As we all catch our breath between rounds, a few observations on the NCAA tournament.
Larry Finch scored 32 points in an NCAA tournament game in 1973, the highest postseason total of his career as a Tiger. Keith Lee scored 29 on St. Patrick's Day in 1984. Elliot Perry's NCAA tournament high? 15 points in 1989. Penny Hardaway topped out at 24 in 1992. Chris Douglas-Roberts played in 14 NCAA-tournament games but never scored more than 28 in a single contest. All of which makes Roburt Sallie's 35 points last Thursday -- in the Tigers' opening-round victory over Cal State Northridge -- a seismic event in these parts. (You think the voters who gave Wesley Witherspoon Conference USA's Sixth Player of the Year award would like their ballots back?) Before last week, Sallie's high game as a Tiger was 13 points (twice). He had never made more than five three-pointers before draining 10 against the Matadors. Most importantly, the Tigers desperately needed the offensive firepower, the game being far too tight for a second seed's comfort. If you know anyone who forecast Sallie's outbreak, turn your 401(k) over to that person tomorrow.
This marks the second time in Tiger basketball history the program has advanced to the NCAA's Sweet 16 four consecutive years. Keep in mind, though, that in 1982 and 1983 (the first two years in the earlier four-year streak), the Tigers only had to win a single game to advance to a regional. During that Keith Lee era (1982-85), the Tigers won a total of eight games in the tournament. Over the last four years (through last weekend), the Tigers have won 13 games in the Big Dance.
Thursday's Tiger tilt between Memphis and Missouri will be frenetic, each team with the kind of athleticism that wears a garden-variety opponent ragged. Mizzou beat Oklahoma on March 4th in a game that saw Blake Griffin score 16 points and grab 21 rebounds. Memphis senior Antonio Anderson will likely be charged with slowing down Missouri's J.T. Tiller, while Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart will be the tandem responsible for containing Missouri's all-conference forward DeMarre Carroll and fellow big man Leo Lyons. If you're looking for a recent trend, Memphis has beaten a Big 12 team each of the last two years on the tournament's second weekend: Texas A & M (2007) and Texas (2008). The two Tiger squads share a common opponent, each having lost to Xavier way back in November. (Memphis by five, Missouri by four.)
Memphis will be hosting the most star-studded of the regionals when the South's quartet take the court Friday. With only one team among the Sweet 16 seeded below five (number-12 Arizona in the Midwest), the tournament has held to form through its first weekend. But consider the headline-makers we'll see at FedExForum: the consensus 2008 national player of the year (North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough), the favorite for the same honor this season (Oklahoma's Blake Griffin), a pair of all-conference players for Gonzaga (guard Matt Bouldin and center Josh Heytvelt), and a coach aiming for his 800th career win (Syracuse's Jim Boeheim). The South will be the only regional in which all four teams have at least 28 wins. On top of all that, it features arguably the finest guard left in the tournament: ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson of North Carolina.
CBS does its viewership a disservice by not assigning Gus Johnson play-by-play duties for the Final Four. When I hear Jim Nantz describe a basketball game -- as he will the semifinals and championship -- I hear a breakdown of Phil Mickelson's club selection at Amen Corner during the Masters. When I hear Gus Johnson describe a college basketball game, I hear the enthusiasm -- a healthy notch below Dick Vitale's -- that fuels the NCAA basketball tournament from office cubicles to dorm rooms to bars, restaurants, and even furniture showrooms. Johnson is clearly a fan of the sport he describes, yet defers intelligently to his analyst for "what it feels like" as yet another game winds down with palms sweating on both benches. To borrow the word Johnson uses to describe a jump shot that meets twine, his description of the NCAA tournament is . . . "Pure!"
Consider the difference two months can make in the prospects of a college basketball team. When the Memphis Tigers beat Tulsa on January 13th -- thanks to a buzzer-beating layup from Antonio Anderson - they did so as an unranked team, having fallen out of the Top 25 with three losses in their first nine games. Fast forward to Sunday, the day after the Tigers beat that same Tulsa squad -- this time by 25 points -- to clinch their fourth straight Conference USA tournament championship. This time, the Tigers entered the game ranked fourth in the AP poll, having completed a third consecutive undefeated season in C-USA play. When the brackets were announced for the NCAA tournament, the Tigers were given the second seed in the West region. (Their opening game will be Thursday against Cal-State Northridge.) And you can bet they feel cheated out of a top seed. Funny what 25 straight wins will do for you.
