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Tigers prove they’re strong title contenders in new conference

Having sat courtside at FedExForum for the Tigers’ 16-point loss to Cincinnati in their first home game in the American Athletic Conference, I was impressed with No. 24 Memphis beating No. 12 Louisville 73-67 on the road.

Impressed, but not really all that surprised.

The Cardinals play a fast tempo that suits the Tigers. They also are getting too much credit for being the defending national champions. Their current team, though still talented and coached by Rick Pitino, should not be confused with the superior version from last season.

Put simply: Memphis was good enough to beat Louisville and did. By the way, they’re also 2-2 vs. ranked teams. They split their two games with Oklahoma State, lost a well-played game to Florida and, of course, beat Louisville. The Cardinals take their shot at revenge at FedExForum on March 1.

I’m also impressed with the follow-up win at Temple two days after beating Louisville in prime time. This was a perfect set-up for a letdown. And yes, the Tigers allowed the Owls to stay close before grabbing a 79-69 victory. But they found another gear when they needed it and they looked a lot like a team that realizes they have as good a chance to win the AAC league title as anyone else.

Now 3-1 in league play – 3-0 on the road and 0-1 at home – the Tigers can take another step this Thursday by defending their home court when Connecticut comes calling. UConn is a legit team but already has dropped two AAC games. In other words, the Huskies aren’t quite living up to their brand.

All this bodes well for the Tigers. Coach Josh Pastner said before the season the Tigers are not a “smashmouth” team and that remains true. Still, they took a punch from Cincinnati and have come back with victories in two games that offered very different physical, mental and emotional challenges.

I predicted the Tigers would go 14-4 in the AAC.

Four games in, they’ve shown they just might be capable of better.

 

 

Miller Time: Grizzlies reportedly lure sharp-shooter back to Memphis

Mike Miller, a sweet-shooting guard who won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2006 while playing for the Grizzlies, reportedly is returning to Memphis.

Miller, 33, played for the two-time NBA champion Miami Heat and shot 61 percent from 3-point range during this year’s NBA Finals. But the Heat amnestied Miller in an effort to save as much $17 million in luxury tax penalties; the Heat still have to pay Miller almost $13 million over the next two years. The Grizzlies, ESPN.com reported, are believed to be signing Miller to a two-year deal.

Over his career, Miller has averaged 12.3 points and 40.6 percent shooting from 3-point range. The former Florida Gator has been plagued by back issues in recent seasons, but did play 59 games for Miami last season.

Grizzlies Marc Gasol and Mike Conley reached out to Miller as he considered several landing places, including the Oklahoma City Thunder. Conley even joked that he’d provide Miller “golf on me for a year” if Miller returned to Memphis.

 

Day 3 SEC Media Days: Alabama dominates and Les Miles says goofy things

HOOVER, Ala. – The third, and final, quarter of SEC Media Days began with LSU coach Les Miles speaking of hyperbaric oxygen therapy and concussions – no one saw that coming – and also included Miles talking about the language barrier with his Australian punter.

“You can’t just speak to those guys,” Miles said. “You have to know how to speak Australian.”

No, you could never script Les Miles. Nor tame him. He finished his opening remarks by saying, in so many words, they had as good a chance to win the SEC championship – and perhaps the one over the next horizon – as anybody else.

“Our culture, bring it on,” the Mad Hatter said. “It’s what we do … I like us in any game.”

So, well, game on.

But the featured attraction on Thursday was two-time defending national champion Alabama, coach Nick Saban, and quarterback A.J. McCarron. Hours before the Crimson Tide’s scheduled appearance at the Hyatt Regency Winfrey Hotel, Bama fans packed out the lobby. Held back a black stretch rope – that’s about the only thing that apparently can hold back Bama – they were hoping for autographs, high-fives, or maybe just a little eye contact with their heroes.

Shannon Villa, 23, was there decked out in a Bama jersey and a gold foam replica of the 2009 national championship ring perched atop his head, an item for which he said he paid $300 on eBay. He wore a Big Al elephant necklace and buttons that read “Roll Tide” and “Beat LSU” and carried a football he was hoping to get signed. But autographs or no, Villa said the day would be worthwhile.

“Just hoping for anything,” he said. “Just enjoying the experience.”

Saint Nick, that jolly old elf, does not suffer these experiences well. Dressed in suit and tie, he marched past his throng of admirers and accepted a young boy’s high-five. Once on the stage in the main ballroom before hundreds of credentialed media members, Saban said he had a great summer vacation but that he was happy to be here to see “1,200 of my very closest friends.”

Who says the man doesn’t have a sense of humor?

More seriously, looking toward to this season and seven returning defensive starters, he said, “One of the concerns is who will step up on the defensive side of the field and provide the leadership? That’s going to be very critical how players respond and come together on defense.”

