The Memphis Tigers' run to the Conference USA tournament championship last week — the most unlikely tourney title in the program's history — is a shining example of a team becoming what it can be, just in the nick of time.
This was a team supposedly lacking the nerve (guts?) to win under pressure that won three games in three days on the same floor where, two weeks earlier, it took the worst beating the Tigers had suffered in more than a decade (a 74-47 loss to the same team, UTEP, it beat in the final). A team that finished at the bottom of C-USA in three-point shooting drained 10 three-pointers in its semifinal drubbing of East Carolina. A rumored sharp-shooter who had misfired for three months — freshman Chris Crawford — drilled a trey to tie the championship game against UTEP with less than two minutes to play.
Best of all, the native son who suited up with the entire community on his shoulders — freshman Joe Jackson — played like the high school legend he became at White Station High School. Three months of under-performing were forgotten, as Jackson was named the tournament MVP and sunk two free throws that cinched an NCAA tournament bid.
Second-year coach Josh Pastner has insisted his team earn its headlines on the floor, that recruiting rankings are worth no more than a stack of stat sheets. Well, with three wins in west Texas, the 2010-11 Tigers have made a headline that will be felt in every office pool in America this week.
What kind of run are these 25-9 Tigers capable of? Will Jackson pick up where he left off, a new giant in a point guard's clothing? Can shooters like Crawford and Charles Carmouche keep finding their mark on their sport's biggest stage? And what about this squad's lone senior? Memphis doesn't win the C-USA title without the muscle and effort (the shiner didn't hurt) of Will Coleman.
More than 300 college basketball teams start the season hoping to answer questions like these under the lights of the NCAA tournament. Thanks to a sudden and unexpected boost in confidence, heart, and grit, one of the 68 teams that get the chance will be the Memphis Tigers.