If you shake the proverbial cliche tree this time of year, you’ll find yourself covered in tidbits about conference basketball tournaments. “Cinderella’s last chance for glory.” “A major stumbling block for top-10 teams.” “Terrific tune-up for the Big Dance.” With so little at stake beyond that one last chance for bottom-feeding teams to qualify for the NCAA tournament by winning their conference “tune-up” what kind of value should this week’s Conference USA event at FedExForum have for the host team? Having run away with the league’s regular season championship for a second straight year, the University of Memphis has far more to lose than gain. If they win three straight games, they’ve done what the tournament selection committee expects them to do. But if they lose, they can expect to fall at least two seeds in their bracket of the tournament that counts.
Seems like a good time for a dose of perspective. Here’s a look at the five conference tournaments the U of M program has won, and what those titles meant for the Tigers in the Big Dance.
• 1982 Metro Memphis actually won the 1929 Mississippi Valley tourney, but since the NCAA had yet to be born, we’ll call this the first modern tourney title for the Tigers. Led by Bobby Parks, Doom Haynes, and a freshman named Keith Lee, Memphis State entered the tournament with a record of 21-4 and ranked 10th in the country. The Tigers snuck by Virginia Tech in the semis, 71-70, then beat arch-rival Louisville in the final. As it turned out, that was one more victory than coach Dana Kirk’s squad would get in the NCAA’s. The Tigers beat Wake Forest (again by a single point) before losing to Villanova in overtime in the East Regional semifinals. Local fans would hear from this Wildcat team again.
• 1984 Metro Having lost three of their last five regular-season games, the Tigers had seen their ranking drop from 8th to 17th before they hosted their Metro brethren at the Mid-South Coliseum. The Tigers embarrassed Southern Miss in the quarterfinals then edged Florida State, 65-63, for a shot at Virginia Tech and a taste of revenge. (The Hokies had beaten Memphis State by 20 two weeks earlier.) The Tigers won the championship, 78-65, and entered the NCAA tournament with a record of 24-6. Behind a total of 55 points from Lee, the Tigers whipped Oral Roberts and Purdue to reach a third straight Sweet Sixteen. Alas, Hakeem Olajuwon scored 25 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in St. Louis to lead his Houston Cougars to a 78-71 win over the Tigers. Houston made it to the finals for a second straight year, where they lost to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown.
• 1985 Metro This may have been the finest Tiger team of all time. Lee’s senior season was strengthened by the likes of point guard Andre Turner, All-America-to-be William Bedford, Baskerville Holmes, and Vincent Askew. The Tigers entered the tourney played in Louisville ranked 5th in the country and with a record of 24-3. After beating Southern Miss in the quarterfinals, the Tigers beat the host team, 81-74, Memphis State’s third victory over the Cardinals in less than two months. Which made the championship game (a 90-86 overtime win over Florida State) slightly anticlimactic. The Tigers made it all the way to the Final Four, winning classics against Boston College and Wayman Tisdale’s Oklahoma Sooners along the way. Alas, just as Villanova ended Lee’s freshman season, so they ended his college career. The Tigers’ career scoring leader was held to 10 points in the 52-45 Wildcat win.
• 1987 Metro This was the most bittersweet championship in U of M history. Regardless of their performance, these Tigers the first squad under head coach Larry Finch had to pay a penalty for their predecessors. Due to violations under Kirk, the Tiger program had been stripped of its 1985 Final Four appearance and was ineligible for the 1987 NCAA tournament. Gone were Lee, Bedford, and Turner. Still on board were Askew and Dwight Boyd. The Tigers finished the regular season 23-8 and traveled to Louisville home of the defending national champions and sophomore star Pervis Ellison for the only postseason action they would see. And Memphis State made this tournament its whipping boy. Beat Cincinnati by 19 in the quarterfinals, South Carolina by 10 in the semis, and the host Cardinals by 23(!) for the championship. The program’s third conference tourney title in four years (and fourth in six) would be their last for almost two decades.
• 2006 Conference USA Considering these Tigers suited up C-USA’s Player of the Year (Rodney Carney), Freshman of the Year (Shawne Williams), and another all-conference player in Darius Washington, the tournament played at FedExForum was the Tigers’ to lose. Having fallen in the finals in near-tragic fashion a year earlier (when Washington missed two free throws after time expired to give Louisville the title), John Calipari’s sixth Memphis club left nothing to debate. They beat Tulane by 19 in the quarters behind 18 points from Carney, whipped Houston by 14 behind 23 from Williams, then avenged a late-season loss to UAB by beating the Blazers, 57-46, for the championship. The title, along with a 28-3 record, earned Memphis a top seed in the NCAA’s for the first time ever. The Tigers reached the Elite Eight for the first time in 14 years, but shot merely 31 percent in a 50-45 loss to UCLA.