When the second-ranked Memphis Tigers began NCAA tournament play a week ago, conventional wisdom held that the cakewalks of Conference USA were behind them. It was time for men to play like men, and against the men of BCS conferences. Having snuck by the SEC's Mississippi State Bulldogs in the second round, the Tigers were deemed by many to be worthy candidates for an upset by the Big 10's Michigan State Spartans.
Friday night's Sweet 16 contest was over at halftime. Shooting lights out -- and from the foul line! -- the Tigers ran out to a 50-20 lead on their way to a 92-74 victory, setting up a South Regional championship Sunday against the second-seeded Texas Longhorns. With no fewer than eight Tigers (including Pierre Niles) getting into the scoring column by halftime, Memphis made this week's MSU look like last month's SMU, or ECU. Those pundits waiting for the Tigers (now 36-1) to crumble under the pressure of a prime-time nail-biter will have to wait another two days, and hope the Big 12 sends stronger, better shooting, and more competitive men into the Tigers' den.
Should Memphis reach its first Final Four in 23 years, Antonio Anderson will be the player of the game against Texas. The junior guard has been coach John Calipari's defensive ace since his freshman season, and will certainly get the bulk of minutes guarding Texas star D.J. Augustin. The Longhorns have an offense that threatens first from the perimeter, A.J. Abrams complementing Augustin's driving skills with a long-distance shooting touch sure to stretch the Memphis defense in ways Michigan State was unable. The Tigers' backcourt depth will be critical, with Willie Kemp, Andre Allen, and Doneal Mack available to spell freshman Derrick Rose, conserving the star point guard's energy for the offensive end. (Any offense Anderson delivers Sunday will be gravy. His mission will be to contain Augustin.)
In 1973, the Memphis State Tigers beat Kansas State to win the Midwest Regional in Houston, Texas. Twelve years later, the Tigers beat Penn and UAB in Houston, on their way back to the Final Four. As for Sunday's opponent, the Longhorns are one of only two teams (both UT!) to beat the Tigers in FedExForum over the last three years. (Memphis fell to the "burnt" shade of orange on January 2, 2006.) These are Texas-sized connections for Tiger historians to consider, to say nothing of their team's third attempt in as many years to reach the hallowed Final Four. As for the intangible of playing an opponent in its home state, the experience factor is heavily on the side of the "visitors." For Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey, Robert Dozier, Anderson, and Allen, a third attempt at a fourth tourney win -- in what will be a school-record-tying 12th NCAA tournament game for each -- is welcome regardless of how many stars appear in the state flag.
Everyone with a bracket loves the underdog during the NCAAs, but this weekend may be a good one to pull for the front-runners. Never have all four number-one seeds reached the Final Four. Only three times in the last quarter-century have three top seeds made it to the tournament's final weekend (1993, '97, and '99). With perennials North Carolina, Kansas, and UCLA still in the hunt, the "underdog" who could become the nation's favorite in a Final Four that holds to form is, you guessed it, the Memphis Tigers.