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John L. Pitts "could have been an actor, but I wound up here," as Sports Editor at the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal | Djournal.com

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Stories Written by John L. Pitts

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

TUPELO

It’s peculiar that the main topic of conversation after this year’s MHSAA basketball tournament is about referees not blowing their whistles when maybe they should have.

After all, the biggest game-changer in Jackson was a whistle that should not have been blown – the “phantom” double-dribble call late in Baldwyn’s loss to S.V. Marshall in the Class 2A championship game.

But Northeast Mississippi folks had barely gotten home when the whispers began that something else peculiar had gone on at the tourney.

And on April 5, the Daily Journal published the first story suggesting that some referees had been asked to hold off calling fouls on one or more of the state’s top players.

MHSAA executive director Don Hinton flatly denied it.

At this point, the reality of the situation is more complex. And my gut feeling is that we’re just at halftime of this story, so to speak.

At issue are halftime conversations between game referees and one or more people speaking for the MHSAA. Short version of what the referees thought they heard: “Hey, people paid good money to see these stars. Don’t foul them out if you can help it.”

Further reporting by our Brandon Speck found referees who were given the same spiel at the 2013 tourney. For all we know, this has gone on for years.

The most benign explanation was offered by Baldwyn superintendent of schools Ronnie Hill – halftime chats with the refs are routine in other parts of the state but not routine with the officials in the north. Perhaps the message delivered in Jackson was taken the wrong way.

Said Hill: “I don’t think the association’s intent is to tamper with the game.”

But this kind of story erodes confidence in the process. If you can accept a universe where refs are pushed to swallow their whistles in some situations, it’s not a big leap of logic to thinking the refs are blowing their whistles against your team.

For the integrity of the process, the MHSAA has to reassure the public that everything is on the up-and-up. That needs to start at the top.

Random thoughts

• This column usually appears on Wednesdays, but that’s often a very busy day for sports news. We’re going to try it out here on Thursdays for a while instead.

• My wife, describing a particular garment to me: “It’s a racer back.” Me: “Wait, it’s from Arkansas?”

• The NCAA’s new “unlimited meals and snacks” plan is going to impose an undue burden on college athletic budgets in Colorado and Washington. Munchies!

• Three saddest words I can think of in sports: “Memphis spring game.”

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares more random thoughts on Twitter @johnlpitts

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

CORINTH

Whenever the subject turns to basketball coaches, whether in college or the pros, someone can always be counted on to say, “Anybody can win if they have the best players.”

I’m not so sure.

The value of good coaching will be on display this weekend at the Final Four, and Exhibit A is Kentucky.

This is the same Wildcats team that, in a short span of days just a few weeks ago, lost at home to a fair Arkansas team and then on the road against a bad South Carolina team. No one took them seriously as a national title contender at that point.

The talent was there, no doubt, but it took the firm hand of coaching to salvage the Wildcats’ season. John Calipari found a way to get everyone pulling in the same direction, with dramatic results.

Failure has a way of focusing the mind and leaving you open to better solutions.

A big part of that isn’t about X’s and O’s, but about egos. That’s the part we civilians often underestimate.

Phil Jackson won all those NBA rings with the Bulls and Lakers because he had some great players, of course, but also a roster of others who embraced their roles.

The team with the best record in the pros right now, San Antonio, is a textbook example of a team where everyone understands their jobs.

That quality also seems to distinguish all four of the Final Four teams. Florida has veteran grit and a ferocious commitment to defense; Connecticut has one great player and a roster that complements his skills; Wisconsin is 100 percent committed to a patient offensive attack.

The X factor in all this is Kentucky. Do the Wildcats, even now, know how good they can be? We’ll all see on Saturday if they’re ready to make the next step.

Random thoughts

• Overhead on the Lee County scanner last weekend: Woman wants help with an unruly 5-year-old. Response: “Dispatch, there’s nothing we can do with a 5-year-old.” Not the first time I’ve heard a call like that.

• I’m more convinced than ever that the SEC made a mistake not inviting Louisville to join in its last expansion. What a great athletic program. Not too late to go to 16, invite them and either Florida State or Clemson.

• NCAA basketball officials need a “decision clock” on reviewing TV replays. Give them 45 seconds and that’s it.

• The NBA is going to retaliate against the NFL’s no-dunk policy by outlawing all end-zone celebrations.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares more random thoughts on Twitter @johnlpitts

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

TUPELO

As much fun as it is for folks to gloat about the success of the SEC in the NCAA men’s tournament, I think Bruce Pearl’s return means more.

Auburn’s hiring of the former Tennessee coach works on several levels, none more important than the fact that the guy is a proven winner at this level.

Pearl won a (Division II) national championship at Southern Indiana, then led Milwaukee and Tennessee to Sweet 16 appearances.

