There are nights you simply have to bow to the basketball gods. When your opponent is banking in shots from the three-point arc and draining 65-foot buzzer beaters, those gods are screaming at you. Such was the firestorm in which the Memphis Tigers' dreams of a national championship died Thursday night in Glendale, Arizona. The 102-91 defeat at the claws of another pack of Tigers -- this one from Missouri -- meant the end of a school-record 27-game winning streak and the close of the most successful four-year run in NCAA history.
"Last year, there were three teams that had a legitimate chance at winning it all," said Memphis coach John Calipari two weeks ago during the Conference USA tournament. "This year, there are at least eight. And there may be 16 with a chance to get to the Final Four." The sad truth for Calipari to reflect upon over an offseason that will be longer than expected is that his team lost to a club that perfected the style he preaches. Frenetic, fast, full-court, speed, quickness, and relentless pursuit of the basketball on defense . . . that was the third-seeded Missouri Tigers Thursday night. The style led to a point total that was 23 higher than the most Memphis allowed in any other game this season. (Had Vegas given Memphis 91 points over 40 minutes -- against the Boston Celtics -- how many would have taken the odds for victory?) The style made a star out of Missouri's junior guard J.T. Tiller who entered the game averaging 8.0 points but slashed-and-dashed his way to 23. Missouri shot 53 percent against a team that typically doesn't allow 40 percent. Were it not for a valiant fight over 14 minutes of the second half -- Memphis closed a 24-point deficit to six -- the final score would have been far uglier, and it would have left a final impression for a team that deserves better.
Before we consider what the 2008-09 Memphis Tigers didn't do, we need to reflect on what they weren't supposed to do. After losing Derrick Rose -- the top selection in last year's NBA draft -- Memphis shouldn't have won 30 games a fourth season in a row. After losing All-American Chris Douglas-Roberts to the pros, they shouldn't have run off a 25-game winning streak the third season in a row. After losing Joey Dorsey -- the program's second-most prolific rebounder -- they shouldn't have climbed to number-three in the country and a second seed in the NCAA tournament.
Fact is, the 2008-09 Memphis Tigers are the most overachieving team seen in these parts in decades . . . and that's meant entirely as a compliment. Less talented than the three 30-win clubs that preceded it, this year's squad was the hardest working of any Calipari has suited up in his nine years at the U of M helm. Led by a pair of seniors -- Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier -- who knew only winning, the Tigers (our Tigers) made the victories seem routine. Fans take victories as routine at their own peril. Lesson learned in the Arizona desert.
The saddest part of the Memphis loss, certainly, was witnessing the culmination of Anderson's and Dozier's career. They were the constant over this brilliant four-year stretch, one that saw Shawne Williams, Rose, and presumably Tyreke Evans (a season-high 33 points against Missouri) seize more spotlight as one-year wonders. Dozier never played better than he did in his finale, with 19 points and 16 rebounds. Alas, Anderson (six turnovers, five missed free throws) has had many better nights. Fouling out as the game wound down, Anderson left college basketball as he should have: on his shield. The new banner in the rafters of FedExForum honoring these warriors will feature the number 137, a four-year NCAA-record win total that should last at least until their kids are playing on scholarship.
What to expect in year 10 of the Calipari era? On their way to Memphis are Xavier Henry and DeMarcus Cousins, two of the top five recruits in the country (and yes, two more players who may well be "one and done" as college players). They'll be counted upon to offset the losses of Dozier, Anderson, Evans, and perhaps junior Shawn Taggart (who graduates this spring and may have found his way into the draft's second round with his stellar play over the last month). Roburt Sallie should be back, his shooting now central to the team's scoring options beyond the freshman arrivals. Perhaps Willie Kemp will find himself and the role he once played. The largest void next season will be leadership. Having played three years at the side of Anderson and Dozier, Kemp is the most capable of helping fill that void.
Winners are selfish. They become entitled, in their eyes, to the glory that closes a campaign. For the 2008-09 Memphis Tigers, glory must be found in the campaign itself, in a body of work that was as unexpected as it was brilliant.