It will be many moons -- generations, likely -- before Memphis, Tennessee, commands the national spotlight like it did on April 4th and 5th, 2008. Having served as the epicenter for a worldwide memorial service to Dr. Martin Luther King on Friday, Memphis turned its collective eyes to San Antonio Saturday where the University of Memphis Tigers played the role of uninvited guest at a Final Four party of college basketball's aristocracy. In the city where another famous Tennessean -- Davy Crockett -- took his last breath 172 years ago, the 2007-08 Tigers took the Mid-South region's breath away, beating the UCLA Bruins, 78-63, to advance to Monday night's national championship game, where they'll face Kansas (36-3 after beating North Carolina in Saturday's other semifinal).
Led by a combined 53 points from their two All-Americans -- Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose -- the Tigers beat the most storied program in college basketball history on their way to a record-setting 38th win this season. Here are four angles to consider as you catch your breath before tip-off Monday night:
The two benches would be wise to have oxygen tanks nearby Monday, as the pace will be as frenetic -- at both ends of the floor -- as any game played this season. Kansas mirrors Memphis, in that their offense and perimeter defense create pressure that merely very good teams cannot match. And for both teams -- and again, at both ends -- this pressure comes from guard play. Rose, Douglas-Roberts, and Antonio Anderson will take turns jabbing the Jayhawks' Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers, and Brandon Rush, the Tigers retaining a slight size advantage, if not the edge in quickness that made such a difference against the Bruins. If Rose can force one of the Jayhawk playmakers into foul trouble as he did UCLA's Darren Collison, the Tigers will have, in hockey terms, a "man advantage" when it comes to pushing and pressuring the basketball.
A key difference-maker could be the foul status of the Tiger big men. John Calipari was again masterful in protecting Joey Dorsey and Shawn Taggart despite the two Memphis centers picking up a pair of fouls each before halftime. If they combine for 22 rebounds against Kansas (as they did against UCLA), Memphis may neutralize the twin towers -- Sasha Kaun and Cole Aldrich -- Kansas coach Bill Self brings off his bench. If foul trouble forces Calipari to go with a smaller unit -- even for brief stretches -- the Jayhawk slashers could show U of M fans dribble-drives seemingly patented this winter at FedExForum.
This will be just the second time the Memphis program has advanced to the NCAA finals, having lost to UCLA in the 1973 championship. Regardless of the outcome Monday night, these Tigers are a team for the ages, compiling numbers unmatched both locally and nationally. A win Monday night would tie coach John Calipari with Larry Finch for the most victories in Tiger history, and Calipari has been coaching the program but eight seasons (compared with Finch's 11 on the bench). Senior center Joey Dorsey was held scoreless Saturday (but grabbed 15 rebounds) and needs nine points against the Jayhawks to become the fifth Tiger in history with 1,000 career rebounds and points. Here's another number: 104 (the U of M's win total over the last three seasons). Should Memphis beat Kansas, the Tigers will break the current record for victories over such a period (Kentucky, 1995-98).
Memphis has faced two chief criticisms since it started play last November. Much was made about how weak Conference USA was, and what a poor training ground it would provide the Tigers for the crucible of the NCAA tournament. Take a look at the vanquished on the Memphis schedule now: three teams from the Big East, two from the Big 12, three from the Pac 10, one from the SEC, one from the Big 10. The U of M is a cool 10-1 against the "power conferences."
As for the Tigers' Achilles' heel -- free-throw shooting -- it took 39 games, but an answer was finally found. Don't let any player not named Douglas-Roberts or Rose to the line. The duo took all 23 foul shots against the Bruins, and made 20.