Monday, March 11, 2019

Banner Blues

Posted By on Mon, Mar 11, 2019 at 11:20 AM

Memphis Tiger basketball has a banner problem, and it only begins with the long-absent 2008 Final Four display. Gazing up at the rafters of FedExForum, you'd think an NIT appearance is worth celebrating. Here in Memphis. In 2019. There are no fewer than 17 NIT banners hanging above the Tiger court, diminishing the distinction of the 25 NCAA tournament banners (should be 26) dangling alongside them, in chronological order. If Memphis is going to classify itself as a top-tier basketball program — and fans of the program want to categorize their team with the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas — then the NIT gallery simply must be reduced.
click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Quickly, which brings happier memories from the Josh Pastner era at Memphis: his 2010 team's appearance in the NIT or perhaps the three consecutive Conference USA tournament championships from 2011 to 2013? While the NIT is all over the dome at Third and Beale, there's no salute anywhere to the 12 conference tournaments the Tigers have won, or the 15 regular-season league championships Memphis can claim. This has to change.

There was a time the NIT meant something, when fewer than 30 teams qualified for the NCAA tournament. So leave the 1957 runner-up banner alone. We'll even keep banners for the three teams under John Calipari that reached the NIT "final four" at Madison Square Garden. But add the other NIT years to a single banner, and hang it to the side of the NCAA tournament collection. On the other side, place a banner with conference-championship years. Perhaps two, one for regular-season titles, the other for tournament victories. The end result will make the NCAA tournament banners more prominent, and leave fans with a proper salute to championships earned before the Big Dance.

• The Tigers will have to win four games in four days this week in the American Athletic Conference tournament to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. How formidable is the task? Only once before in the program's history has Memphis so much as played four games in four days. The under-achieving 2004-05 team won three games by double digits before falling to Louisville in an epic Conference USA championship game. (This was the Darius Washington Game.)

Despite playing on their home floor, the Tigers will be underdogs as early as Friday's quarterfinals. There's precedent for a seemingly overmatched Tiger team winning a league tourney. In the 2011 C-USA tournament at El Paso, a Memphis team that went 10-6 in regular-season league play beat Southern Miss, East Carolina, and UTEP (on the Miners' home floor) to cut down the nets and reach the NCAA tournament. But that was merely three wins in three days.

The Tigers' opening-round game against Tulane (0-18 in AAC play) will be a walkover. Memphis will then face UCF in Friday's quarterfinals, having split two games with the Knights this season but thoroughly dominating the affair at FedExForum (a 77-57 Tiger win on January 27th). Should the Tigers reach the semifinals, Houston will likely await, the 12th-ranked Cougars having won the regular-season conference title with an overall record of 29-2. Penny Hardaway is still seeking his first win as a head coach over a ranked team (the Tigers are 0-6). Should it come this weekend in the AAC tournament, a good-but-not-great first season for Hardaway could grow into something special.

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