Thank the stars for the NCAA basketball tournament. Because after this months baseball news, a nice, overhyped sports distraction is more than a little welcome. At least till Opening Day, April 3rd.
First there was the death March 6th of Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, a modern sports teddy-bear if ever there was one during his playing days with the Minnesota Twins. The sad epilogue to Pucketts life, of course, included the glaucoma that ended his playing career, legal troubles that revealed a personal life that was hardly angelic, then finally the extraordinary weight gain which, one must presume, contributed to the stroke that ended his life at age 45.
The contrast couldnt be greater: a player who seemed most alive whenever we saw him in uniform, cut down so soon, his charms already having faded in the public eye. A dramatic reminder once again that the heroes we cheer on our playing fields remain very human.
Then came March 7th, and the revelation that an upcoming book will chronicle in great detail the steroid usage of one Barry Lamar Bonds. Game of Shadows, written by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams will serve as the most thorough, well-nigh definitive case against a baseball player who has repeatedly claimed hes been steroid-free as he nears the hallowed career homer record of Hank Aaron. With the news breaking while the baseball world collectively mourned Kirby Puckett, the first World Baseball Classic was left as so much sideline distraction for lovers of our national pastime. Commissioner Bud Selig the mind behind the marketing gizmo that is the WBC has officially crossed Bonds off his Christmas list. (Bonds actually did Selig a favor by withdrawing from consideration for Team USA in the WBC. Had he been in uniform for the stars and stripes, baseball would have had a perfect storm.) If Selig had the brass, hed ban Bonds, and immediately. Legal issues be damned. The commissioners office exists, after all, to protect the integrity of the game.
Where do baseball fans go now? How do we cheer? And for whom? Can a home-run record be broken if no one acknowledges it? All these questions remain to be answered as the six-month marathon that is a major-league baseball season opens next month. And as distasteful as it may be, Bonds will be at the center of discussion for each and every deliberation in ballparks coast to coast.
I, for one, cant see how Bonds can play in any stadium outside San Francisco. He has been considered a cheat by many for years . . . without an entire book devoted to exposing his super-sizing methods. Even before he allegedly began doping, in 1998, Bonds was a menacing boor, and a player incapable of harmony with the media or, worse, his fans. As brash, as overtly arrogant as Bonds is, hes ironically exactly the kind of personality who might thrive under the thunderous boos hell hear. Sure enough, one can imagine him thinking, the worlds in my way. Only one thing to do . . . knock it down.
Is Bonds a Hall of Famer? Not as long as Pete Rose remains a pariah. Ive heard it argued by several pundits that, since Bonds had Hall-worthy numbers before he turned to steroids, his place in Cooperstown is still reserved. Such an argument is as blind as poor Kirby Pucketts bad eye. If a player can be judged before cheating and after cheating, then Pete Rose he of more hits than any other player in the games history, remember should be inducted tomorrow. Every one of those hits came before he was caught betting on the game that made him a legend.
The saddest part of the Bonds legacy? Every home run hit this year (every year?) will bring with it a question: Is he or isnt he? Unless your name is David Eckstein, when you go deep, fans are going to wonder whats in your medicine cabinet. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and the newly exposed Barry Bonds. Roid Royalty we might brand them. One of the few sports stories youll ever read where there is absolutely no winner.
Now, back to my bracket. George Mason?!
What a difference a year makes. There stood University of Memphis guard Darius Washington Saturday afternoon, under the same basket where -- on this very weekend a year earlier, in the same event -- his missed free throws broke the heart of anyone with even a casual interest in Tiger basketball. The difference this year? Washington was standing on a ladder . . . and he was cutting that net down.
The 5th-ranked U of M Tigers beat the 25th-ranked UAB Blazers, 57-46, in a low-scoring, late-morning affair at FedExForum, to win the 2006 Conference USA tournament championship. And pardon Tiger Nation for considering the win historic. This was the program's first conference tourney title since 1987 (the year before Elliot Perry arrived, folks) and the first time in 21 years Memphis claimed both a regular season and tournament championship (that 1985 Tiger squad reached, ahem, the Final Four). In front of 16,607 fans who found their cheering voices a little early, John Calipari's sixth Memphis team became only the second in school history to win 30 games in a season.
Having lost to UAB in Birmingham merely nine days earlier, the Tigers took their home floor with something all too rare this season: something to prove. And sometimes the proof of a team's worth comes wrapped in irony.
The Tigers' two all-conference stars -- Washington and senior Rodney Carney -- scored a total of five points in the first half. But three of the team's five precocious freshmen -- Shawne Williams, Antonio Anderson, and Robert Dozier -- poured in 21. The U of M shot merely 32 percent from the field over the game's first 20 minutes. But six of their 11 field goals were three-pointers. Score at halftime? Memphis 32, UAB 22.