The beauty now, of course, is that rankings don't mean a thing. Sixty-four games will be played over the next three weeks, and 64 teams will leave the court for the last time with a loss. The 31-3 Memphis Tigers hope to be the one team with a "shining moment" to celebrate. Here are four keys to the Tigers winning the four games necessary for a return trip to the Final Four:
Shawn Taggart. The Tigers' junior center has played the best basketball of his career over the last several weeks, peaking with three games that earned him an all-tournament selection by C-USA. He also had three double-doubles in the Tigers' last four regular-season contests. Ask recent NCAA champions like Connecticut, North Carolina, and Florida how valuable an inside presence can be to a championship run. If the seedings hold, and Memphis faces UConn for the regional championship, no one will be more valuable in battling the Huskies' All-America Hasheem Thabeet than Taggart. Tyreke Evans will score his points, Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier will be the steady hands Tiger Nation has come to love. But Shawn Taggart will be a difference-maker in this dance.
Sub surprise. Wesley Witherspoon was honored with C-USA's Sixth Player of the Year award, high praise considering it was Roburt Sallie who got the same nod from the team itself at the Tigers' annual banquet. Whether it's Witherspoon, Sallie, Willie Kemp, or Pierre Henderson-Niles, someone off the bench will have to contribute to winning at least a game or two for any deep run the Tigers make. Last year it was Kemp, with four three-pointers off the bench to help Memphis survive Mississippi State in the second round. A chief concern for Tiger coach John Calipari has to be any foul trouble that hits Taggart. Can Henderson-Niles hold the fort if Taggart is forced to the bench for an extended period?
Three-point accuracy. A key to stretching any zone defense -- and the Tigers are sure to face their share -- is long-distance shooting. And Memphis has been dreadful from beyond the arc of late, shooting no better than 30 percent in five of its last six games. (The U of M attempted 41 three-pointers in the C-USA tourney and made exactly 8.) This is where junior Doneal Mack will play a critical role, and Sallie off the bench. If Memphis can hit some treys early in a game, the gaps for drives by Evans and slashes through the paint by Dozier and Taggart grow larger. The Tiger defense never slumps, and it can carry the team over most opponents. But for a national title, shooters have to do their thing.
Motivation. Just listen to Calipari from his press conference after the Tigers finished off Tulane for the C-USA title last Saturday (before the brackets were announced.) "Is it paranoia if it's true?" he asked. "Is it paranoid if you say a guy's chasing you, and the guy's actually chasing you? But the good news with the NCAA is, you throw it up and we play. Either they're right, or we're right." Three teams that didn't even reach their conference-tournament finals were given number-one seeds, while the Tigers are a second seed. Calipari will open each practice -- and close each practice - with a reminder that his team has not been given the respect it's earned. Come Thursday, the Matadors will merely be the Tigers' opponent in uniform. As long as they're alive in the 2009 NCAA tournament, Memphis will be playing against the national perception that they are big cats in a small jungle. "There are 20 leagues below us," said Calipari last Saturday. "If it's so easy to do what we've done, why hasn't someone else done it?"
Borrowing a page from David Letterman, what follows is a countdown of the Top Ten Reasons the Memphis Tigers May Not Win the Conference USA Tournament. (Tip-off of the tourney's opening game is Wednesday at FedEx Forum.)
10) In a twist on the championship game, C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky announces that the Tigers, having won 60 consecutive conference games, must beat an all-star team for the trophy. Led by UTEP's Stefon Jackson, UAB's Robert Vaden, UCF's Jermaine Taylor, Houston's Aubrey Coleman, and Tulsa's Jerome Jordan, the C-USA All-Stars beat Memphis . . . at the buzzer.
9) With the Blue Crew chanting "We want Preston!" before the tip-off of their quarterfinal game, Tiger coach John Calipari decides to prove just how big his heart is by starting walk-on freshman Preston Laird. In the game's opening minute, Laird steals a pass and breaks away for what looks like his first dunk attempt of the season. An opposing guard, though, chases Laird down and delivers a hard foul in mid-flight, sending Laird sprawling into the courtside cheerleaders. When three Tigers leave the bench to help their fallen teammate, an overzealous official kicks them out of the game for what he perceived as instigation. One of the three Tigers is their leading scorer, Tyreke Evans, who volunteered to sit at the game's start for Laird. Minus their point guard, the Tigers fall . . . at the buzzer.
