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FROM MY SEAT

Three Tiger teams that earned their place in the FedEx Forum rafters.

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BANNER YEARS Due to a restrictive policy established by their landlords at FedExForum, the Memphis Tigers played their first 11 games in their new home with a dramatically reduced number of team banners hanging from the rafters. Banners representing the 1973 NCAA tournament runner-up, the 1985 NCAA Final Four squad, and the 2002 NIT champions were chosen from more than 30 that hung at The Pyramid (representing every NCAA tournament and NIT team in Tiger history). The banners were back in full force for the DePaul game January 27th, but the university’s selection of those three special clubs -- even if forced by their landlord -- had me considering their similarities. And while there are some powerful arguments for other squads (starting with Penny Hardaway’s 1992 regional finalists), you could make the case for these three clubs being the most significant -- not the best, but most significant -- in U of M history.

When Anthony Rice scored is 1,000th career point on January 29th at TCU, his achievement had the retro effect of placing that 2002 NIT team -- for which Rice played as a freshman -- in rare air, indeed, when it comes to Tiger basketball. That 2001-02 team can now be said to have dressed four players to reach 1,000 points for the U of M: Rice, Kelly Wise, Antonio Burks, and Earl Barron. (For some perspective, in more than 80 years of Memphis basketball, only 40 players have scored 1,000 career points, including Rodney Carney from this year’s squad. Keith Lee is the program’s alltime leader with 2,408.) Granted, this is evaluating a single season’s team based on a wider scope of achievement, but it’s a measure for comparing the overall quality of one special team with that of another. It’ll work today . . . and it’s debate fodder for your next basketball-related get-together.

How dare I compare an NIT outfit with the school’s fabled Final Four clubs? Keep an open mind, and consider:

The 1973 Tigers had three “Millennium Men,” with Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, and Bill Cook each reaching the magic point total of 1,000. Finch remains number three on the alltime charts (with 1,869 points) while Cook is seventh (1,629). The 1985 team, remarkably, has six members in the 1,000-point club: Lee, Andre Turner, Dwight Boyd, William Bedford, Vincent Askew, and Baskerville Holmes. Lee and Turner are each in the top 10. So in measuring pure scorers, the 2002 team (with Wise, the school’s eighth alltime leading scorer) plays second fiddle to the ‘85 bunch, but edges the 1973 team.

What about rebounders? Lee gives the ‘85 team a lift with his school-record 1,336 boards, but Wise checks in at third alltime with 1,075. It should be noted that Wise’s best single season on the glass -- 363 in 2000-01 -- is better than Lee’s top season (357 in 1983-84). The combination of Robinson and Larry Kenon -- a one-year wonder who established a single-season rebound record (501) that still stands -- gives the 1973 team honors in this category. But with Wise and big Chris Massie, the ‘02 team holds its own.

Each of these three groups received its share of laurels. The 1973 team had three players earn AP honorable mention All-America acclaim during their careers: Finch, Kenon, and Cook. Keith Lee was a first-team All-America in 1985, while that team’s Bedord and Turner would receive honorable mention in later years. And the 2002 team? Freshman sensation Dajuan Wagner -- who set the school’s single-season scoring record with 762 points that year -- was an honorable mention All-America, as was Burks two years later. The 1985 team had four players who would be named all-conference at least once (Lee, Turner, Bedford, and Askew) while the 2002 team also had four all-conference honorees (Wise, Wagner, Massie, and Burks). Lee was the 1985 Metro Conference Player of the Year. Burks was the 2004 Conference USA Player of the Year.

It’s in team achievement where the 2002 squad, quite obviously, falls short. The 1973 club had to win the Missouri Valley Conference just to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The 1985 team was one of only three in school history to win its conference’s regular season title and tournament championship. While the 2002 team won C-USA’s National Division, it lost in the conference tournament quarterfinals to a Houston team it should have handled, a loss that probably cost an otherwise terrific club a ticket to the Big Dance. Five wins later, the 2002 Memphis Tigers were crowned, ahem, NIT champions.

The 1972-73 Memphis State Tigers (final record: 24-6) were the most important team -- regardless of sport -- in this city’s history. The 1984-85 club (31-4) was a star-studded, dynamic bunch that captivated the national spotlight and prevented an all-Big East Final Four. As for the 2001-02 Tigers (27-9)? They’ll have to let history measure them with an appropriately placed asterisk, for teams that don’t make the NCAAs don’t even enter the discussion of “best ever.” It’s a sad reflection, though, when you consider the player Rice became, not to mention his running mates three years ago, from Burks and Wagner, to Wise, Massie, and Barron. (A footnote: Scooter McFadgon -- a sophomore in 2002 who transferred the next year to Tennessee -- is an All-SEC candidate as a senior in Knoxville.) If they didn’t belong among the country’s top 65 teams three years ago, it’s becoming apparent the 2002 Memphis Tigers did indeed earn a brighter spotlight in the FedExForum rafters.

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