How could something so beautiful end so very ugly? Lowest point total for a number-one seed in NCAA tournament history? The first 14 three-point attempts astray? The Conference USA Player of the Year two of 12? 17 field goals and 29 fouls?
Even with the dispiriting season-ending loss to the Bruins -- haven't we been here before? -- the 2005-06 University of Memphis Tigers gave their followers a season to remember. They may have come up a game shy of the Final Four -- the expressed goal since Calipari was hired in March 2000 -- but consider what they did achieve. They won more games (33) than any other team in the program's rich history, and the most in the entire country this season (regardless of what happens in Indianapolis).
They were only the fourth team in school history to play for a berth in the Final Four. They are Conference USA champions, whether measured by their regular season record (13-1) or the tournament championship they earned by beating a game UAB squad March 11th. In Rodney Carney -- a player off the radar of the recruiting world when he signed to play for Calipari in 2002 -- Memphis is sending the third most prolific scorer in school history toward an NBA career that will begin as a lottery pick in June's draft. And four of this year's top eight players were freshmen.
By many measures, an NCAA regional final is the hardest game to lose in college basketball. One game shy of the biggest spectacle in American amateur sports. But as Tiger fans dry their tears, they would do well to remember the journey. In reflecting on the end of a season where Carney, Shawne Williams, and Darius Washington took turns being the star of the night, remember Calipari's starting lineup from his first team in 2000-01: Shyrone Chatman, Scooter McFadgon, Kelly Wise, Shannon Forman, and Modibo Diarra. The argument could be made that Calipari did a better coaching job in getting those Tic Price recruits to the NIT semifinals than he's done with his abundance of talent here five years later.
Return trips to Madison Square Garden for the NIT "final four" in 2002 and 2005 didn't help in the longing for more national glory, the kind Larry Finch knew in 1973 and Keith Lee in 1985. Last weekend, the Tigers were but a victory over the most decorated program in the sport's history from reaching, yes, the promised land. A heartbreaking loss to UCLA in the NCAA tournament? The U of M is in a long line. And the fact is, the Tigers won more NCAA tournament games this month than the program did over the previous 13 seasons combined.
The lasting beauty of the 2005-06 Memphis Tigers is that they are now a talking point on the historical timeline of this city's flagship sports enterprise. For all their virtues, the Grizzlies and Redbirds can't even approximate the historical tapestry woven across generations by Tiger basketball. And from this point on, at water coolers and watering holes across the Mid-South, Calipari's sixth Memphis team will be part of the debate when the question of greatest Tiger team is raised.
If the debate is narrowed down to regional finalists, the 2006 Tigers are one of four. What about 30-win teams? The 2006 Tigers are one of two (and the only one with 33). How about Memphis teams that won both regular season and conference-tournament championships? The 2006 Tigers are one of four. Star power? Carney scored more points in his Memphis career than everyone except Keith Lee and Elliot Perry. (More than Penny, more than Larry Finch!) Williams and Washington will give this team three future pros (and you just might see Joey Dorsey, Antonio Anderson, and Chris Douglas-Roberts playing for pay someday). It's a team for posterity.
With the end of a
season comes speculation about the future, particularly in modern college
basketball where a roster's turnover becomes a complicated amalgam of pro
ambitions, academic eligibility, and, since Calipari's arrival, even graduation.
We know Carney will be in an NBA jersey come November. But who knows about
Washington and/or Williams? (One man's opinion: they would each help their pro
career with another season of college ball.)
If Washington stays for his junior year and Williams his sophomore, next year's club will start the season ranked in the country's top five, if not number one. But what if they don't? Willie Kemp (a guard) and Pierre Niles (a forward) will be highly acclaimed rookies at the Finch Center when practice starts next fall, and they'll make an impact, with or without this season's stars back to help roll out the red carpet.
Some healthy advice for college hoop fans: teams must now be measured as individual, one-year novellas, as opposed to chapters in a larger book. The 2005-06 Tigers were best-sellers in this category. Celebrate them for what they gave the city, and separate your memories of them from that dreadful season finale last weekend. A 33-4 team deserves that much.