8) After their semifinal win Friday, the Tigers mob Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier, the two seniors having won an NCAA-record-breaking 134th game. In the pileup at midcourt, Anderson twists his elbow and Dozier turns his ankle as a souvenir-seeking fan tears off one of his sneakers. The Tigers are forced to play the championship game without these two longtime starters and lose . . . at the buzzer.
7) Facing UTEP in the semifinals, Tiger coach John Calipari is distracted when he sees Miner coach Tony Barbee wearing the very suit Calipari gave him for Christmas in 2003. Wondering how his former assistant could fit so well in a suit more than five years old, Calipari is disoriented throughout the game. His team misses defensive assignments, relies far too much on three-point attempts, and falls . . . at the buzzer.
6) With memories of the 11:00 pm tip-off against UMass last November still tickling the hippocampus of U of M officials, the Tigers show up almost 12 hours late for Saturday's championship game (scheduled tip-off: 10:30 . . . in the morning). The trophy having already been given to the squad that did show up on time, more than 17,000 Tiger fans still give the team a standing ovation, albeit in the dark.
5) Before the championship game, Houston coach Tom Penders delivers the greatest pep talk since Denzel Washington in "Remember the Titans." Reflecting on his three years as head coach of the Tufts Jumbos in the early Seventies, Penders, through clenched jaw, hisses at his team: "You think coming to Memphis is tough? Then you've never faced the Amherst Lord Jeffs on a Thursday night in mid-February! If we could win that war -- and we did! -- then we can win this battle. Remember the Jumbos!
4) UTEP debuts black uniforms for their semifinal tilt with Memphis. With the game played on Friday the 13th, the overly superstitious Tigers lose their focus -- and outside touch -- in what becomes the greatest upset in C-USA history.
3) Having learned to dribble as a toddler by watching Penny Hardaway do his thing with the Orlando Magic, Tyreke Evans is lost in adulation when Hardaway takes his seat under the basket before the championship contest. In the second half, Evans inexplicably passes the ball directly to Hardaway, again and again. "I just couldn't take my eyes off him," admits Evans after the game. "And he was wide open." Unable to come back after Calipari finally benches his freshman star, the Tigers lose . . . at the buzzer.
2) Against all measures of common sense, the Tigers decide to debut their purple-and-orange, FedEx-inspired uniforms against East Carolina in the quarterfinals. Confused throughout the game by the Pirates' own purple duds, Memphis commits a program-record 54 turnovers and loses to ECU . . . at the buzzer.
1) With the economy sagging and tension mounting between the Tigers and UAB Blazers, officials from both schools decide a pay-per-view cage match - fisticuffs, folks -- will be a better budget booster for both programs than any Saturday morning basketball game. While the C-USA basketball trophy is vacated, Pierre Henderson-Niles is the last man standing Saturday night at FedEx Forum. He signs a contract with UFC before midnight.
The 10th season of baseball at AutoZone Park arrives four weeks from Friday (April 3rd), when the Redbirds host the first of two exhibition games with the St. Louis Cardinals. Perfect time for a late-winter hot-stove chat with Redbirds president Dave Chase.
MEMPHIS FLYER: After extending the affiliation between the Redbirds and St. Louis Cardinals, the parent club showed some interest in purchasing the Redbirds. What were the dynamics of those discussions, and why did the Cardinals choose to leave the table?
DAVE CHASE: The Cardinals spent a significant part of last summer and fall kicking the tires down here. They made a strong commitment by extending our player development contract for four years; they recognize Memphis as an important market to sell Cardinals tickets. Of course, the economy went south, and we were unable to provide them with projections they were comfortable with going forward. Around Christmas, they notified us that they were no longer interested in buying the team, at least not as the marketplace stands now.
MF: Are the team and the ballpark part of the same package for a potential buyer?
DC: The ballpark comes with a tremendous burden of debt, and no one is going to want to take that on. The ownership of the ballpark right now is in the [nonprofit] Redbirds Foundation, and that complicated the deal, there's no doubt about it. We need to separate the team and the stadium at some point, somehow, to make the economics work.
MF: Are the Redbirds, in fact, for sale?
DC: We need to consider selling the team, and that's part of the ongoing mission. Who knows? If the economy turns the Cardinals could come back, or a local group could step forward, or someone else willing to make a commitment to the city of Memphis.