Most strikingly, he’s won 74 percent of his conference games along the way – a good measure of success against teams with similar situations.

Contrast Pearl with some SEC hires where coaches won at one level but struggled after stepping up. I think of Stan Heath, who led Kent State to 30 wins and the Elite Eight in his only season there, then stumbled through stops at Arkansas and South Florida.

Pearl replaces a coach, Tony Barbee, who had some success at UTEP before finding it’s a lot harder to hit the pitching in the big leagues.

Auburn’s move quickly turned up the heat on state rival Alabama, which decided to bring back head coach Anthony Grant after the worst (13-19) of his five seasons in Tuscaloosa.

And it sends a signal that Auburn, which hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 2003, is prepared to be a serious player again.

For the SEC, better coaches will equal better basketball.

Pearl is a larger-than-life character, which plays well on the national stage. But everywhere he’s gone, he’s made a point of respecting the situation – a skill that eludes a lot of egotistical coaches.

At Tennessee, he was the first coach to really embrace the success of a Lady Vols women’s program that other coaches tried to fight. Remember him with his chest painted orange in the fan section at a Tennessee women’s game?

(Sorry, maybe you’d been trying to forget that.)

Yes, Pearl ran afoul of the NCAA in Knoxville by lying about what should have been a fairly minor rules infraction. We have to accept the notion that no coach in the league will be more scrutinized to make sure he runs things on the up-and-up.

Or, some skeptical rival fans might say, now that he’s at Auburn they can show him the right way to cheat.

Random thoughts

• Food trucks are a big thing. I think I’ll start a news truck. “Whaddya want?” “I’ll take an update on Crimea. And a burrito.”

• I was excited when I heard Phil Jackson was named president. I was somewhat less excited when I heard it was president of the Knicks.

• I think Elvis called me the other day. He asked if something was going to be in the paper, then said “ThankYouVeryMuch.”

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares more random thoughts on Twitter @johnlpitts

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

CORINTH

We’re all fascinated by Cinderella stories this time of year, but let’s face it – Wofford is not winning the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Nothing personal, Terriers fans.

The names of the players and, sometimes, the coaches will change, but the team that cuts down the nets on the night of April 7 will come from a small pool of brand-name programs.

There have been seven different champions in the past seven years, and they’re the bluest of the contemporary college blue chips – Florida, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Connecticut, Kentucky and Louisville.

Add in two other former champions, Arizona and Michigan State, and you have just about described the entire universe of teams that are likely to win this season.

This is the time of year when reality intrudes on regional bias. After hearing all season about Ole Miss, for instance, it was a little surprising to folks around here that the Rebels are sitting at home right now.

Even though I picked Florida to win in my “Billion-Dollar Bracket” entry, it won’t surprise me at all if the top-seeded Gators don’t even get to the Final Four.

I did an ESPN.com bracket where I followed its various metrics and I wound up with Arizona winning. We’ll see.

Here are my thoughts on a few of the early matchups, and some possible games that could happen between now and the Final Four:

Upset specials: We all immediately start looking at the 5 vs. 12 games because they so often deliver upsets. All four of this year’s 12 seeds are dangerous – Harvard, Stephen F. Austin, North Dakota State and N.C. State. Boy, it’s weird to type “Harvard.”

Round of 32: Here’s where we might see what undefeated Wichita State is really made of, with a potential matchup against a Kentucky team that may be rounding into shape. I have San Diego State and Creighton advancing to the Sweet 16, too.

Round of 16: Florida could be in trouble if it meets UCLA here. Iowa State would stand a good chance of decking a 2 seed, Villanova, at this point.

Elite eight: I’m leaning on coaching reputation here, looking for defending champion Louisville (Rick Pitino) and Michigan State (Tom Izzo) to advance.

Final Four: In the billion-dollar bracket, I have Florida vs. Michigan State and Wisconsin vs. Louisville. I wouldn’t be surprised if I change that this morning, or at least think real hard about the wisdom of selling Arizona short at this point.

Two years ago, inspired by our pets, I did an online bracket that advanced teams with cat mascots. As it happened, Kentucky (Wildcats) won.

My cats think a billion dollars would buy a lot of cat food – the good stuff. We shall see.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal.

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

TUPELO

I always think of football season as being the time of year when the Daily Journal sports department is at its busiest, but I seem to forget about the spring until it gets here.

It comes around every year, of course. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and more forgetful.

Fact is, this is the only time of year that all three of the major sports are really in play.

It’s still basketball season – for the state’s high schools, through the end of this week, plus the SEC men’s tournament starting today and rolling right into Selection Sunday. Then March Madness begins for real.

(Yes, that means the NCAA tournament bracket will be in Monday’s paper. I don’t know if it will help you win a billion dollars, but it couldn’t hurt.)

