Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap of Faith: Memphis-Style

Posted By on Mon, Feb 29, 2016 at 9:17 AM

The next time I can post a column on February 29th will be 208 weeks from now, so I’m making the most of this chance. Come 2020, Tokyo will be aiming to improve on the Summer Games of Rio (the Zika virus a distant memory). Each of the local sports tales below could well be written by the time Hillary Clinton — or Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders — begins a re-election campaign. I’ll let you attach the year for each.

• For the first time in University of Memphis football history, the Tigers will play for a conference championship. With their 37-27 win over Oklahoma State at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers clinched the Big 12’s Eastern Division crown and will face Baylor in a game that could land the winner in the College Football Playoff. Brady Davis became the first Memphis quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards in a season as he tossed four touchdown passes in a game that saw Memphis accumulate 584 yards of offense against the Cowboys. U of M coach Mike Norvell expressed pride in his team’s 10-2 regular season, but emphasized the work that remains. “Our first goal in spring camp every year,” he stressed, “is to win the Big 12. As good as this feels, we haven’t done that yet. But we’re relatively healthy after a long regular season and we intend to be at our best next week in Dallas.”
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• For the first time since the Final Four season of 2007-08, the Memphis Tigers will enter conference play undefeated. With a 79-71 victory over Arkansas in front of 17,487 at FedExForum, the Tigers improved to 12-0. Judging by the perspiration on the brow of Tiger coach Penny Hardaway after the game, the vibe of this team’s early-season run has approximated the playing days of at least one former Tiger great.

“I guess when you’re coaching,” said Hardaway, “you soak up the energy and excitement of your players. I’ve never felt younger. Chandler Lawson and D.J. Jeffries are special players and I love being their coach. I just wish I could be their teammate for one game.” Lawson led Memphis with 22 points and 9 rebounds while Jeffries added 16 points, hitting six of nine shots from the field.

The Tigers will enjoy a week off before opening Big 12 play on December 30th at Iowa State. They return to FedExForum on January 4th when third-ranked Kansas comes to town.

• The fans streamed out of FedExForum onto Beale Street, confetti stuck to their sweaty cheeks, the “Finally Memphis!” growl towels turning the June night a distinct shade of gold. It had actually happened. With their 114-103 win over Chicago in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the Memphis Grizzlies were champions of the basketball universe. That crazy notion that Kevin Durant would take his talents to the Bluff City can now be viewed as the savvy decision of a Hall of Fame-bound superstar who recognized championship-caliber teammates in Marc Gasol and (finally an All-Star) Mike Conley. Durant’s 38 points in the Game 6 win clinched the Finals MVP trophy and put to rest — permanently — any lingering doubts about his big-game capability.

In the jubilant postgame locker room, there was but one question from a reporter that caused Durant’s cheek-splitting smile to flatten: Did the Grizzlies simply win a title that would have been Cleveland’s had LeBron James not been injured in the Eastern Conference finals? “You know,” answered Durant, tilting his head in quasi-aggravation, “the ’94 Rockets loved seeing Michael Jordan on a baseball field. But no one’s taking away their championship. And no one’s taking this away from us. Ever.” The NBA-champion Memphis Grizzlies. It’s now in the book. Forever.

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