I'm not sure if I can recover from this weekend by Friday's first-rounder, much less the team that actually played the basketball. The Hogs secured their tournament berth against Vandy on Friday, turned in a historic performance on Saturday and melted down on Sunday. With all these highs and lows, the weekend felt downright operatic. A few days spent torturing myself over my bracket picks won't have calmed me down any.
We could beat just about any team in the country if we played them as well as we played Tennessee. Our shot percentages were off the charts, and no matter how many times one of their mouthy Smiths tried to put us away, we answered in no uncertain terms. Steven Hill's already-canonized heave was executed by the low-scoring 7-footer with an eerie calm. While his teammates climbed all over him, he was as expressionless as Matt Jones. We were in the zone. That swish was somehow inevitable, cosmic.
Less than 24 hours later, we were a different team. The Hogs looked confused and frantic — struggling to hold onto the ball, reel in the boards, make wide-open looks. A Georgia team that could barely pull off four conference wins during the regular season had us down by 19 so early in the first half that we couldn't recover, though we eventually pulled our shit together enough to come within shouting distance of a win. Maybe there was a Law of Improbability at work in Georgia's breathless run, an angel on their shoulder that made shots unmissable, but there's no explanation for the late-game rebounds that won them the game. Fresher legs should have prevailed.
(Georgia also had the Hogs' number on the diamond, taking two of three at Baum. My misgivings about the bullpen seem to be well founded. At least we have a couple of weeks before our next conference match-up.)
I've been pretty hard on this team all season, placing most of the blame at the feet of seniors who've made a career of under-performing. But yesterday I had to question our young coach. We've witnessed essentially the same season under Pelphrey this year as under the ousted Heath last. The same performance and personnel; so far, the same results. I defy you to decipher a real offensive scheme from the tapes of Sunday's game. I can only remember two or three plays that actually panned out. The rest of the time, our possessions were busted up before they started, resulting in turnovers, off-balance shots and mind-boggling decisions.
At some point, that's got to be the coach's fault. I wanted this column to be penance for my lack of faith. I wanted to have to apologize to this team for not believing. An SEC Championship would have been a glorious send-off. Instead, I find myself reexamining the same puzzle that I've been over and over before, this time from a different angle. I like Pelphrey's emotional presence. But is it fire or hot air? I'll stray to either side of the sliding scale based on how many winnable games we lose.
We could certainly win Friday's game. Indiana's been experiencing late-season drama all its own, centered on the termination of their lying and cheating head coach, Kelvin Sampson. They're 3-3 coming into the tournament, and that famed Minnesota buzzer-beater in the Big Ten quarterfinals might have sucked all the air out of the flailing team. If we can absorb the beyond-the-arc assault of Eric Gordon (21.3 ppg) and measure up with D.J. White (17.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg) in the front court, we could actually make this trip worthwhile.
Of course, it's unfortunate that we'd have to meet the top-seeded North Carolina in the second round. We were probably slated for a better draw given a win in Atlanta. Lucky for us, the Tar Heels are something of a media darling and will be begging for an upset. Tyler Hansbrough barely saved their asses versus Virginia Tech, but the same all-or-nothing mentality that makes him seem so special during the regular season won't single him out anymore. Everybody's playing for their lives now.
Look for my bracket picks on the Arkansas Times website. They should be good for a laugh. There's got to be no more humbling experience than displaying long-agonized-over brackets for public scrutiny. I'd give any one of my little nieces the odds in a tournament pool.