Three days, three teams, two arenas, one pair of feet. Last weekend was a Memphis sports junkie’s delight. Tiger basketball (opening night!) Thursday, the Grizzlies at home Friday night, then a Liberty Bowl matinee Saturday (home finale!) between the Memphis football squad and the University of Houston. I spent roughly ten hours watching young men dribble, dunk, defend, and go deep. The reward for you? Three game summaries in one column.
• You’ve got to be careful with the first impressions you take from the University of Memphis’ blowout win over Sacrificial, er, Jackson State. Beating a team playing solely for the revenue of the contest will do much for a home team’s ego, but only so much for the development of the squad. That said, there were some elements to like in Thursday night’s victory. To begin with, the 2006-07 Tigers will be a team of redline pace (hear that, Griz?). Memphis managed to take 87 shots against JSU, or more than two per minute, and I can’t recall a single possession during which they held the ball more than 10 seconds.
Coach John Calipari utilized no fewer than six guards in his nine-man rotation, and they played efficiently even at great speed. Chris Douglas-Roberts, Andre Allen, and freshman Willie Kemp combined for 14 assists and only four turnovers. After the 111-69 drubbing was complete, Calipari explained the method to his backcourt madness. “If someone’s playing a little better, he gets more time,” said Calipari. “If someone’s not playing as well, he’s playing less. Bottom line. Competition’s good. I like to play aggressive and attack. And we have a lot of guys to play, so let’s wear them out. It’s kind of like putting your son to bed and he doesn’t like to go to bed. So you take him out and play soccer for an hour. Then he falls to sleep.”
• There was a good sign and a bad sign in the Grizzlies’ 115-103 loss to Dallas Friday night (a game the undermanned home team actually led after three quarters). Second-year forward Hakim Warrick played 42 minutes(!), scored 26 points (10 of 16 from the field), and pulled down eight rebounds. And on defense, Warrick held the Mavericks’ perennial All-Star, Dirk Nowitzki, in check (Nowitzki missed 10 of his first 13 shots). Whatever rotation Memphis coach Mike Fratello settles on simply must include 30 minutes a night for Warrick. And that’s with or without Pau Gasol.
The bad sign? Lots of empty seats, particularly in the lower section of FedExForum. If the house can’t be packed on a Friday night with the reigning Western Conference champs in town, you start wondering about how truly engaged this community is with its NBA franchise.
• I’ve come to love Senior Day at the Liberty Bowl. It’s a notion that has grown almost quaint: pause to salute and bid farewell to University of Memphis student-athletes who have, yes, reached their senior year. And with their families on the field to share the ceremony. The U of M said goodbye to 19 football players Saturday, as the Tigers played their last home game in a dreadful season. To a man, these Tiger seniors should be remembered for their contributions to a three-year stretch of success unlike any the program had seen before.
After the pregame hugs Saturday, the Tigers seniors on down played like champions. Facing a Houston team that had already clinched a spot in the C-USA championship game, Memphis stayed close enough to come up with a miracle. With the Cougars attempting what would be a game-clinching field goal from 24 yards, Brandon McDonald one of the honored seniors stormed in from the left side, blocked the kick, and watched Greg Jackson (merely a sophomore) romp 80 yards to tie the score at 20 with two minutes to play. Sadly, though, in 2006 the U of M doesn’t win football games, regardless of the drama. An even shorter field-goal attempt was converted to win the game on Houston’s first possession of overtime.
In the aftermath of his team’s 10th loss of the season, Tiger coach Tommy West held his chin up when asked about his departing seniors. “They’ll be great ambassadors for this university,” reflected West. “They’re the right kind of people, and they won a lot of football games.”
As for Sunday, our day of rest? I took my family to see “Annie” at the Orpheum. You just can’t keep me from a crowd.