(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
I had more fun being a Memphis Tiger fan this season than any grown man with a wife and child has a right to. The Tigers finally validated my rabid fanaticism by being one of the elite teams in the country and I gently, and subtly, let everyone know it.
But on Saturday, four months of feeling like a true contender came crashing down Terry Malloy style in a frigid few hours televised to the entire nation.
After UCLA beat Memphis 50-45 Saturday in the Elite 8, naturally the first thing I started to think was that it had to be my fault. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn my Tiger shirt that I’ve watched most every game in. I didn’t wear it during Thursday’s win over Bradley – so that probably snapped the string.
Maybe I shouldn’t have watched Texas and LSU, because I probably wasted valuable rooting energy on those Tigers of a different stripe.
I would have thought that in years past, but now I’m old enough and slightly sane enough to realize that I didn’t have much to do with it.
The real reason they lost was because they decided to stage an interpretive basketball version of that 1971 classic, The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Memphis shot 31.5-percent for the game and it didn’t have a thing to do with the Bruin defense.
Possession after possession, the Tigers blew wide-open layups, jump shots and any other shot they wanted to get. It was only the second time all year that all 10 guys in the rotation couldn’t find their touch.
To make matters worse, UCLA was getting every call each time the ‘Three Blind Mice’ blew their whistles. I realize the game was just miles away from the UCLA campus, but give me a break! The Bruins shot 24 more free throws than Memphis and made five more than the Tigers even attempted.
The old adage is the aggressor gets the calls. Well, the Tigers were just as aggressive – only 17 of 54 field goal attempts were 3-pointers, everything else came off drives to the goal. Yet every time the Tigers looked at a person with UCLA on their chest, they were tagged with a foul.
And I’m not just saying that because I’m a homer, sore loser, or a basketball idiot. The numbers don’t lie. Plus, I’m not the only one that thinks that. On Monday I spoke to no less than three non-Tiger fans (two former coaches and a former player) who agreed that the refs were offensive. I even heard from an elderly gentleman who is an LSU fan that Memphis didn’t have a chance because of the calls.
When the Tigers started fouling on purpose in the last few desperate minutes, it only served to prolong the agony. I felt a little like William Wallace when England ripped his entrails out while he watched.
I felt so bad that it even seemed like the commercials were mocking me. “So long Tigers, it’s been a good run,” said the Coca-Cola ad that was really extolling the virtues of a coke float compared to a root beer float.
I received a similar kick to the groin in 1994 when the Tigers fell a game short of the Final Four in Anfernee Hardaway’s first season. That year Memphis lost to Cincinnati for the fourth time despite handling everyone else they faced that year – including a powerful Georgia Tech team in the second round.
But things have changed. I guarantee it won’t be another 12 years before we reach the Elite 8. Memphis had a great year that was powered by (with apologies to Rodney Carney) freshmen and sophomores. With another top five recruiting class coming in, the question becomes who will leave and who will stay?
So now I turn my attention to the Memphis Grizzlies, who on Sunday won their seventh game in a row and has the number six seed pretty much locked for the playoffs.
There’s a real good chance that the Grizz will win their first playoff game this season, but who knows. If there’s a way to crush my spirit, one of my teams is sure to find a way to make it happen.
I didn’t even have the stomach to keep watching the tournament, until Sunday afternoon when I saw George Mason and Florida advance.
The Final Four is wide open, and I have three teams to root for.
First off, I don’t want Florida to win. There’s something about them I just don’t like, although they are very talented and well coached. I’d love to see George Mason win it all just because they are the ultimate underdog. I also wouldn’t mind if LSU wins it because with their athleticism, they are the team most like the Tigers left in the Final Four.
But I guess the team I most want to win is UCLA. At least that way I can say the National Champion eliminated the Tigers. In my mind, that would make them runners-up.
And that’s a pretty good season.