Perspective can be challenging when it comes to basketball in Memphis, Tennessee. That talented team at East High School aside, you’d think soul-crushing roundballs were falling from the sky these days, at least from FedExForum to the Larry Finch Center on the University of Memphis campus.
The Memphis Tigers lost six of their last eight games, the last two by 41 and 30 points, to finish the season 19-13 and shut out of postseason play a third straight year. The honeymoon for Hall of Fame-bound coach Tubby Smith ended around Valentine’s Day. Can he recruit? Can he manage a game? Can he fill empty seats at FedExForum?
A recent five-game losing streak had followers of the Memphis Grizzlies questioning everything from rotation dysfunction to Chandler Parsons’ social life. When Parsons’ on-court struggles came to an end with the announcement last week he requires knee surgery, the loss of a starter seemed like a blessing. Related or not, the Grizzlies now find themselves on a four-game winning streak, the latest a takedown of the mighty San Antonio Spurs Saturday night. Exhale.
However trying this winter has been in our fair city, this week should prove palliative, and considerably so. Three other cities may be hosting regional finals in the NCAA tournament, but make no mistake: Memphis will be playing in the center ring.
Headed to FedExForum for games this Friday are three of the top eight teams in the country (according to the AP rankings): 8th-ranked UCLA (31-4), 6th-ranked North Carolina (29-7, the region’s top seed), and 5th-ranked Kentucky (31-5, coached by one John Vincent Calipari). The Ringo Starr of the South’s foursome is Butler (25-8), a team that has been to the championship game twice this very decade. With Memphis transfer Avery Woodson a key member of the Bulldogs’ rotation, this is the closest the Tigers have gotten to the Sweet 16 since 2009 (when, yes, Calipari called FedExForum his home arena).
But pull back for the broad perspective of this weekend’s three games. North Carolina is seeking its 20th trip to the Final Four and sixth national championship. UCLA is aiming for a 19th Final Four appearance and 12th crown. Calipari’s Wildcats are clawing their way toward an 18th Final Four slot (fifth under Calipari) and hope to raise their ninth championship banner at Rupp Arena in Lexington. If college basketball teams were Avengers, Memphis will host Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor this weekend.
Phoenix hosts the actual Final Four next weekend and won’t come close to the historical weight under FedExForum’s roof come Friday. A confluence of this magnitude is extraordinarily rare. We saw a similar gathering at the 2008 Final Four (remember that one, Memphis fans?), when UCLA, North Carolina, and Kansas were all there. You have to go back to 2005 to find a regional (hosted that year by Austin, Texas) that approximates what we’ll have in Memphis this week. Duke, Kentucky, and Michigan State played that weekend in Texas. The Spartans have been championship contenders for most of Tom Izzo’s tenure in East Lansing, but they’d be in the Falcon category on our team of Avengers.
On top of all the history, we have Calipari’s return to Memphis. (Has it really been eight years?) Do Memphians celebrate the Kentucky coach for the remarkable heights his Tigers reached under his watch for nine years? Or do Memphis basketball fans curse Calipari for setting a standard that cannot be matched, whatever the expectations or hopes? Even when you subtract his 38 wins from the 2007-08 Final Four season (those vacated for the Derrick Rose test-taking affair), Calipari is one of two Memphis coaches to win 200 games here. He would not be Kentucky’s coach were it not for the success he enjoyed in the Bluff City.
Enjoy this week of basketball, Memphis. Cheer and jeer like it matters (because it does). UCLA’s Lonzo Ball will be a top-three pick in this year’s NBA draft and he may play his final college game at FedExForum (as Blake Griffin did in the 2009 South Regional). Malik Monk (Kentucky) and Justin Jackson (North Carolina) will soon be wearing pro uniforms, too. So relish this chance sighting. And go ahead and let the rest of the country know where Hoop City can be found this Friday.