Baseball? The colleges will start SEC play this weekend, high schools have been playing for a couple of weeks and the major leagues are in spring training.

When the phone rings in our office, it might be baseball, or softball, or golf or maybe it’s tennis. Seems like it could be soccer, too, but that’s a topic for another day.

Football is even in play this time of year. If you don’t think spring practice for college football matters, just wait until your quarterback hurts his shoulder in early April. Then it matters.

It’s a lot to keep up with, and I haven’t mentioned track and field or the area’s big running events, like the Gumtree 10k.

I’m just glad it’s finally warming up. Let’s play.

Random thoughts

• My favorite moment from the Clippers’ 48-point win over the Lakers last week was when they did that trick with the water bucket that’s actually full of confetti. Gets me every time.

• You have to give Barney Google credit. Beloved cartoon character goes on to invent a great search engine despite his goo-goo-googly eyes.

• The movie “Escape From New York” is set in 1997. I’m not prepared to say that John Carpenter missed it by more than 20 years

• Spelling “Krzyzewski” is why cut-and-paste was invented.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal. He shares more thoughts on Twitter @johnlpitts

By John L. Pitts

Daily Journal

BIGGERSVILLE – It was less of a basketball game and more of a heavyweight prize fight.

And in the end, it took an extra round to settle.

LITTLE

LITTLE

Coldwater outslugged defending Class 1A champion Biggersville on its own court Thursday afternoon, winning 72-67 in overtime.

The host Lions (25-6), with seven seniors on their roster, “left it all on the floor,” a drained coach Cliff Little said when the game – and his team’s season – was over.

“We knew some very good teams would be gone after today,” Little said. “We never got into a rhythm and Coldwater hit some big shots. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”

Coldwater’s Brian Polk, a 6-1 junior, was deadly with mid-range jumpers, scoring a game-high 25 points. He scored four of his team’s nine points in the overtime.

But his Cougars almost threw the game away at the end of regulation.

Tied at 63 with 3.3 seconds left, they botched an inbound pass under their own basket and it wound up in the hands of Biggersville’s Jaylon Gaines.

Gaines’ potential game-winner at the rim wouldn’t go down.

“I thought it was over at that point,” said Coldwater head coach Wirt Spiva, who team won the 2012 1A state title. “We put it in Gaines’ hands with the game on the line? We dodged it right there, but we’ve been playing in games like these all season. We’re battle tested.”

Big farewell

Daniel Simmons led Biggersville with 23 points in his final high school game, including three 3-pointers in the final 2:19 of regulation. Darian Bennett was huge in the early going while his teammates struggled and finished with 23.

Emmanuel Simmons, another senior, tied it at 63 with a pair of free throws with 3.3 left.

“We were just exhausted at the end,” Little said. “I so proud of this team and they way they dug down. These seniors gave this school and community a lot to be proud of. They’ll be missed.”

Coldwater (25-6) advances to play Ingomar in today’s 7 p.m. game at Biggersville.

john.pitts@journalinc.com

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

CORINTH

I don’t want to start competing with our Kevin Tate as an outdoors columnist, but I have a few words I would like to share about deer:

Kill them all.

The deer have begun gathering on the sides of the road again. Before they get me, I would like to get them first.

It’s been about a year since my most recent deer-related auto accident, a literal fender-bender that happened on my way home from work. I spend most of my time on the drive home watching the right shoulder for deer, so of course this one ambled in from the left.

Another half second, I would have missed it. Timing is everything.

Which is why I don’t think we need specific deer season. It should be deer season all year long.

If I can kill a deer with a Honda at any time of year, I should also be able to do so with a Remington. Or my bare hands.

If it were up to me, MDOT would have a fleet of Mad Max-style trucks – festooned with steel spikes and barbed wire – patrolling the roads day and night, harvesting as many deer as dared stand on the roadside. Spotlighting wouldn’t be illegal, it would be encouraged.

In addition to primitive and contemporary weapons, the state should approve the use of futuristic weapons as well. Laser swords, drones, nanobots – whatever works. Set phasers to kill … deer.

There’s historic precedent for all this.

We nearly killed off all the buffalo once upon a time. We need a return of that fighting American spirit, this time aimed – literally – at this infestation of roadside terrorists.

We can keep a few in zoos and deer parks, but that’s enough.

And after that’s fixed, we’ll get the squirrels.

Random thoughts

• I was having trouble with my office computer and it turned out to be a bad mouse. Not a piece of equipment, a real mouse that chewed on the network cables. Probably in league with the deer.

• Ole Miss should invite Norway’s much-decorated Olympian, Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, to visit Oxford. He’d probably have a grand ole time.

• I read there’s a national clown shortage. They’re all in Washington.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Journal.

