Almost Perfect 

The two best college basketball teams in the country made for one memorable weekend in the Bluff City.

Live from Memphis, Tennessee ... it's Saturday night!

— University of Memphis public address announcer Chuck Roberts, prior to the Memphis-Tennessee showdown, won by the Vols, 66-62

A man caught my eye in line at the post office last week. He was middle-aged, well dressed. Leather tam on his head, fancy watch on his wrist. Pulled down over his white dress shirt, though, was a blue Memphis Tiger T-shirt. There's well dressed, and then there's dressed for the occasion.

The entire city of Memphis, it seemed, had a metaphorical Tiger T-shirt draped across its collective shoulders last week, as the biggest college basketball game in the city's history — number-one Memphis vs. number-two Tennessee — drew near. If there's been a bigger sporting event in town, it predates my memory. (Lewis-Tyson was huge, sure, but neither fighter was the "home team.")

"Defying odds" has become a sportswriter's cliche. But some statistician, some numerologist somewhere has to calculate the chances of what Memphis hosted last Saturday night. Consider:

One school has been playing basketball for almost 90 years and, before this season, had been ranked number one in the country for precisely one week ... until this season, when it claimed the top spot for over a month entering Saturday's game.

The other school has been playing basketball for a century and had never been ranked as high as number two ... until last week, when it jumped from fourth to second entering Saturday's game.

Representing opposite regions of the same state, the two schools had played but 18 times, all since 1969, and never this late in a regular season. (They faced each other in the 1990 NIT.)

Only twice in college basketball history has a regular-season contest been played between the top two teams in the country, in a state they both call home. (Both times it was Duke and North Carolina.)

One of the two teams carried the only undefeated record in the nation. No squad has entered the NCAA tournament undefeated since UNLV in 1991.

The home team entered the game riding the longest winning streak (26 games) and longest home-court winning streak (47 games) in the program's history.

Odds were defied at FedExForum, folks. And the event Memphis saw — the event Tennessee and, thanks to the ESPN cameras, the entire country saw — probably won't be seen again in many a lifetime. It was that extraordinary.

click to enlarge In various forms, blue and orange painted downtown Memphis on Saturday - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • In various forms, blue and orange painted downtown Memphis on Saturday

• For trivia buffs, this was the 38th time in college basketball history the top two teams in the country squared off. With Tennessee's win, the number-one team now has a 20-18 edge. Fourteen of the previous contests were played at the Final Four, with six of them deciding the national championship.

• A quick scan of last Wednesday revealed tickets being offered from $300 (terrace baseline) to $1,500 (club sideline). You'd think Hannah Montana had returned for a pregame engagement. All this demand for a game that would 1) not affect the league standings in either the SEC or C-USA, 2) be on television in every living room from Harbor Town to Knoxville and points beyond, and 3) would not eliminate either team from anything (NCAA tournament, top-seed consideration, or the nation's top 10). The Madness isn't supposed to start 'til March, right?

• I couldn't help but wonder about the perspective Grizzlies rookie Mike Conley had on this contest. It was Conley's Ohio State Buckeyes, after all, that beat both teams in last year's NCAA tournament. (Conley, of course, didn't have to guard Tiger sensation Derrick Rose last March.)

• A colleague of mine has a son who was born and raised in Memphis and recently graduated from the University of Tennessee. When asked which team the young man would be cheering Saturday night, he said, "Probably the Tigers." Roots, it would appear, trump a sheepskin.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

• I found some of the comments posted on the Flyer's website — loosely related to the basketball game — downright disturbing. There are, I suppose, forces of evil in this world. And pockets of the globe (and country) that are worthy of ire. But how did people from the eastern side of Tennessee and those from here in the west come to loathe each other so? Regional rivalries are the lifeblood of SEC football, and the still-lingering effects from the "War of Northern Aggression" tend to stick in the craw of some Southerners when it comes to regions north of the Mason-Dixon. But East vs.West in the Volunteer State is as ugly as the backside of a baboon. UT fans wrote about crack babies and fatherless children. Memphis fans responded with labels of "racist" and "inbred."

Life's too short to hate, folks. Put all that energy behind your team. I liked the woman I saw outside Big Foot Lodge, wearing a Derrick Rose jersey and a tiger tail from waist to ankle. Her blue tank-top, though, was pulled tight over a long-sleeved orange undershirt. And on her head, a pair of antennae: one blue, the other orange.

• I attended the Grizzlies-Mavericks game at FedExForum 24 hours before the Tiger-Vol tip-off. And I can't imagine a greater disparity between two enterprises selling fundamentally the same form of entertainment. (And this was a good night for the Griz, as they were within nine points of Jason Kidd's new club in the fourth quarter before bowing by 15 in front of an announced crowd of 16,245.)

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

I've come to believe the missing ingredient for our NBA operation is that all-too-hard-to-define quality that defines the greatest athletes (and sales people): charisma. New coach Marc Iavaroni, new general manager Chris Wallace, and new star Rudy Gay may all be assets for the Grizzlies, but that trio collectively has less charisma than John Calipari on a bad-suit day. Here's hoping a dash of charisma is infused for the Grizzlies, starting perhaps with the franchise's new owner. Charisma sells tickets and fills seats.

