Its not so much that only around 5,000 fans showed up to see the University of Memphis Tigers play UT-Martin a month ago in The Pyramid. No, what should be of concern for U of M officials is that there were 14,500 tickets sold for the game. In other words, 9,000 people -- WITH TICKETS IN HAND -- chose not to attend a Tiger home game. What in the name of Andre Turner is going on?
The inspired victory over a superior Missouri team two days after Christmas was a timely booster for what seems to have become the citys second basketball option. And Tuesday nights battle with Villanova of the mighty Big East Conference will be a chance for the 2003-04 Tigers to further assert their position in the pecking order we know as RPI rankings. But this is an enigmatic bunch. While topping Mizzou is worthy of applause, narrow wins over the likes of Belmont, Samford, and Oakland are reasons to pause. Just where are these Tigers headed?
The most intriguing aspect of these Tigers is the almost uniform versatility across their all-too-thin roster. Antonio Burks is a classic college point guard, while Ivan Lopez and Duane Erwin belong near the low post. But the remaining four members of John Caliparis rotation -- Jeremy Hunt, Rodney Carney, Anthony Rice, and Sean Banks -- could play any of three different positions, and each stands between 64 and 68. Better yet, this group has shown the kind of shooting skill -- when theyre on -- not seen in these parts since the glory days of Mingo Johnson.
With the opening of conference play Saturday (at Southern Miss), Memphis appears to have what amounts to the prototype for a modern college hoops roster. Devoid of a superstar (there may be five schools in the entire country that can claim one), the U of M has built a group that will work better as a unit than they would as individuals. As for the thin bench . . . depth is an overrated quality in college hoops. These games are 40 minutes long, with four official timeouts each half (in addition to however many the coaches may call). If six or seven players around the age of 20 cant absorb the total of 200 minutes to be played, blame should fall on their conditioning program, not their substitutes. And by all appearances, the likes of Burks, Rice, Carney, and Banks have embraced the playing time.
Now, will the group mentioned above mean victories in C-USA action? With three of their first four conference games on the road, the Tigers could find themselves looking up in the standings by the end of the month . . . not a place to be for a team with two sophomores and two freshmen among the nucleus.
The guess here is that Caliparis crew is going to have to surprise some teams. And this would be a good time for the coach to take a lesson from Bear Bryant or Lou Holtz. Instead of pitching the virtues of his club in the face of media criticism, it might be time to yield a little. Yeah, were a bit short. Thin, too. Not all that much big-game experience. Its a time when bulletin-board material -- and the brash Coach Cal has provided plenty in his day -- is the last variable the Tigers need in their opponents arsenal. If Memphis can sneak up on the likes of Marquette (Feb. 14), convince their stronger opponent that this is rebuilding time in the Bluff City, well, we may all be in for a pleasant surprise. (One last Billy Richmond footnote. In playing the humility card, the U of M gained significant ground when it parted ways with the Hamilton horror.)
As for all those empty seats holding tickets at the UT-Martin game, perhaps R.C. Johnson and the powers that be need to reconsider the possibility of wedging their way into FedExForum in 2004. If The Pyramid tends to echo when a quarter-full, imagine how cavernous our state-of-the-art NBA barn might seem with 5,000 on hand for the next Tiger-Skyhawk showdown. Its never too late to go back to the future, R.C. And theres a cozy little arena that would still buzz with a crowd of 5,000. Why not an early-season game or two at the Mid-South Coliseum? Id be the first in line.
A pair of random observations . . .
. . . No fewer than half the remaining teams in the NFL playoffs start a former Memphis Tiger in their defensive secondary: Jerome Woods (Kansas City), Idrees Bashir (Indianapolis), Mike McKenzie (Green Bay), and Reggie Howard (Carolina).
. . . The culmination of Casey Clausens career as quarterback at Tennessee carried a bitter aftertaste that has come to be all too familiar for UT signal-callers. He became the fifth straight Volunteer quarterback to finish his career with a bowl defeat, following a rather impressive bunch (Andy Kelly, Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, and Tee Martin). The last UT passer to end his career with a bowl win? Daryl Dickey in the 1986 Sugar Bowl.