Saturday's showdown between the Memphis Tigers and Tennessee Vols in Knoxville was the kind of basketball game Picasso would have loved: all angles, distortions, and missing parts. The 22nd -ranked Tigers (now 16-3) managed to win the game, 54-52, despite losing their top scorer, Tyreke Evans, to foul trouble for 13 minutes in the first half. (Evans still led Memphis with 17 points.) Not quite a year after these two programs battled as the top two teams in the country (a game won by UT at FedExForum), the win merely gives Memphis bragging rights for the Volunteer State. But it supplants an early season victory over Seton Hall as the Tigers' best mark of the season, extends the U of M's winning streak to 10 games, and silences critics still arguing the Tigers fatten their record on the NCAA junk food that is Conference USA competition.
A small annex to Thompson-Boling Arena could have been built from the bricks slung by the two teams over the course of 40 minutes of basketball. They took a combined 111 shots from the field and missed 74 of them. (Take note, though, Tiger Nation: Memphis converted 11 of 14 free-throw attempts.) All of which brings sweet irony to the fact that a 35-foot prayer of a buzzer-beater drained by Tiger senior Antonio Anderson to end the first half made the difference in the final score.
In measuring rivalries, Memphis-Tennessee is growing into this century's Memphis-Louisville. Tiger coach John Calipari and Tennessee's Bruce Pearl have now split four games, and just as many screams, gyrations, and foot-stomping signals from their respective benches. The Tigers spent the better part of two weeks explaining to reporters how much they were not looking ahead to Tennessee, that C-USA matchups with UAB and Rice were their priorities first . . . meaning exactly the opposite, of course.
Signs to take from the Tiger win for the remainder of the season? First, Memphis is not going to win games by outscoring its opponent. Evans is a talented scorer, Doneal Mack can get hot from behind the three-point arc, and Shawn Taggart has shown a touch inside the paint Calipari hasn't often enjoyed from the center position. But the scoring options are limited, witness the five points Memphis got off the bench Saturday.
Which calls to mind a second warning sign: the bench itself. Willie Kemp was the only Tiger to play so much as 10 minutes off the bench Saturday, and that was largely due to Evans having to sit with two fouls seven minutes after tip-off. Playing time, to John Calipari, is a matter of trust. If the coach can't trust a player to, as he put it after the UAB win, "own his performance," that player will remain a spectator. Wesley Witherspoon played two minutes against Tennessee, Matt Simpkins three, and Roburt Sallie two. At this rate, those three will be sophomores next season, but essentially playing their rookie year of college basketball.
This week brings a trip to East Carolina (Wednesday) then a home tilt with one of the few C-USA teams that can claim the role of contender, Houston (Saturday). Should the Tigers stumble -- and ECU is a notoriously hard place to play -- that age-old excuse will creep into the headlines: letdown. If Memphis can hold serve, though, and beat SMU on February 4th, they'll travel to Gonzaga for a nationally televised February 7th game with a record of 19-3. Wins are wins, even when ugly. Just ask Picasso.
As you plan your Super Bowl party, here are a few appetizers to serve:
In making their first Super Bowl Appearance, the Arizona Cardinals have waited longer than any previous participant. The next longest drought before a Super Bowl debut belonged to the Atlanta Falcons, who made their first appearance in Super Bowl XXXIII (January 1999). The next year, it should be noted, the franchise that was once the Houston Oilers made its Super Bowl debut, but it was only the team's third season in Tennessee, and first as the Titans.
Kurt Warner joins Craig Morton as the only quarterback to lead two teams to the Super Bowl. (Morton lost with Dallas in V and Denver in XII.) On top of that, he is now quarterbacking the franchise that called St. Louis home for almost 30 years . . . the same city he represented as the Rams' quarterback after the 1999 and 2001 seasons.
The Cardinals are the first Super Bowl team to feature three 1,000-yard receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston).
The Steelers' James Harrison is the first Defensive Player of the Year to play in the Super Bowl since Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks six years ago.
In years with a presidential inauguration, the AFC (or AFL before it) has won six Super Bowls (including the last two) and the NFC has won four.
Arizona joins the 1979 Los Angeles Rams as the only 9-win teams to play in the Super Bowl. Those Rams lost to Pittsburgh.
Teams named after birds are 1-4 in the Super Bowl. The Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV.
The last four Heisman Trophy winners on Super Bowl rosters all lost. 2004 winner Matt Leinart is Arizona's backup quarterback.
The quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls after years ending with 8 are all in the Hall of Fame: Joe Namath (1968), Terry Bradshaw ('78), Joe Montana ('88), and John Elway ('98).
If he wins, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin (age 36) would become the youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl. Jon Gruden won Super Bowl XXXVII at age 39.
Arizona would become only the fifth franchise to win a Super Bowl after relocating from another city. The Los Angeles Raiders won after the 1983 season, the St. Louis Rams after '99, the Baltimore Ravens (formerly the Cleveland Browns) after 2000, and the Indianapolis Colts after '06.