Things got a little testy between the Memphis Tigers and UAB Blazers on January 17th at FedExForum. Words and gestures (if not punches) were exchanged, and a total of four technical fouls were called before halftime. Shortly after the Tigers' 81-68 victory, Memphis coach John Calipari reflected on the extracurricular tension, and provided his own definition of toughness. "Instead of a chest bump," suggested the coach, "instead of talking, how about diving on the floor for a loose ball? How about stepping in and taking a charge? Be tough. Go in traffic, and bring down a rebound. You don't have to talk and bump. We have guys that, if a fight broke out, they would have run for doors."
Another measure of toughness, Calipari would certainly agree, is entering a hostile building to face a Top 20 team on national television . . . and not blinking. Saturday night, two time zones away, the 14th-ranked Tigers manhandled the 18th-ranked Bulldogs of Gonzaga, 68-50, in a game that was actually not as close as the final score. (Gonzaga's two best players -- Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin -- were firmly on the bench when their team made a 13-0 run in the second half.)
Playing with a bench thinned by the dismissal of Matt Simpkins, the Tigers relied on offense from Tyreke Evans (a game-high 22 points) and defense from Antonio Anderson (who held Bouldin to six points) to extend the U of M's winning streak to 14 games and end Gonzaga's at nine. When Robert Dozier drew an offensive foul shortly after making two free throws to give the Tigers a 35-20 lead late in the first half, you could all but hear a shout from the visitors bench in Spokane Arena: "THAT is tough!"
The 2008-09 Tigers are not going to escape the shadow of their predecessors. The memories of last season's 38-win ride to within seconds of a national championship run too deeply in a region devoted to a basketball team that spoils its legion of fans with seemingly annual 10-game winning streaks (some 20) and deep runs into the NCAA tournament. But this year's Tigers have set the table to, at the least, continue the memory-making well into March. And it has a lot to do with the team's toughness.
ESPN Gameday doesn't steer its cameras away from the ACC or Big East to your average barn for Saturday night basketball. Spokane Arena was packed for the interregional showdown between teams outside the "BCS" family of media favorites. (Why are the initials for college football's Bowl Championship Series used in describing the relative strength of conferences during basketball season?) But for a Tiger team with the likes of Anderson and Robert Dozier -- seniors who have played in no fewer than 14 NCAA tournament games -- an arena's atmosphere doesn't so much shape the way a game is played. It's merely extra color. That's toughness.
The Tigers (20-3) are now in a position where if they win the games they should -- and they'll be favored in all eight of their remaining regular-season games --they should enter the NCAA tournament with a seed no lower than three. Wednesday night at FedExForum they'll face perhaps their toughest test, when Tulsa comes to town. A buzzer-beating length-of-the-court drive and layup by Anderson saved Memphis from losing to the Golden Hurricane on January 13th in Tulsa. In the rematch, the Tigers will aim to extend their current 50-game winning streak in Conference USA play.
For the first time in its long history, the Tiger program has reeled off nine consecutive 20-win seasons. And a fourth straight 30-win campaign remains within reach. But there won't be many 18-point margins between now and the Final Four in early April. An injury (or foul trouble) that puts Evans on the bench emasculates this team's offense. A thin bench will rely on a pair of rookies -- Roburt Sallie and, once he returns from knee surgery, Wesley Witherspoon -- if it's to make a difference in the home stretch. The most consistent quality Calipari's ninth Memphis squad brings to the floor is the same quality that gives it a chance for another scintillating postseason run. It's toughness.