The NCAA Sweet 16 includes perhaps the best team ever from Auburn University and a player from Auburn High School (North Carolina starting forward Garrison Brooks).
It includes a former player from The University of Alabama (Virginia forward Braxton Key) and another player from Florence (Tennessee starting guard Lamonte Turner).
It includes four teams from the SEC for the first time in 23 years. The only common thread between that 1996 season and this one is, no surprise, Ketucky. The Wildcats went on to win the title that year, while Mississippi State made it all the way to the Final 4. Georgia advanced to the Elite 8, while Arkansas was eliminated in the Sweet 16. Even with four teams in the Sweet 16 again this year, it’s going to be extremely hard to duplicate the success of that season. Tennessee and Kentucky are slight favorites to advance, while Auburn and LSU are slim underdogs. Of course, as well as Auburn played against Kansas, it won’t be an upset for the Tigers to beat anyone, including mighty North Carolina.
This year’s tournament also includes five teams from the ACC, so clearly the Southeast is a major producer of the madness this March.
But for the 11th time in 13 years, there’s no team from The University of Alabama. The Tide couldn’t even live up to its No. 1 seed in the NIT, falling to Norfolk State in one of the most uninspired performances in program history.
As a result, Avery Johnson is out as coach at Alabama after four seasons that could only be described as maddeningly OK. Alabama wasn’t the worst team in the SEC under Johnson, but his team and his program were no better off after year four compared to the previous three seasons.
So, now Alabama will start over.
The last time Alabama had a chance to make a bold change, there was the opportunity to sign Bruce Pearl. Pearl was not in a position to haggle over any offer considering he was under the NCAA equivalent of house arrest because of rules violations while coaching Tennessee. Instead, Alabama stuck with a struggling Anthony Grant for one more season, thus taking the high road. Meanwhile, the ultra-popular Pearl and Auburn are in the fast lane on the road to the Final 4.
With Johnson out, Alabama again has a chance to abandon the high road in pursuit of on-court success. The downright subterranean option this time around is Rick Pitino.
The combination of Nick Saban and Rick Pitino would not only be the best head football and basketball coaching tandem in the country, it would be the best of all time. Even when Adolph Rupp was ruling college basketball at Kentucky in the 1950s, Bear Bryant had not yet emerged as a legendary football coach. Steve Spurrier and Billy Donovan were both national champions at the same time at Florida, but their reign together was short lived.
Hiring Pitino would allow Alabama to join Kansas as the only schools with national championship-winning coaches in both sports. But even Jayhawk fans wouldn’t argue that Les Miles and Bill Self are close to the level that a Saban/Pitino combination would produce.
The only reason Alabama would be an option for Pitino at this point in his career is the same reason Pearl was available to Auburn. Pitino ran afoul of the NCAA while coaching at Louisville. Allegedly, he was a cheat on and off the court.
He was also one of the best coaches to ever walk a sideline.
Since being fired at Louisville, Pitino won a professional basketball championship in Europe.
Pitino was asked about the Alabama job this week and took the opportunity to again proclaim his innocence.
“The only thing I can say with my broken record is that in my 30-plus years as a head coach I’ve never cut a dirty deal or gave any improper benefits to any athletes,” he told The New York Times. “All you have to do is ask my over 30 assistants who have become head coaches or any player that has played for me.”
So, there you go. Plausible deniability, sort of. Yes, Pitino ran a program that at the very least worked near the edges of the rules. That’s another way of saying he was a successful college basketball coach.
Will Alabama officials decide his actions were far beyond cutting a few corners? The answer to that question may also be the answer to whether Alabama can break its basketball doldrums, which have now reached a decade and a half.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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