Frank Couch | AL.com Robert Scribner, from Tupelo, wins the Mercedes Benz Half-Marathon on Sunday in Birmingham.

Frank Couch | AL.com
Robert Scribner, from Tupelo, wins the Mercedes Benz Half-Marathon on Sunday in Birmingham.

By John L. Pitts

Daily Journal

Robert Scribner is back.

The former Tupelo High School and Mississippi State distance running standout is back in the Magnolia State – and he’s back in good running form.

Scribner, 28, recently returned to Starkville after spending several years training and competing for a team in Michigan.

And in his first race of the season, he won the Mercedes Half-Marathon on Sunday in Birmingham.

Scribner led a field of 3,400 finishers in 1:05:38.

“I missed my personal record at the distance by about 30 seconds, but considering the course was hilly it was a really strong performance,” Scribner said Monday. “It’s equivalent to my best time at the distance.”

And it was a good confidence boost as Scribner, who won an MHSAA cross country title in 2003, wrestles with his future as a runner.

“I kinda wanted it to go well, to prove to myself that I still have a future in running, that I can still improve,” he said. “Conditions were perfect. It was a great day to race.”

On the road

Scribner worked for 31⁄2 years with the Michigan-based Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon trials and sharing in the 2013 USA Track and Field 8k club championship.

“I certainly had a great experience there and learned a lot,” he said. “I thought I needed a change of setting, to see where my running might take me.”

To start, it’s taken him back to Starkville, where he’s working as a volunteer coach with the Mississippi State track team. “I’m running with those guy a lot, trying to help out however I can,” Scribner said. “Maybe I can edge into the coaching profession.”

On Saturday, he plans to run the Oxford Run for Hope half-marathon – “a fun way to get a workout in,” he said.

And Scribner is looking forward to running in some other events that he’s missed, including Tupelo’s Gum Tree 10k and perhaps the Coca-Cola 10k in Corinth, both in May.

“I’m excited to run some of these races around here,” he said. “In Michigan, I was just another guy running. Around here, to run well in a race like the one in Birmingham just seems to mean more.”

john.pitts@journalinc.com

MONCRIEF

MONCRIEF

Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief, who left early for the NFL Draft, hasn’t been getting a lot of buzz since the season ended.

Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. doesn’t include Moncrief on his list of the 10 best prospects. But the upcoming NFL Combine will offer a chance to break out.

NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell talked up the former Ole Miss standout in an appearance last Friday on Colin Cowherd’s ESPN Radio show.

“A receiver who is not being talked about at all … Donte Moncrief from Ole Miss is a receiver I really liked on film. I don’t hear anybody talking about him. I’m real anxious to see hw he perfrms at the combine. I could change the public debate, the public conversation.”

In a scouting report published over the weekend, the Bleacher Report rated Moncrief as a potential third- or fourth-round pick.

The combine begins Saturday in Indianapolis.

John L. Pitts

JOHN L. PITTS

JOHN L. PITTS

TUPELO

Tonight’s Florida-Kentucky men’s basketball game is worthy of a long look, and not only because both nationally ranked teams will visit Oxford next week.

The No. 3 Gators and No. 14 Wildcats are a study in contrasts for the way their rosters have been assembled.

Kentucky has nine freshmen on its roster and will most likely start five of them.

Florida has these guys known as “seniors” and will start four of those.

I love NCAA tournament time, when some school you’ve barely heard of sends five seniors out on the court and stuns a team with three or four McDonald’s High School All-Americans.

Experience counts, especially the mental toughness that comes with playing a couple of season’s worth of tough games away from home. But great talent can sometimes transcend everything else at crunch time.

Tonight’s game is in Lexington, Ky., and it will give a big boost to the young Kentucky players to have the home fans behind them. No surprise that the Wildcats are 14-0 at home this season.

Florida has won 16 games in a row, five of those in opposing SEC gyms. Mental toughness.

Kentucky coach John Calipari won an NCAA title in 2012 with a team featuring a batch of freshmen, but Florida’s Billy Donovan won back-to-back titles (2006-07) with more veteran teams.

There’s more than one path to success.

The Wildcats and Gators close the regular season in Gainesville on March 8 and could meet again for the SEC championship.

A fourth meeting, maybe with a national title at stake, may seem far-fetched. But if only two SEC teams make the field, nothing would more befuddle the experts – who keep telling us how weak the league is this season – than for both to make the Final Four.

Random thoughts

• No need to give Derek Jeter a rocking chair for retirement. The Yankees’ captain has been sitting on one in the infield for a couple of years now while playing shortstop.

• There’s a decent country song to be written about watching live Olympic curling at 4 a.m.

• Recent insight: Marcus Green > Marcus Smart.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@ journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Daily Journal.