MF: Is the operation of the ballpark and team here in Memphis safe?
DC: The Pacific Coast League wants to play in Memphis, a lot of the long-term contracts in place require Triple-A baseball [here]. In reality, if you make the right combination of decisions in ownership, it strengthens baseball's position in Memphis. It doesn't weaken it.
MF: What kind of impact has the economy had on operations at AutoZone Park?
<>DC: It's frightening, on some levels. These are unprecedented economic times. Baseball in general is concerned. Teams in the PCL are experiencing downturns in ticket sales anywhere from 15 to 25 percent, and we're on the higher end on that scale now. With our 10- and 30-game plans, we've actually seen a modest increase in sales. Our corporate sales are down about 12 percent. But we're seeing this across the universe of baseball. It's not because people don't like us or appreciate AutoZone Park. It's just that we're easy to cut. They're having to make difficult decisions. A lot of people are just playing the waiting game, but now that March is here, the time for waiting is almost over.
It would have helped us tremendously if the Cardinals had been more active in the offseason. When they get headlines, it helps us. It would help us if the daily newspaper would run the traditional spring-training pictures of pitchers and catchers working out. We have two Cardinal exhibition games [April 3rd and 4th] that should help us prime the pump.
MF: The season once again opens under a cloud of steroids, with the Alex Rodriguez revelations. Is attendance at AutoZone Park affected by news at the big-league level?
DC: I don't think it directly impacts us. I believe in the power of the industry of baseball in a huge way. This kind of news puts the game in a negative light, in general. Fortunately, most fans don't equate those big-league guys with us [in the minor leagues]. It resonates deeper in baseball, because we care about the game so much. You can't tell me the steroid problem in football is any better. It's probably much worse. We take our [baseball] heroes seriously. We put A-Rod on a pedestal we probably shouldn't put human beings on. I just finished reading Joe Torre's book, and you quickly learn that A-Rod's not among the brightest guys on the planet. There are probably 200 stories in spring training that would better advance the game of baseball.
MF: Let's talk about this year's Redbirds roster. Who are some players Memphis fans should be excited to see this season?
DC: It's too early in spring training to get much from the Cardinals, but I hope we get David Freese back for part of the season, but it looks like he may start the season at third base in St. Louis. Colby Rasmus will be on a similar ride. We didn't get to see the real Colby Rasmus last year [due to injuries]. I think Brett Wallace will start the year here, especially if Freese stays in St. Louis a while. He's not much on the glove side, but that was the same rap we heard on Albert Pujols. We need a few more of those kind of guys! Wallace made a pretty big impact at Class A last year, and that's the same jump Freese made last season. Wallace was here as part of the Cardinal Caravan and he handled himself well.
The Cardinals have the most questions on their pitching staff. That will have a ripple effect on us. Trying to speculate on whether Mitchell Boggs or Mike Parisi will be back here is anyone's guess.
MF: The Cardinals' farm system has moved steadily up the Baseball America rankings into the top 10. This must help your marketing team.
DC: It's hard to sell. The primary market is family entertainment. The comings and goings of the players doesn't matter a lot, but after a player reaches the big leagues, people say, "I saw him when . . ."
MF: Do you end up selling Redbirds alumni more than you do active players?
DC: To some degree you do, because that's the proven track record. If rising stars get here and do anything, they're not here for very long. Traditionally, the Cardinals have traded those players away. But they seem to be starting to build on home-grown products. In the long run, I think that's a better message for us to sell. It just takes time.
MF: Anything new planned for the ballpark this season?
DC: The ballpark still looks new, and we've done nothing to short-change that. We've done a lot of painting. We're playing around with the concessions menu a bit. We are going to add a Redbirds Ripper Dog. It's a deep-fried hot dog, but it's fried in such a way that the case rips open. We figure, if it's deep-fried, it's got to have a chance.
MF: The Civil Rights Game - your brainchild - has moved to Cincinnati. What are your reflections on this event now?
DC: I've wrestled with it. It remains a sore point, on many levels. But I've taken some solace in recent weeks, because the Reds have been calling about challenges in putting on the Civil Rights Game. So I'm not removed from it; I've let them know I'll do whatever I can to help them with it. At the end of the day, the game wasn't about me, and it really wasn't about Memphis. It was about baseball. If I can further that development, then I'm willing to do that. Something that was born here in Memphis is now a sought-after property of major-league baseball teams. And the grapevine tells me there were several that wanted it.