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End of the Dance

An epic Tiger basketball season ends one game shy of the Final Four.

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I want everybody to understand that this is not going to be an easy road. This doesn't change because I became coach. I don't walk on water. I'm just a regular guy. But I want people to see our players fighting, playing like they've never played before, doing things people have never seen them do. Win or lose, they leave the building saying, 'Now if this is the era we've gone to, I'm excited.''' -- University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari (Memphis magazine, October 2000)

You know the first name I thought of when the Memphis Tigers tipped off against UCLA in the Oakland Regional final Saturday? Dennis Freeland. My friend and former Flyer editor lost his battle with cancer in January 2002. But 15 months earlier, he wrote what amounted to an introduction for the city of Memphis to one John Calipari. And if there's any justice in the universe, Calipari absorbed a sliver of Dennis' spirit -- both for his basketball program and the city of Memphis -- during their time together.

Even with the dispiriting season-ending loss to the Bruins -- haven't we been here before? -- one could spur a debate these days on whether or not a boatless Calipari could cross the Mississippi without getting wet. (Dennis was petrified of what the coach might think of an illustration that ran with his story that depicted Calipari not only standing on water, but with a halo! "Artistic license," I kept telling him. Here in Memphis, we know how to sanctify mere mortals.)

The 2005-06 Tigers may have come up a game shy of the Final Four -- the expressed goal since Calipari was hired in March 2000 -- but consider what they did achieve. They won more games (33) than any other team in the program's rich history and more than any other team in the entire country this season. They were only the fourth team in school history to play for a berth in the Final Four. They are Conference USA champions, whether measured by their regular season record (13-1) or the tournament championship they earned by beating a game UAB squad March 11th. In Rodney Carney -- a player off the radar of the recruiting world when he signed to play for Calipari in 2002 -- Memphis is sending the third-most prolific scorer in school history toward an NBA career that will begin as a lottery pick in June's draft. And four of this year's top eight players were freshmen. Ask Tiger Nation after it gathers itself, and you'll hear: If John Calipari doesn't walk on water, he floats rather nicely.

By many measures, an NCAA regional final is the hardest game to lose in college basketball -- one game shy of the biggest spectacle in American amateur sports. But as Tiger fans dry their tears, they would do well to remember the journey. In reflecting on the end of a season in which Carney, Shawne Williams, and Darius Washington took turns being the star of the night, remember Calipari's starting lineup from his first team in 2000-01: Shyrone Chatman, Scooter McFadgon, Kelly Wise, Shannon Forman, and Modibo Diarra. The argument could be made that Calipari did a better coaching job in getting those Tic Price recruits to the NIT semifinals than he's done with his abundance of talent here five years later.

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Return trips to Madison Square Garden for the NIT "final four" in 2002 and 2005 didn't help in the longing for more national glory, the kind Larry Finch knew in 1973 and Keith Lee in 1985. Last weekend, the Tigers were but a victory over the most decorated program in the sport's history from reaching the promised land. A heartbreaking loss to UCLA in the NCAA tournament? The U of M is the latest victim in a long line. And the fact is, the Tigers won more NCAA tournament games this month than the program did over the previous 13 seasons combined.

The lasting beauty of the 2005-06 Memphis Tigers is that they are now a talking point on the historical timeline of this city's flagship sports enterprise. For all their virtues, the Grizzlies and Redbirds can't approximate the historical tapestry woven across generations by Tiger basketball. And from this point on, at water coolers and watering holes across the Mid-South, Calipari's sixth Memphis team will be part of the debate when the question of the greatest Tiger team is raised.

If the debate is narrowed down to regional finalists, the 2006 Tigers are one of four. What about 30-win teams? The 2006 Tigers are one of two (and the only one with 33). How about Memphis teams that won both regular-season and conference-tournament championships? The 2006 Tigers are one of four. Star power? Carney scored more points in his Memphis career than everyone except Keith Lee and Elliot Perry. (More than Penny, more than Finch!) Williams and Washington will give this team three future pros (and you just might see Joey Dorsey, Antonio Anderson, and Chris Douglas-Roberts playing for pay someday). It's a team for posterity.

With the end of a season comes speculation about the future, particularly in modern college basketball, where a roster's turnover becomes a complicated amalgam of pro ambitions, academic eligibility, and -- since Calipari's arrival -- even graduation. We know Carney will be in an NBA jersey come November. But who knows about Washington and/or Williams? (One man's opinion: They would each help their pro careers with another season of college ball.) If Washington stays for his junior year and Williams his sophomore, next year's club will start the season ranked in the country's top five, if not number one. But what if they don't?

Willie Kemp (a guard) and Pierre Niles (a forward) will be highly acclaimed rookies at the Finch Center when practice starts next fall, and they'll make an impact, with or without this season's stars back to help roll out the red carpet. Some healthy advice for college hoop fans: Teams must now be measured as individual, one-year novellas, as opposed to chapters in a larger book. The 2005-06 Tigers were best-sellers in this category. Celebrate them for what they gave the city, and separate your memories of them from that dreadful season finale last weekend. A 33-4 team deserves that much.

