Among college basketball’s national champions this century, the 2010-11 Connecticut Huskies will always stand out for me. And it has little to do with what Kemba Walker and friends did over three weeks of the NCAA tournament. That team belongs among the remarkable for what it did in the Big East tournament, winning five games in five days. Again, for emphasis: UConn won five games in five days to win the Big East’s automatic berth in the Big Dance. (Having entered the Big East tourney with a record of 21-9, the Huskies were not a lock for a bid. You can almost hear John Houseman chiming in: “They earned it.”) The Huskies needed overtime to beat Syracuse in the Big East semifinals. Few teams have labored quite so much on their way to “One Shining Moment.”
Which brings us to this week’s Conference USA tournament in Tulsa. The Memphis Tigers find themselves in an impossible place, really. Having won all 16 of their regular-season league games, the U of M is supposed to win three more — in three days — to lock up an automatic berth for the NCAAs. Should they fall short, the Tigers will expose themselves to criticism near and far ... most importantly in the tournament selection room this Sunday.
I get weary, at times, with Josh Pastner’s mantra (at least one of them): “Winning is hard.” But let me go on the record as saying winning three basketball games in three days ... is hard. Players accustomed to taking the floor twice a week — with at least two days off between games — are asked to rev their engines with every rotation of the earth. It’s a challenge of the first order, whether you call the ACC or C-USA home. If the Tigers lose this week in Tulsa, they’ll deserve criticism. If they win the tournament championship for a third straight season, give them their due.
• The way I see it, there are five contenders for the 2013 NBA championship, each of these teams with more than twice as many wins as losses: Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the L.A. Clippers, and your Memphis Grizzlies. The trouble for those teams without LeBron James on their roster is that they all belong to the Western Conference, meaning they’ll likely have to beat two of the other super teams to raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The returns on the Grizzlies’ trade of Rudy Gay (on January 31st) are entirely positive: a 13-4 record since the deal, including an eight-game winning streak. But the Grizzlies have yet to play their three most threatening conference brethren since the trade. (Let’s not count the loss to Oklahoma City on the day of the trade, when Tayshaun Prince didn’t suit up for Memphis.) With Gay, the Griz were 2-4 against the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers. This Wednesday in Los Angeles, we’ll get a glimpse at what kind of gap (if any) exists between the Grizzlies and another Western power. Then Memphis will have one more game against each of the power trio before the regular season comes to a close on April 17th. The verdict on the Gay/Prince trade will come when the playoffs arrive. But we should get our first hint this week.
• With St. Louis shortstop Rafael Furcal shut down for the near future (his throwing elbow will be surgically repaired), the Cardinals will likely field seven former Memphis Redbirds when they open the 2013 season at Arizona on April 1st. Only outfielders Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran will have found their way to St. Louis without some time spent at AutoZone Park. The most attention may well be on Furcal’s replacement at short, Pete Kozma. A hero of last season’s Cardinal playoff run, Kozma actually spent most of the 2012 campaign at second base for Memphis, where he hit only .232 but led the team with 63 RBIs. (Kozma leap-frogged the Redbirds’ regular shortstop, Ryan Jackson, when he was promoted to St. Louis last September.)
If he starts on Opening Day, Kozma will be only the second former Redbird (after Brendan Ryan in 2010) to open the season at the position made sacred (for Cardinal fans) by Ozzie Smith. The 2013 Cardinals should have enough offensively to hide any drop-off from Furcal to Kozma. But St. Louis will be trusting Kozma to handle arguably the game’s most challenging position, with only journeyman Ronny Cedeno in reserve.