have to fight a battle more than once to win it." -- Margaret Thatcher
As the son of University of Tennessee alumni and a Memphian for 16 years now, let me go on the record as saying the Boston Celtics can have Greg Oden. Seldom in this state's history -- sports or otherwise -- has a single force done such damage to hearts and minds from Knoxville to Memphis in so brief a period of time. Even in foul trouble, Oden was enough to keep the Vols a win shy of their first NCAA regional final and the hometown Tigers a win shy of their first Final Four in 22 years. So when the Grizzlies' brass is weighing draft options this June, I say let Oden wear green.
There's a unique consolation for all the Memphis Tiger basketball fans carrying a heavy heart this week, having seen a team they fell in love with lose one game shy of the Final Four: They'll be back. Barring injury or unforeseen academic shortcomings, eight of the top nine players for the Tiger team that just finished its season 33-4 (for the second straight year!) will return for the 2007-08 campaign. Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, Andre Allen, Joey Dorsey, Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, and Kareem Cooper. To this list of hometown heroes add the names Shawn Taggart (a 6'10" transfer from Iowa State who had to sit out the past season) and Derrick Rose (merely the top-rated high school point guard in the country). That, Tiger fans, is a mix that should have Memphis firmly in the nation's top 10 from next season' opening tip to the NCAA tournament. One can only wonder about how coach John Calipari can possibly divvy up the minutes. Think he'll lose much sleep this summer?
There are worse fates than losing in the "Elite Eight," as the NCAA's regional finals have come to be known. (Consider: the Tigers have played more NCAA tournament games over the last two seasons than they had the previous 12 years combined.) But there is no more heartbreaking a loss in college basketball than the one that leaves a team on the brink of the Final Four, the only alliterative round that matters in the history books. The U of M, alas, has been denied entry -- with that proverbial door cracked - a second straight year.
Can comfort be found in the Tigers falling to the top-ranked team in the country, a Buckeye squad that ended a 25-game Memphis winning streak by winning their 21st in a row? Perhaps, but only until Tiger fans remember their team was beating the top-ranked club in the country with ten minutes to play. That 16-point margin of defeat is an unfair bruise above the wound of this loss. If Joey Dorsey had shown up? If the Tigers' perimeter defense had held? (Mike Conley's ability to penetrate was the difference in this game.) If Chris Douglas-Roberts had found his scoring touch before halftime? If Andre Allen had contributed more than his five fouls and zero points? Many ifs, one dispiriting loss.
There is an element, though, of what's to come that Memphis fans must use as an off-season crutch. Back-to-back records of 33-4 have forced the Tiger program into the "national" category Calipari has preached since his arrival seven years ago. Just consider the U of M's eight losses over the last two years: Duke, Texas, UAB, UCLA, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Arizona, Ohio State. That is a rogue's gallery -- foes from the ACC, Big 12, Pac 10, SEC, and Big 10 -- that would legitimize any program. Calipari's Tigers have closed the gap with the nation's power programs to the point discussion on future prospects begins with talk of the Top 10. Which is precisely where Memphis will be when the 2007-08 season tips off.
The best indication of all that U of M basketball has reached unprecedented heights? Calipari has dismissed the notion of any interest he might have in the Kentucky job just vacated by Tubby Smith. The KENTUCKY job. The bar for Tiger basketball's future has been raised so high that all the history, glamour, and achievement of Kentucky Wildcat basketball cannot persuade a Memphis coach to visit Lexington.
Three months between losses add an element of shock when the season-ending defeat is administered. But with pause, and a gaze to next season, Tiger Nation will be ready and eager to fight this battle yet again.