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Celebration Time

The Tigers' tournament fate won't define an already successful season.

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You're running a little late for the afternoon festivities, but surely the food isn't all gone, and the keg can't already be tapped, right? And where's the house anyway? You've done this before. Just look for all the cars.

"Ah, that must be it," you think, spotting the line of vehicles along the street -- and what an odd mix it is: Mercedes and sparkling Cadillac SUVs (entrepreneurial millionaire Tiger donors) parked beside Saturns and dilapidated old Buicks (lost, elderly gentleman who turned into the wrong driveway).

You open the front door. People are standing around with drinks (Cokes or tea, no alcohol) and plates of catered food. Most of the women are in the kitchen, occasionally glancing at the TV. The men are gathered in the living room, zeroed-in on the big screen. You've been to this kind of party before.

Then you notice a few oddities: big lights and cameras; notepads and recorders; Cal's Championship Steakhouse employees. It's a holiday get-together that hasn't happened in seven years. Events like this, you think, should be an annual rite of passage for every Tiger player and fan.

"Who wants to go out West?" asks U of M head coach John Calipari (and our host), sitting in his favorite chair. "You can all stop off at some of these people's places in Colorado along the way."

"You can all stay at my house," says Gaylord Entertainment Corporation chairman Mike Rose.

As the NCAA men's basketball tournament brackets are unveiled this Sunday afternoon, seated on the floor, on couches and chairs, are the members of the Tiger basketball team. Standing around them are the representatives of the Memphis fan base.

Race. Gender. Age. Demographics. Through Tiger basketball, those issues are moot today.

There's South Memphis' Foote Homes native Antonio Burks seated beside his millionaire coach Calipari. Buried on the couch between small-town Clarksville, Missississippi, native Earl Barron and Memphis Central High graduate John Grice sits walk-on Nathaniel Root, who hails from even smaller Adamsville, Tennessee. Standing behind them is Tiger TV and radio analyst Matt Dillon.

It's a big moment, a moment that has TV sets from Collierville to Orange Mound tuned to the same channel.

"The Memphis Tigers, as a No. 7 seed, will play the 10th-seeded Sun Devils of Arizona State in Oklahoma City "

By the time you read this, the Tigers may be headed home.

But will it ultimately matter?

Yes, a first-round loss to lower-seeded Arizona State would hurt -- no, actually devastate -- this Memphis team. But would it take away from what this team has done? Would it detract from how this 2002-03 squad has once again unified the entire city around Tiger hoops?

Not really.

As a number-seven seed in the tournament, the U of M is supposed to beat its 10th-seeded opponent, Arizona State. But as every basketball fan knows, Cinderella upset stories are inevitable in the tournament's early rounds.

Still, this Memphis team has already lived out a rags-to-riches fairy tale of sorts and is just now taking the pumpkin carriage to the ball. And it shouldn't take a Calipari-esque motivational speech to convince people of that.

"It has been a fun year," Calipari says. "This is a team and a program that is still learning. But this is a group of young men that want to learn and want to do well. This is a hungry team," Calipari added. "We have not been given a whole lot of respect."

And why wouldn't the Tigers still be famished for more games? Look at what they've already overcome: Chris Massie and Billy Richmond missing the first semester. A suspended Burks missing the first three games, then missing more with injuries and his mother's health problems. Wade and Richmond missing a game each for leaving the bench during a brawl. The near-season-long, week-to-week prognosis of now-redshirt freshman Almamy Thiero's health. And the three walk-ons brought in just to have enough players to practice. Now, only time, luck, and good basketball will tell whether those increasingly prevalent blue T-shirts you see around town are prophetic of good things to come.

Tournament success or not, these Tigers have already won.

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