Are mega conferences an existential threat to early-season tournaments?

·7 min read

Texas and Oklahoma joining the Southeastern Conference? ESPN analyst Jay Bilas proposing that the SEC merge with the Atlantic Coast Conference?

A question that comes immediately to mind is this: How do you schedule?

For basketball, former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson suggested an immediate and long-lasting dive into the deep end of the talent pool each season. “I’d play two exhibition games,” he said recently, “and then right into league play.”

But what about such non-conference fixtures as the Maui Invitational? That came to mind when on Tuesday the Maui Invitational announced the teams playing in its event in November.

Might wall-to-wall conference schedules threaten the existence of the Maui Invitational and other events like the CBS Sports Classic and Champions Classic?

Former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom, who now is tournament director of the Maui Invitational, likened this hypothetical threat to the chance of a variant strain of the coronavirus canceling his tournament.

“Another thing I’m not going to worry about because I don’t control it,” he said.

Conference games all season? “I think it’s way too much,” Odom said. “It’s overkill.” Players “almost to a person” want a variety of basketball experiences outside of conference play, he added.

Kentucky has a rich history in the Maui Invitational. UK played in the event five times.

“I’m one of a real small handful of players who’ve been able to play in Maui twice,” Jeff Sheppard said.

Sheppard played on the only Kentucky team that has won the Maui Invitational. A last-second off-balanced tip-in by Jeff Brassow gave UK a 93-92 victory over Arizona in the 1993 championship game.

Thanks to a redshirt year, Sheppard was also on the UK team that tried to avenge a loss to Arizona in the 1997 NCAA Tournament title game the following November on Maui. Arizona won the rematch 89-74, a disappointment soothed by the setting and the caliber of competition.

“It’s special just because it’s prestigious in itself as a preseason tournament,” Sheppard said of the Maui Invitational. “As a kid, you watch those games on television. You know, they do such a good job showing the guys on the beach.”

Brassow, who now lives in the Atlanta area and works in medical sales, recalled the Maui event as “a lot of fun, plus you got to go to Hawaii. You can’t beat that.”

Brassow returned to Maui years later on a trip with his wife. He said they stayed at the same hotel that the UK team had used.

“I didn’t remember it being such a long flight,” he said. Maui is 4,375 miles from Lexington, or about twice as far away as Los Angeles (2,162 miles).

As for the winning tip-in, Sheppard recalled that then-UK coach Rick Pitino was substituting him and Brassow for defense and offense in the final minutes..

“He checked in for me to get that tip-in,” Sheppard said. “So, good call by Coach Pitino.”

Brassow only played nine minutes in the game. In an earlier practice, he split the nail on a big toe.

“It was a little painful, so I didn’t play that much,” Brassow said. “But I at least made it count.”

The tip-in overshadowed a riveting backcourt shootout. UK guards Travis Ford and Tony Delk combined for 43 points. Arizona’s duo of Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire combined for 59. The foursome made 18 of 39 three-point shots.

Delk recalled the game as “huge for us” as a gauge for what might be possible for the team. It also enlightened him about Kentucky fan support.

“That’s when I knew, as a sophomore, that when they say Kentucky fans travel, they travel,” Delk said. “It felt like a smaller home game.”

Evoking thoughts of the empty seats and UK defeats of 2020-21, Delk noted the impact fan enthusiasm has.

“It brings so much energy and excitement to us,” he said. “It makes us play for them. And it’s so hard not having those fans in the stands because as a young player, you don’t know it, but you really do feed off hearing the cheers and seeing that color blue in the gym.”

If mega conferences become the norm, Delk said that room should be reserved for the Maui Invitational.

“It’s a beautiful place to go,” he said. “What program and what kid and what family and what fans and media support wouldn’t want to go to Hawaii?”

Runts reunite

Rupp’s Runts, arguably the most beloved Kentucky basketball team, held a golf reunion this past week. Seven players from the 1965-66 team participated: Larry Conley, Jim LeMaster, Larry Lentz, Tommy Porter, Bob Tallent, Cliff Berger and Brad Bounds.

The Runts — along with invitees such as ex-Cats Phil Argento, Randy Embry, Ray Edelman, Randy Pool and Jerry Hale — played a two-day golf scramble at the Golf Club of Tennessee, which is about 20 miles southwest of Nashville.

It was the third golfing get-together for the Runts since 2014.

“We tell some stories, and they get better every year,” LeMaster said.

Of the Runts’ enduring place in Kentucky basketball history, LeMaster said, “It is good to be remembered as an unselfish team that played together.”


Former Alabama basketball coach Wimp Sanderson said he had heard a rumor — and he emphasized it was only a rumor — that Alabama and Auburn would move to the Eastern Division of the SEC should Texas and Oklahoma join the league. Missouri would move to the Western Division.

Texas and Oklahoma would be in the Western Division with Mississippi State, Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU, Texas A&M and Missouri.

The SEC has considered playing nine conference games in football rather than the current eight, Sanderson said. Then he added that only Nick Saban of Alabama among the football coaches supported expanding the league schedule.

‘We’re human, too’

Simone Biles’ withdrawal from gymnastics finals at the Olympics brought to mind the book noted here last Sunday: “Confessions of a Division I Athlete: A Dad and Daughter’s Guide to Survival.”

In explaining her withdrawal, Biles said, “We also have to focus on ourselves because at the end of the day, we’re human, too. We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

The book’s co-author, Olivia Karas, was an All-American gymnast for Michigan. She shared her insights on Biles in a text to a publicist for the book, Lindsay McNamara.

In addition to problems with the techniques needed in the vault (what she called “twisties”), Karas texted, “I know she’s competing on a few broken toes, so there’s a lot going on in her head.”

Retired at 22

In the book, Olivia Karas detailed the pressure she felt as a celebrated Division I athlete. That included the oddity of retiring at age 22 in 2019.

“I believed I no longer had a purpose,” she wrote.

In a follow-up phone conversation, she said this challenge continues.

“Oh gosh, I still deal with it today,” she said of finding a new purpose. “It’s hard. I mean, you go your whole life competing in this sport. And every day, every minute, every breath is scheduled around your sport.”

Unlike basketball and football, a gymnast cannot continue to compete as a professional. And gymnastics is too dangerous to do for fun, she said.

“Once you’re really done with gymnastics, there’s kind of no going back,” she said. “But it’s hard. You kind of have to figure out: I was Olivia the gymnast. Now, who am I?”

Karas works as a communications coordinator for a marketing firm. She also is a freelance analyst for the Big Ten Network.

Oh, those refs

The book co-authored by Olivia Karas and her father, Jim Karas, details how gymnastics is not immune to second-guessing the officiating/scoring by judges.

“Honestly, I don’t think anyone understands scoring, even the judges,” Olivia wrote.

She advises gymnasts to smile after making a mistake to try to fool judges.

The book also suggests that athletes calling out sexist uniforms in this year’s Olympics is not new. She writes that the belief in gymnastics is that a more revealing leotard leads to a better score.

Happy birthday

To Steve Clevenger. He turned 75 on Thursday. … To Hamidou Diallo. He turned 23 on Saturday. … To Mike Flynn. He turned 68 on Saturday. … To Gene Stewart. He turned 76 on Saturday. … To former North Carolina coach Roy Williams. He turns 71 on Sunday (today).

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