• Any doubts about the existence of Tiger Nation were put to rest by the Tiger Village that formed outside the student entrance on the north side of FedExForum Saturday morning. One group I encountered set up their chairs at 5:15 a.m. and was happily passing the day in 40-degree temperatures, awaiting tip-off still five hours away. "They let us in [for the ESPN Game Day broadcast], but then we came right back," explained one camper, as if a shot at the background on a national TV broadcast rationalized 15 hours in line on a winter Saturday. Made me wonder how long fans waited in line for that Griz-Mavs game.

• Former Tiger greats Anfernee Hardaway and Keith Lee sat two courtside seats apart near the Tiger bench, occupying what was certainly the 10 most popular square feet in Memphis last weekend. Decked out in a retro "Memphis State" jacket, his retired number 25 on the back, Hardaway was meeting and greeting his many admirers an hour before tip-off. When I asked the greatest passer in Tiger history for a prediction, he said, "I can't give you a score, bro. No way!" Politics awaits, Penny.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

• One blemish — or 16 blemishes, perhaps — to the Final Four atmosphere were the NIT banners that dangle from the rafters of FedExForum. With 16 of them crowding the 20 NCAA banners the Tigers have hung, the impression of this program's national prominence is diminished. You certainly won't see NIT banners hanging above the court at Kansas, Duke, or North Carolina, and that's the company the Memphis program now keeps. If I were U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson, I'd leave up the four banners that represent trips to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden but take down the rest.

• There are two distinct — if ironic — positives to take out of the Tigers' loss. First of all, there will no longer be speculation about college basketball's first undefeated season in 32 years. As grand as the dream was — Gerald Ford was president when the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers ran the table — it added pressure to each Tiger game that would only build as the NCAA tournament weeded out pretenders among its field of 65. It would have made merely reaching the Final Four secondary for the last team with a perfect record. On top of that, undefeated and Calipari's "us against them" mantra simply don't mix. Now, Tiger coaches and players will focus solely on a next opponent and not that bagel on the right side of their win-loss record.

click to enlarge LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

In addition to that donut-shaped monkey off their backs, the Tigers will no longer have the banner of number-one team in the country to carry. (Memphis fell to number two in the AP poll released Monday.) Reaching the top of the nation's rankings — and for five weeks — was high achievement for a program and coach that claim to be playing for national attention, national recruits, and national championships. But that ranking is not the ultimate goal. Ask a college hoops nerd about who was number one in the country in February 1994, and he'll likely have to look it up. But ask the same fan about who won that year's national championship ... sooey, indeed. Banners hang forever.

• Despite the loss, don't doubt that Saturday night did wonders for Memphis, both the basketball program and the city. "This was what a one-vs.-two should be," said Calipari after the game. "Let me thank our students, who were here at 3 in the morning. The feeling in this building was tremendous. And no one turned their TV off. All they kept hearing was Memphis, the city of Memphis, FedExForum, Memphis, Memphis, Memphis. Unbelievable for us, for our program, the city, and the school. I don't know if we're going to invite [ESPN Game Day] back, though, because we seem to lose."

click to enlarge Priscilla Presley - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

• The Tigers' postgame locker room was the most awkward environment I've seen in my decade of covering local sports. Doneal Mack was the only Tiger to actually address the media throng, which outnumbered the players two-to-one. Chris Douglas-Roberts pulled his jersey over his head, and Antonio Anderson refused to comment. And those are the two leaders of this team, juniors with a college record now of 92-9. Derrick Rose was nowhere to be seen, which makes you wonder how he'll handle the microphones and cameras he'll see in the NBA next winter. Andre Allen spoke, if you want to call it that, for the entire squad: "It's a loss," the senior muttered. "And I feel bad." Reminded me that college basketball players are kids, with highs and lows that run to extremes. And yes, losing sucks.

"I've been in this position before," Calipari said. (His 1995-96 Massachusetts team was ranked number one and 26-0 when it lost to George Washington at home on February 24, 1996.) "There's going to be a natural letdown [Wednesday night, when Tulsa visits FedExForum]."

click to enlarge Penny Hardaway - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

• During pregame warmups, I asked Tiger strength coach Richard Hogans about how excited the players were for this monumental showdown. "We're actually looking forward to getting past this game," said Hogans, a football star during his college days as a Tiger. "But what more can you ask for? Number one vs. number two, right here in the state of Tennessee? Damn."

Eleven years ago, Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins told me there are moments in a sportswriter's life when he or she, given the choice of being anywhere in the world, would choose precisely the place they are. Right there, right then. He mentioned the Tiger football upset of Tennessee on November 9, 1996, as one of these moments.

click to enlarge Tiger coach John Calipari addresses the media after his team's first loss of the season. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tiger coach John Calipari addresses the media after his team's first loss of the season.

Calkins was at FedExForum for last Saturday's epic, along with 18,389 fans who will never forget it. And for one night (February 23, 2008) and in one place (Memphis, Tennessee), I was there with him. That press credential of mine may as well have been made of gold.

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