Memphis has found itself near the top of far too many national rankings of late. Crime. Obesity. Political corruption. Makes you want to toss your newspaper at times, or click to another web site. One devoted to, say, sports.
This week (and beyond?), though, for the first time in a quarter-century, Memphis is at the very top of a list Memphians have WANTED to head for more than a generation. The undefeated Memphis Tigers, of course, are the number-one college basketball team in the land. When the North Carolina Tar Heels lost their first game of the season Saturday (to the Maryland Terrapins), all John Calipari's team needed to do was beat Southern Miss at FedExForum to reach the mountaintop. They did so with a holding-to-formula 37-point drubbing of a Conference USA rival.
On the football field, Memphis-USM has come to be called "The Black-and-Blue Game," and a hardwood variety of such broke out after Saturday's tip-off. The Golden Eagles were whistled for nine fouls in the first nine minutes, prompting Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy to ask an official, "Are you going to give us 40 fouls tonight?!"
The Tigers' Chris Douglas-Roberts scored 14 of his team's first 26 points, and Joey Dorsey blocked two shots early to establish the home team's defensive backbone. Southern Miss would shoot a mere 25 percent in the first half, a figure that jumped but a percentage point in the second. Derrick Rose contributed 13 points and four assists for the Tigers, while Antonio Anderson contributed six assists with nary a turnover.
With 2:30 remaining in the game, chants of "We're number one!" from the crowd of 18,108 bathed the players below, who somehow came across as less celebratory than their coach. With a minute to play, Calipari stood up from the bench, turned to the crowd, and, after applauding himself, danced his version of what might be considered a jig. It was, after all, Saturday night in downtown Memphis.
The players weren't willing to acknowledge the significance of the win -- yet -- as the chance remained that undefeated Kansas might leapfrog Memphis when Monday's rankings were released. (In the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, Kansas received 10 first-place votes, to the Tigers' 21.)
"It wasn't about North Carolina in the locker room before the game," said Anderson as he dressed for the sub-30 temperatures outside the arena. "Hopefully [the top ranking] will happen, but we're just trying to play our game."
"We're really, really talented," conceded Dorsey, "and the freshmen are playing really well. Shawn Taggart's backing me up really great. Look at the teams we've played, the hardest non-conference schedule in America, and we dominated that. I don't know how to act right now. I'm just happy for the city. I go by my apartment and fans have been so excited, saying North Carolina barely won. Now that they lost, I don't know how they're gonna act. Everybody's gonna go out and party tonight, but I'm not! I just hope we're number one Monday."
Calipari has actually been here before, his 1995-96 Massachusetts squad spending several weeks atop the polls before falling to Kentucky at the Final Four. After Saturday's win, the coach was more willing than his players to discuss the coveted ranking. "I said before the game, let's win the game, then we can talk about number one. I wanted [the players] to enjoy this moment for the program."
"It takes a village," added Calipari, who notched his 198th win as Tiger coach. "Coming together, everybody understanding they have a part in this. You can't have a program like this unless that building is full like it was tonight. Let me tell you the significance of a non-BCS team being number one. Tell me the last one. It's unusual, for this program to do the things we're doing. Enjoy this. Live in the moment."
Where were you for that solitary week in January 1983, when sophomore Keith Lee and the Memphis State Tigers were the top team in the land? (Or were you like every member of the 2007-08 Tigers and not yet a gleam in your parents' eye?) Calipari was a 23-year-old, first-year assistant coach at Kansas. (Perfectly ironic that the Jayhawks are the only other undefeated team still standing in 2008.) There was no such thing as a Memphis Showboat, Memphis Redbird, or Memphis Grizzly in 1983. Willie Herenton wasn't even mayor. But it felt nice, didn't it? That one week on the mountaintop of college basketball.
Sir Edmund Hillary passed away earlier this month, his legend firmly in place for having been the first to survive a climb to the summit of Mount Everest. "Well, we knocked off the bastard," he famously said upon returning to his base camp. More remains for the Memphis Tigers to "knock off" if this basketball season is to fulfill the ambitious dreams of U of M fans young and old. But for all those fans under the age of 25, enjoy this first view from the mountaintop. What a climb it's been.