Given that Alabama has won three of the last four national titles, the “D” word – Dynasty – is being thrown around. The quarterback threw it back.

“Coach Saban doesn’t say it’s a dynasty so I’m not going to say it’s a dynasty,” McCarron said.

Asked about scheduling and Miles’ comment that not every team has an equal path to the championship, Saban said he believed it important that a player have an opportunity to play every SEC team at least once in his career. He also said rivalries with teams in the East are important, noting, “Our Tennessee game is a big game for our fans.” Also a game Tennessee hasn’t won since 2006.

Saban deflected a question about comparisons to Bear Bryant now that Saban has won three national titles at Alabama (plus one at LSU), saying Bryant is the greatest coach in college football history. Georgia defensive end Garrison Smith might disagree, considering his answer to a question about the difference between the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide in the SEC title game boiled down to two words: “Nick Saban.”

Oh yeah, Saban also reminded media of their record in correctly picking the winner of the SEC championship over the last two decades.

“Now, if I was 4-17 as a coach I’d be back in West Virginia pumping my gas at my daddy’s gas station, which we don’t really want to go there,” Saban said, a rare smile following his words.

 

Day 2 SEC Media Days: Johnny Football, Vols, Bulldogs and John Calipari

Scatter shooting from Day 2 of SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama:

Texas A & M quarterback and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel was the day’s focal point because of his widely reported dismissal from the Manning Passing Academy last weekend for missing meetings and his growing list of off-the-field issues. He said he was “absolutely not” hung over and that he missed the meetings because he “overslept.” I’ll dig into the Johnny Football saga in more detail in my column that will be posted on Thursday afternoon. Meantime, coach Kevin Sumlin said: “Is he perfect? No. I think he has done some things that he is not very proud of, has made some poor decisions. Unfortunately, the poor decisions are the ones that are publicized.”

First-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones took football metrics a different direction when he tossed out this stat in his opening remarks: “Our football team has lost over 260 pounds of fat and regained about 230 pounds of muscle mass. That led me to believe right away these players are hungry and that they want to win.”

The Vols have lost eight straight to Florida. “I hear it all the time (from fans),” Jones said. “Obviously, being at Tennessee, we have a lot of rivalry games. I’ve heard that about Florida. I’ve heard that about Alabama. In order for us to make those rivalry games, we have to get back to being relevant and winning those football games.”

Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell on the urgency from coach Dan Mullen for the Bulldogs to go higher and farther: “Going 8-5, going to a bowl game isn’t good enough anymore. A few years ago, you win five games and that was a pretty good year. Now, we’ve changed everything, we continually get better. Our goal is to go 7-0, to continue the season undefeated and ultimately make it to the championship. If you don’t have those goals, you shouldn’t be playing football.”

Mullen said Russell is maturing, but added, “He’s a little goofy at times, does some funny, goofy things, tells a lot of jokes. Most of his jokes are bad jokes too, which makes him even goofier. But he comes in and understands what has to get accomplished.”

First-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, when asked about life at a “basketball school,” said: “It’s been great so far. Coach (John) Calipari could not be any better … he takes time. We bring recruits in, he visits with them. He’s really embracing myself and the staff so I love it.”

 

Highlights from SEC Commissioner Mike Slive’s address at Media Days

HOOVER, Ala. — Southeastern Conference Football Media Days kicked off Tuesday – and yes, I’m required to say they “kicked off” – with an address from Commissioner Mike Slive.

Here are a few highlights:

On football’s success: “The SEC won its seventh straight BCS national championship, finished the regular season with six teams ranked in the top 10, the first conference to accomplish such a feat in the history of college football; set a record with 63 NFL Draft picks … and an SEC player was awarded the Heisman Trophy for the fourth time in the last six years.”

On the off-the-field behavior of current and former SEC players: “We are not naïve enough to think we can put an end to all unacceptable behavior. But that doesn’t mean we won’t continue to try, try, try.”

On Scheduling: Slive said a change in format would not come before the 2016 season when it’s possible the league will switch from eight conference games to nine.

On the NCAA: While Slive pledged “support” for the NCAA, he also seemed to take it to task. “Moving forward, there are important questions that need to be answered. For example, what changes need to be made to the NCAA structure to provide significant roles for the stakeholders, the presidents, chancellors, athletic directors, institutional administrators, conference administrators and coaches? What is the proper role, function and composition of the NCAA board of directors? Do we need all of the services provided by the NCAA’s national office, its many committees and task forces, or are some of these services better provided elsewhere.”

In other words, Slive seems to favor the NCAA having less power over the most powerful conference in the land.

 

 

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