Monday Tip: State of trouble

With conference play now in full swing, some schools that looked like they would be capable of big things in 2010-11 have fallen flat.

Pre-conference play in November and December has a few talent-laden teams looking like pretenders, and the odds of them advancing to the NCAA tournament look increasingly slim.

Coincidentally, two of these programs reside in the same state and meet this week.

This week’s question: Which preseason NCAA tournament favorites may be spending March in the NIT or worse?

Being forced to play half the SEC season without Bruce Pearl will be a major distraction for Tennessee.
(Frank Franklin II/AP Photo)

GERRY AHERN’S RESPONSE

Coming off the first NCAA Elite Eight appearance in school history, big things were expected from the Tennessee Volunteers this season. Then came revelations of recruiting violations by coach Bruce Pearl back in September. A teary Pearl did his best mea culpa for the school and the NCAA, but ultimately took a $1.5 million salary hit, had his recruiting ability extremely limited and was later suspended for eight conference games by the SEC. More repercussions are still very possible. When this season started, it looked like the Vols might be able to block out the adversity brought on by their coach. Then came a December to remember for all the wrong reasons. Tennessee followed up a 7-0 start, including wins over Pittsburgh and Villanova, with a bummer of a holiday season. Losses to Oakland, Charlotte and USC, and nail-biter wins over lesser programs such as Belmont and Tennessee-Martin have rocked the program that once was once No. 7 in the Associated Press poll. On New Year’s Eve came a loss to the College of Charleston that saw Pearl ejected. Maybe he was trying to get his team ready for his impending absence. Being forced to play half the conference season without Pearl will be a major distraction and could be completely discombobulating. Even though the talent is still there with Scotty Hopson, Tobias Harris and Cameron Tatum, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Tennessee (9-4) continues to slide into the also-ran ranks of the SEC. Pearl coaches one more game before the ban, Wednesday versus in-state rival Memphis. Maybe he’ll stick around for the entire 40 minutes.

JASON KING’S RESPONSE

Entering the season I thought Memphis was talented enough to make a deep run in March. Now I’m not convinced the Tigers are even going to make the NCAA tournament. Josh Pastner’s squad is 11-2 following Sunday’s victory over Tennessee State. Still, other than an early victory over Miami, Memphis doesn’t have a single “resume” win. The Tigers were blown out by Georgetown and Kansas. Even more disturbing is that they needed overtime to defeat Arkansas State and Austin Peay at home. Memphis has two more chances to post head-turning wins in the non-conference portion of its schedule, but I’m not sure if I see the Tigers defeating Tennessee or Gonzaga on the road. Making matters worse is that Conference USA appears extremely tough this season. Central Florida has yet to lose a game, Southern Miss is 11-2 with victories over Cal and South Florida, and Alabama-Birmingham will be pesky as always. Talent-wise, Memphis is the class of the league. However, four of Memphis’ top players (Will Barton, Chris Crawford, Tarik Black and Joe Jackson) are freshmen. The Tigers’ youth has already been evident for a team that often appears undisciplined and disjointed. Those young players will have to grow up in a hurry if Memphis wants to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

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Updated Monday, Jan 3, 2011