Memphis is a basketball town. The sport has grown to be as much a point of reference in this city's last couple of years as blues and that pork stuff we eat at the Rendezvous. That reputation is due to our newly energized and nationally ranked Tigers as well as our newly acquired Grizzlies. But a Memphis basketball connoisseur must understand that not only does basketball run high profile in Memphis, it runs deep. It's in the very bones of our citizenry. Southwest Tennessee Community College head coach Verties Sails knows all about bones. Sails had both hips replaced this past summer. But don't think that stops this Memphis basketball staple. In truth, the whole affair has barely sidelined the 59-year-old's 36-year coaching career. Sails is already back at practice as STCC starts its season November 2nd. And to top things off, Sails' squad is not only going for a national championship, it's going for Sales' 500th win. Sails, of course, puts that number in perspective and necessarily behind the championship. "When I had the surgery, I just wanted to wake up," Sales says. "And I wanted to see smiling faces around me." Basketball was on the backburner for the summer. So too is Sails' personal-win plateau in the struggle for a national championship. "The 500 will take care of itself," Sails says, disagreeing that the remarkable milestone is really all that remarkable. All it means, according to Sales, is that "I've been coaching a long time and I've had a lot of good players." Yes, he's had good enough players to pile up a 487-185 record. So getting 13 next year will only be half of STCC's season. The squad is coming off a good year, going 23-8 and winning the Tennessee Junior College/Community College Associations (TJCCA) region VII tournament, before losing in the national tournament. All that was without the aid of star player 6'6" forward Cortez Stigger, who sat the season with a broken elbow. He's joined by another veteran and last year's top STCC player, Lou Wright, another 6'6" forward. Sails says last year's success was surprising due to the loss of Stigger. "We don't know how we got [the wins] last year," Sails says of his team's 2001 success. But with Stigger returning, Sails says that recruiting became a focus to help improve the team. "We've had as good a freshman class as we have ever had," Sails says. "We needed some size. We needed some depth. We got that." So while you're watching for the Tigers to take a national championship and for the Grizzlies to try and win more games than the Tigers (it could happen), also keep an eye on STCC and go on out to a game or two. Sales will be there, fake hips and all. Because even without those two joints, he's still got this game in his bones. No surgery can take that from him.
- A couple of people have been asking me about this Grizzlies team, now 3-0 in the preseason with the final home preseason game tonight at The Pyramid. The question: "Are they for real?" It's tough to answer, since the eyes of the newly converted are bright with hope and aspirations of taking Orlando in 6 at The Pyramid for the national championship. Well ... let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Grizzlies have won this preseason because they wanted to win. The guys went on the floor and just flat-out played harder. And that's a good thing. Wanting it more than anyone else will get a team to a certain point in terms of record. If a team has some talent and really wants it bad, like the Grizzlies seem to, I can actually see this squad pulling out 40 wins this year, with the majority of them coming at home. But. In terms of the Grizzlies, please recognize that the preseason features none other than scrubs who won't see but five minutes a game in the regular season. Also, the regular superstars of the league do not get their butts into gear until at least March or April, if then. The Grizzlies will face very different versions of the Trailblazers, Clippers, and Sonics at that time. Give them a chance, though. It could be fun to watch.
- At 4-2, it must be good to be a U of M Tigers football player, right? No. Not even a little bit. Head coach Tommy West has always sported a singular reputation: He's meaner after a win than a loss. He tends to look past all the good things in a game and go right for the bad. That's not to say the guy doesn't like a win. Who doesn't? But West wants perfection in every area it's attainable. He demands everything the team can dish out. Every game. So, coach, how was your defense this weekend as Memphis beat Houston 52-33? "It was as bad as I have ever seen it," West says. "It's hard to imagine doing well, giving up 33 points [against Houston]. We were poor. And that's being nice." West's frustration is understandable given that last year's squad was so dominant. This year, West says that he would like to see something a bit more modest. On the coach's wish list? "I'd like to see, at some point, what we call a tackle." Now that is mean. Humor aside -- and the coach isn't really laughing when he cracks these one liners across the podium to assembled media -- West is dead serious about getting this defense back on track. It's great that the offense is finally clicking, but as the Tigers visit run-happy ECU with nationally ranked Leonard Harry (135.2 yards/game) at the running back position, West wants his defensive unit to step up and fill the gaps before Harry blows the thing open. "The thing that irks me," West says, "is the inconsistency and not knowing what to expect week to week." For example, the defense did fine against Southern Florida but folded against Louisville. It returned to form against Southern Mississippi, only to let Houston roll through. At least it's time for an up week, but West isn't counting on that. "I wish I was better at stopping and smelling the roses," West says. "You're always worried about something."
- With Tuesday night's loss to Louisville, Southern Mississippi is probably out of the C-USA picture. That means the title is Louisville's to win (or lose) and the Tigers' to wait for a loss and, more importantly, to win out its C-USA schedule. Of course, what about Cincinnati, currently top of the list in the C-USA? Well, fair enough. But look at Cincy's conference wins. All are against C-USA pastries Army, Tulane, and UAB. The Bearcats have not beaten any team worth mentioning just yet and still will have to get past Louisville and -- surprisingly enough -- the current U of M squad. Here's a good probability: Memphis plays Cincy in its last regular season game. While the game might decide the C-USA second-place spot, it more importantly might decide if Memphis gets to go to the conference's second- or third-ranked bowl (the GMAC Bowl and the galleryfurniture.com bowl, respectively). And if Louisville loses in some freak mishap ... well, there's much more football to play. Let's just leave it at that.