The Final Two

In Murfreesboro, March Madness is more like March Mildness.



If Melrose and White Station meet in the championship game of the state AAA boys' high school basketball tournament this weekend, it will be the third straight all-Memphis final.

And once again, hardly anyone from Memphis will see it, even though the two teams, which have already met four times this year in jam-packed games, have several future college starters, including University of Memphis recruit Joe Jackson of White Station.

The state tournament that has become a showcase of Memphis basketball is played in Murfreesboro, 240 miles away. The last time it was played outside of Middle Tennessee was 1974, when Memphis hosted it, and Melrose took the title.

Due to a combination of Memphis dominance, timing, and geography, there isn't much March Madness in Tennessee high school basketball these days.

A Memphis team has won the AAA title in nine of the last 10 years. White Station has five championships, Ridgeway two, and Hamilton and Bartlett one each.

Some school systems in Middle Tennessee, including Nashville, are on spring break this week. But Memphis City Schools doesn't start spring break until March 29th.

If their team makes it to the finals, students usually have to take two days out of school to go see the game. The quarterfinal games start on Thursday afternoon, with the semis on Friday and the finals on Saturday. Once their team loses, most fans go home. The all-Memphis finals have been played in Murfreesboro's 11,520-seat Monte Hale Arena in front of fewer than 1,000 fans, in sharp contrast to the noisy, standing-room-only crowds when the top teams meet in the regular season on their home courts or at nearby neutral sites.

"If it were here, it would be sold out and it would be huge," said Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Unlike last week's Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville, where scalpers were getting $400 or more, cost isn't an issue. A $12 ticket gets you into three division final games.

"It's the travel," said Bernard Childress, executive director of the TSSAA. "When we had Spring Fling (the spring sports championships) in Memphis a few years ago, it was the same thing for people from East Tennessee."

Melrose is trying to win the state championship for the first time since 1983. The school has a rich basketball tradition, including stars Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, and William Bedford, all of whom went on to play for the University of Memphis.

White Station has tended to send its basketball talent out of town, to schools like Tennessee, which landed Dane Bradshaw and J.P. Prince, and Alabama, which nabbed Ernest Shelton.

Former U of M coach John Calipari recruited nationally and courted "one-and-done" future pros like DaJuan Wagner, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans. New coach Josh Pastner wants to reestablish the hometown base. Stay-at-home star Jackson, a point guard, is considered a likely starter for the Tigers next season.

Childress says there's nothing stopping Memphis from hosting the finals. The contract with Murfreesboro expires next year. Childress would like to sign a two-year contract for the 2012 and 2013 tournaments before then.

"Our board is going to start the bid process at our next meeting, and several cities have expressed interest," he said. "We have heard from Memphis, Chattanooga, Cookeville, and Murfreesboro. The last time Memphis talked to us, FedExForum was being mentioned."

Talk is cheap. The host city must clear its arena for two weeks to accommodate both the boys' and girls' tournaments in all divisions. That could be a problem for Memphis with the Grizzlies and Tigers already sharing the arena, plus special events like the 2010 NCAA women's basketball regional March 27th and 29th.

Kane said he tried to get the TSSAA to move the state football championship game for private schools to Memphis when the finalists were Memphis University School and Christian Brothers. But he ran into resistance from sponsors in Murfreesboro. He believes that the only realistic chance for Memphis is to form an alliance with East Tennessee and lobby the TSSAA board of directors.

"If the board told the directors to move it around, they wouldn't have any choice," he said.

A former college basketball player at Belmont in Nashville, Childress agrees that there could be as many as 10 future college players on the floor, if White Station meets Melrose again on Saturday.

"It would be fun," he said.

Too bad most of us will miss it.

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