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FROM MY SEAT: Three Nights of Bright Lights

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It was one of those pinch-me weeks for Memphis sports fans. University of Memphis football on Tuesday (huh?), opening night for the Grizzlies Wednesday (the return of J-Will!), and University of Memphis basketball Thursday (okay, an exhibition game).

It’s disheartening to watch the U of M football program become the dusty rug to UAB’s mighty broom. Despite taking a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter, the Tigers were hung out and beaten -- 37-20 -- for the sixth straight year by a Blazer program that didn’t even exist until 1991. Even more vexing, Memphis has gone 0-4 against UAB with the incomparable DeAngelo Williams in their backfield. The Tigers’ senior Heisman candidate was simply out-starred last week, both by UAB quarterback Darrell Hackney (334 passing yards and four touchdowns) and Blazer tailback Corey White (a career-high 200 yards rushing).

With what amounts to a scout-squad defense (the Tigers have given up 500 yards in four of their last five games), Memphis must now win two of its last three contests to merely gain bowl eligibility. And they won’t be easy: a November 12th tilt against a beatable but desperate Tennessee program in Neyland Stadium, November 19th at Southern Miss (another Tiger nemesis, having not lost to Memphis in Hattiesburg since 1984), and the home finale against Marshall on November 26th. Missing a bowl game will be especially painful, considering it would mean a prematurely darkened stage for Williams. His 5,537 career rushing yards leave Williams 62 away from fourth place in NCAA history. And that bowl game would increase his chances of becoming the fourth back to gain 6,000. The sad truth for Tiger football: regardless of your star’s offensive prowess, football games are won by stopping your opponent.

When it comes to stopping an opponent, Grizzlies coach Mike Fratello had a nice Opening Night assignment: Shaquille O’Neal. The silver lining in the home team’s 19-point loss is that Miami only appears once more on the Memphis schedule. Here’s a bulletin that probably hasn‘t reached the ears of the Diesel (who sat on the bench as the Heat made their game-winning run in the second half): O’Neal is the second best player on his team. What can Dwyane Wade not do on a basketball floor? Mark these words: he’s an MVP in the near future.

Watching from the comfort of my living room, who am I to point fingers at those who paid for tickets to the lid-lifter at FedExForum? Nonetheless, it was disappointing to see so many fans head for the exits midway through the fourth quarter. Considering it had been six months(!) since a meaningful NBA game had been played in Memphis, you’d think the hometown crowd might stick around, go down with the ship so to speak. Regardless of the score, it was nice to see a pair of former University of Memphis stars -- the Grizzlies’ Antonio Burks and Miami’s Earl Barron -- hit the floor shortly before the clock expired.

The current collection of U of M stars took the stage Thursday night for an exhibition game with LeMoyne-Owen, the first Magician contest in 47 years without coach Jerry Johnson on the bench. New coach Smokey Gaines did the best he could, meaning he put a healthy five on the floor, for the lopsided 104-60 Tiger win. With the return of only three veterans to John Calipari’s rotation, it’s the arrival of (deep breath) Shawne Williams, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, Kareem Cooper, and Robert Dozier that has the Tigers ranked 12th in the preseason ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.

While each rookie got his share of playing time -- Douglas-Roberts led Memphis with 21 points and 5 steals -- the game’s highlights were actually things you’ll likely not see much this season. Midway through the first half, the cloud-hopping Rodney Carney got free for a breakaway, windmill dunk . . . and missed. Biggest gasp of the night from the crowd of roughly 6,000. Later in the first half, Jared Sandridge came off the bench and drained three consecutive three-pointers. The junior-college transfer, who once starred for Christian Brothers High School, may not get three shots the entire regular season, but on this night he drew the crowd’s loudest cheers. A nice exclamation point for a special sports week in Memphis.

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