With Joey Dorsey -- called by Calipari the team's "fourth star" after the game -- grabbing 12 rebounds and the Tigers holding UAB to 27-percent shooting for the game, the outcome after halftime was hardly ever in doubt. Williams led all scorers with 18 points and was named the tournament's most valuable player. (Dorsey and Carney joined Williams on the all-tourney team.)
"Our freshmen play like upperclassmen," said Carney after the game, his white championship-cap pulled low on his brow. "This is the greatest senior year anyone could possibly have." Looking for a promising sign as the Tigers enter the NCAA tournament? Consider the Tigers' C-USA Player of the Year shot 3 of 14 Saturday, and Memphis still beat a top-25 team by nine points. Having played his last college game in Memphis, Carney still received the ultimate praise from his coach. "Rodney is playing for his teammates," said Calipari, "and that makes me very proud."
Will the Tigers enter the Big Dance as a number-one seed? If they do, it'll be yet another first in the program's history (the 1985 squad was a two-seed). "Without a doubt," said UAB coach Mike Anderson, responding to this very question. "They almost went undefeated in the conference, and played a tough schedule outside the conference."
"We want to make every game hard for our opponent," said Calipari. "And we're trying to make it very, very hard for that committee [not to seed us first]," he stressed. Look for the Tigers to get the top seed in the Oakland region, their first game to be played either Thursday or Friday.
"My job now is to be the best communicator I've ever been in my life," said Calipari. "I'm telling these guys [the NCAA tournament] is not a six-game tournament. Each trip we take is a two-game tournament. Win that, and you get to play another."
By the way, Darius Washington scored the 1,000th point of his superb two-year career midway through the second half Saturday. It came on a free throw.
With visions of the Final Four dancing in their heads, the University of Memphis Tigers have what amounts to a dress rehearsal this week at FedExForum. The U of M will be the top seed in the 2006 Conference USA tournament, and the expectations of Tiger Nation may as well be designated as Seed Number Two. Superior in talent to their 11 conference brethren, what if the Tigers -- 27-3 entering their quarterfinal game Thursday -- stumble and fail to win their first conference tourney since 1987? Here are four keys to preventing such an upset, factors that will impact just how deep into March (dare we say April?) these Tigers roar.
FOCUS. The February 25th home tilt with Tulsa was a telling game for the 2005-06 Tigers. The Golden Hurricane limped into the Forum with a 10-14 record, having already lost to Memphis by 23 in Oklahoma four weeks earlier. Not until a run over the last six minutes did the Tigers pull away to win this one, 78-67. And there's but one stat line you need to see to understand why: the U of M missed 15 of 41 free throws. Shawne Williams missed three. Darius Washington missed five. And both players are among the top five free-throw shooters in C-USA. Mark this down: if the Tigers advance to the Final Four -- this team's expressed goal since November -- at least one tournament game will be decided at the foul line. Tulsa in late February is tough motivation. But a team's mindset -- just like its physical conditioning -- is built before the bright lights are turned on. As talented as this team is, they have but one player -- Rodney Carney -- with Big Dance experience. The kids have to keep their eyes on the prize.
KEEP JOEY DORSEY ON THE FLOOR. Whether it's foul trouble or erratic play, Dorsey has seen too much bench time over the the last month. The Tigers are a solid team with backups Kareem Cooper or Robert Dozier occupying the post. They become a certifiably great team when Dorsey is at his best: seizing rebounds, pouncing on loose balls, blocking shots (he's C-USA's top shot-blocker by a comfortable margin). The day may come when Dorsey will need to score, but on this team, he can win the game for Memphis without so much as shooting. Find me a team that has reached the Final Four without strong interior defense, and I'll find you an aberration. Cheer Carney's dunks and Washington's drives . . . but keep your eye on Dorsey. When he's on the floor, the Tigers are fully armed.
STAY HEALTHY. Aside from some nagging injuries to Washington and Williams, this team has remained healthy through a long regular season. And the depth this healthy roster provides coach John Calipari will be an intangible few college coaches will enjoy this month. Dozier, Cooper, Antonio Anderson, Andre Allen, and Waki Williams would be among the top five teams in Conference USA . . . and they represent the Memphis bench. The NCAA tournament will be played in fits and starts. Two games in three days, then as many as four days off. Repeat: Calipari must dance a fine line this week in pushing his team toward a much-prized tournament championship on home turf that will require winning three games in three days. The team's depth will be at a premium, allowing some necessary rest before the real madness starts.
IGNORE THE NEWSPAPERS. And the talk shows. And the blogs and web sites. (Well, maybe not all the web sites.) Destiny can be a cruel thing, if defined prematurely. The 2005-06 Memphis Tigers are a special team, and they've already achieved things that would be the envy of most programs in the country. But they will -- for good or ill -- be remembered for what they achieve this month. This is the perfect time for Calipari's "us vs. them" mentality to take hold, unite, and serve as the late-season charge for an already electric basketball squad. If the Tigers fall in love with their headlines and profiles, destiny may extend her wandering arms in another direction.