As we all catch our breath between rounds, a few observations on the NCAA tournament.
Larry Finch scored 32 points in an NCAA tournament game in 1973, the highest postseason total of his career as a Tiger. Keith Lee scored 29 on St. Patrick's Day in 1984. Elliot Perry's NCAA tournament high? 15 points in 1989. Penny Hardaway topped out at 24 in 1992. Chris Douglas-Roberts played in 14 NCAA-tournament games but never scored more than 28 in a single contest. All of which makes Roburt Sallie's 35 points last Thursday -- in the Tigers' opening-round victory over Cal State Northridge -- a seismic event in these parts. (You think the voters who gave Wesley Witherspoon Conference USA's Sixth Player of the Year award would like their ballots back?) Before last week, Sallie's high game as a Tiger was 13 points (twice). He had never made more than five three-pointers before draining 10 against the Matadors. Most importantly, the Tigers desperately needed the offensive firepower, the game being far too tight for a second seed's comfort. If you know anyone who forecast Sallie's outbreak, turn your 401(k) over to that person tomorrow.
This marks the second time in Tiger basketball history the program has advanced to the NCAA's Sweet 16 four consecutive years. Keep in mind, though, that in 1982 and 1983 (the first two years in the earlier four-year streak), the Tigers only had to win a single game to advance to a regional. During that Keith Lee era (1982-85), the Tigers won a total of eight games in the tournament. Over the last four years (through last weekend), the Tigers have won 13 games in the Big Dance.
Thursday's Tiger tilt between Memphis and Missouri will be frenetic, each team with the kind of athleticism that wears a garden-variety opponent ragged. Mizzou beat Oklahoma on March 4th in a game that saw Blake Griffin score 16 points and grab 21 rebounds. Memphis senior Antonio Anderson will likely be charged with slowing down Missouri's J.T. Tiller, while Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart will be the tandem responsible for containing Missouri's all-conference forward DeMarre Carroll and fellow big man Leo Lyons. If you're looking for a recent trend, Memphis has beaten a Big 12 team each of the last two years on the tournament's second weekend: Texas A & M (2007) and Texas (2008). The two Tiger squads share a common opponent, each having lost to Xavier way back in November. (Memphis by five, Missouri by four.)
Memphis will be hosting the most star-studded of the regionals when the South's quartet take the court Friday. With only one team among the Sweet 16 seeded below five (number-12 Arizona in the Midwest), the tournament has held to form through its first weekend. But consider the headline-makers we'll see at FedExForum: the consensus 2008 national player of the year (North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough), the favorite for the same honor this season (Oklahoma's Blake Griffin), a pair of all-conference players for Gonzaga (guard Matt Bouldin and center Josh Heytvelt), and a coach aiming for his 800th career win (Syracuse's Jim Boeheim). The South will be the only regional in which all four teams have at least 28 wins. On top of all that, it features arguably the finest guard left in the tournament: ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson of North Carolina.
CBS does its viewership a disservice by not assigning Gus Johnson play-by-play duties for the Final Four. When I hear Jim Nantz describe a basketball game -- as he will the semifinals and championship -- I hear a breakdown of Phil Mickelson's club selection at Amen Corner during the Masters. When I hear Gus Johnson describe a college basketball game, I hear the enthusiasm -- a healthy notch below Dick Vitale's -- that fuels the NCAA basketball tournament from office cubicles to dorm rooms to bars, restaurants, and even furniture showrooms. Johnson is clearly a fan of the sport he describes, yet defers intelligently to his analyst for "what it feels like" as yet another game winds down with palms sweating on both benches. To borrow the word Johnson uses to describe a jump shot that meets twine, his description of the NCAA tournament is . . . "Pure!"