Tennessee missing from the bracket and this year’s March Madness

By Steve Williams

The opening day of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament is why they call it March Madness.

Thirteen hours of close games, upsets, emotion and controversy.

I was among those who picked Iowa State to go a long way in the tourney – to the Elite Eight in my case – only to see the No. 3 seeded Cyclones fall to No. 14 UAB in the first batch of games.

Georgia State’s upset win over Baylor not long after that put another red line on my bracket, like it did a lot of folks I’m sure.

My first day upset pick didn’t happen either. It’s become an annual event for a No. 12 seed to knock off a No. 5, so I went with Stephen F. Austin over Utah. Wrong.

I also got red marks for Purdue losing in overtime and for SMU being eliminated on that controversial goal-tending call.

Not all was lost. I did get Kentucky right. Wow.

And I was delighted to see Butler beat Texas.

At the end of Day 1, I was 10-6. Guess it could have been worse.

At the time of this writing, Belmont is getting ready to play No. 2 seed Virginia. I’m pulling for Knoxville product Ricky Byrd and his No. 15 Bruins.

Byrd, whose dad, Ben, hired me as a sportswriter at the old Knoxville Journal in the spring of 1973, has done an outstanding job coaching at Belmont. If the Tennessee job ever opens again, I hope Ricky will consider applying one more time and get the opportunity to come home and coach his alma mater.

Ricky, who played at Doyle High and UT under Ray Mears, got started in coaching, I believe, at Maryville College.

Byrd has done so well over the years, he’s respected as one of the nation’s best coaches, even though he has toiled at a mid-major program and away from the bright spotlight. That only makes the success he has enjoyed even more remarkable.

Though this year’s opening day of March Madness was one to remember, I was a little disappointed Tennessee wasn’t in the Dance. It’s been about 10 years since the Vols were not in the NCAA or NIT field.

UT had long been a sleeping giant in college basketball, until Bruce Pearl rolled into town in 2005. For five years or so, until Pearl got in hot water with the NCAA, the Vols and their fan base showed just what they could do on the national scene in basketball.

Cuonzo Martin picked up the pieces after Pearl was fired. A different type personality, Martin led Tennessee to the NIT his first two seasons here and then guided the Vols to a strong finish and a Sweet Sixteen berth last year.

With a tough act to follow, Martin never got the respect he deserved from the fans, and I felt he also was shortchanged by athletic director Dave Hart last season. Probably feeling under appreciated, Cuonzo left to take the California job in the Pac-12 Conference.

Martin started 10-1 at Cal this season but his Bears went 7-11 in conference play and ended up 18-15. His new program, like Tennessee, didn’t win enough games to get a NIT bid and turned down an offer to play in the CBI.

Martin’s coaching style was not as well received by the fan base as Pearl’s fiery and flamboyant ways. But I believe Martin could recruit and would have enjoyed modest success overall at Tennessee, and maybe even had some big winning seasons, had he stayed here.

Josh Richardson was one of Cuonzo’s prize recruits at Tennessee. We all know what Josh contributed and meant to this program. I would put five like Josh on the court anytime.

Coach Martin was able to recruit a player like Richardson because of the type of coach and man that he is. I liked the fact that UT had a coach with character and integrity when Cuonzo was here. You didn’t have to worry about him getting in hot water.

There’s again a cloud hanging over the UT basketball program, as we wait to hear about the NCAA’s findings in regard to current coach Donnie Tyndall.

It seems like we’ve been here before, and quite frankly, I don’t like the feeling.

I want to see the Vols get back in the Madness.

 

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