you would’ve told me in advance that USC would outrebound UK (40-28), grab 18 offensive boards, make 16 free throws and hold the Wildcats to 58 total points, I’d tell you that the Gamecocks would likely be enjoying the lead-in SportsCenter highlights all afternoon and into the wee hours of the next day. 

Calipari was all over the scouting report, knowing USC didn’t have any shooters or anyone who could stretch the floor. He knew Carolina would play inside-out and try to drive it into the lane repeatedly. 

UK swallowed up most driving attempts up. The Cats blocked shots out of nowhere. USC point guard Tyrone Johnson even looked around after one Marcus Lee swat out of bounds, seemingly asking himself, “where did that guy come from?!?”

Talent not withstanding, Martin has his guys bought-in to how he wants to play. Slowly but surely, he’s getting the type of players he wants. The upward trajectory is clearer than ever. 

Whenever you test yourself against the best, it’s the type of measuring stick to know where a team and program is. And they’ll get another shot to test themselves again on Valentine’s Day when visiting Rupp Arena. 

Losing is never okay but even in defeat yesterday, Martin’s Gamecocks passed this test.




 
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