Once again, remember the journey, ye Tiger faithful. In two very forgettable years under Tic Price, Memphis won a total of 30 games and played nary an NCAA tournament contest. With due respect to Price's best player, Omar Sneed would come off the bench for the 2005-06 Tiger squad. And the Price "era" was but seven years ago.

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Dennis Freeland was as good a sportswriter as Memphis has seen in some time. He was, foremost, a professional journalist. Dotted all his i's, as they say. But he was also a graduate -- and fan -- of the University of Memphis. Objective as the day is long, Dennis was passionate about Tiger basketball. Were he here for the season just past, Dennis would have relished all the positives, all the cheers he might have covered, for it's the teams that do something special that make sportswriters pay attention, year in and year out, when most clubs simply do the best they can within fairly standard limits. A season begins, reaches its peak (or nadir), and ends.

I'll tell you a secret about Dennis and his coverage of the 2005-06 University of Memphis Tigers, as I imagine it. His gaze would have remained steady, his thoughts and perspective focused as the team grew into one of the three or four greatest in the history of the program. But Dennis' heart? It would have been pounding.




What Happened in Oakland?

-- By Dave Woloshin

The horn sounded and he collapsed to the floor, hiding his head beneath his jersey. It wasn't supposed to end this way. Not for Rodney Carney. Not for any of the Memphis Tigers. The chase for greatness ended one week too soon. One trip too soon. It was supposed to end in Indianapolis, Carney's hometown.

What the heck happened in Oakland? How could every Memphis player have a bad game on the same night? John Calipari had made it clear to his team and to the national press that to be successful his stars would have to "play like stars." But a different set of stars had aligned over San Francisco Bay.

It began when the NCAA selection committee bestowed the honor of a number-one seed to the Tigers. The University of Memphis had never been a one-seed before. And coming from a league like Conference USA, it was even more improbable. All the so-called experts thought your schedule wasn't tough enough. But there Memphis was, sitting at the top of the bracket. The only problem was the view.

The NCAA placed the Tigers in the Oakland region, figuring Memphis was the fourth-best team in the tournament. The fourth number-one seed has the lowest priority of the top seeds and is usually forced to play farthest from home. So if the Tigers made the Sweet 16 they would head west.

In the first two rounds in Dallas, the Tigers took care of business like a top seed should against Oral Roberts and Bucknell. So, it was on to Oakland!

As the Sweet 16 got started, it appeared the Tigers might have destiny on their side. Their next opponent, Bradley University, a small school from the Missouri Valley Conference, had upset favorites Kansas and Pittsburgh to get to Oakland. They were a 13-seed. If you know your NCAA trivia, you know that no 13-seed has ever made it to the Elite Eight. Bradley wouldn't either. Again, Memphis took care of business, winning by 16.

UCLA and Gonzaga squared off for the right to meet Memphis. The Zags dominated the game and led by nine with three minutes left. Then UCLA went on an 11-0 run and took its first lead with nine seconds left. The lead held, and suddenly, UCLA was destiny's child.

Memphis had beaten both UCLA and Gonzaga earlier in the year, so it really didn't matter which team they played, right? Oh, but it did, and I'll give you 15,000 blue-and-gold-clad reasons why.

The Oakland Arena looked like Pauley Pavilion-North. It was packed with UCLA fans. This was now a Memphis road game. For only the second time since the NCAA began seeding the tournament, a higher-seeded school was forced to play in the home state of a lower seed.

All year long, the young Tigers had stood up to pressure. When games got physical, so did Memphis. When referee calls went the other way, the Tigers shook it off. But not against UCLA.

Credit UCLA coach Ben Howland for coming up with a brilliant game plan. He decided the Bruins would play rough and clog up the middle, taking away Memphis' ability to attack the bucket. Everything UCLA planned paid off. When the Tigers tried to match their physical intensity, they were called for fouls. They became tentative. When a hard drive to the hoop became a charge, bewilderment set in.

Shooting threes? That didn't work either. At the half, Memphis was 0 for 10. Bewilderment turned to panic. UCLA's crowd was in a blue and gold frenzy. What hadn't happened all season finally did. The Tigers played like the freshmen and sophomores that they are.

Which gets us back to center circle and senior Rodney Carney, on the floor, trying to regain his composure. His career at Memphis is over. But his professional future looks bright. Most experts predict he'll be an NBA lottery draft choice. As for his young teammates, their future looks just as shiny. Almost every key player on this Tiger team other than Carney could be back. Add four new blue-chip recruits to the mix, and an Elite Eight repeat is not only feasible, it's expected.

Sure, the hangover of disappointment still lingers, even a week later. I believe these Tigers could have won the national championship. The Tigers could have licked any of the Final Four survivors. But that doesn't take away from what this group has achieved. They are the new bench-mark for Tiger greatness.

And a new chase begins in seven months.

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