NOW WE DANCE Whew . . . the hex is lifted! For the first time since the University of Memphis football team dared to beat Peyton Manning and the mighty Tennessee Vols -- November 9, 1996, youll remember -- the University of Memphis basketball team is going to the NCAA tournament. Considering the six-year drought is the U of Ms longest since reaching the 1973 championship game, weve got to blame someone or something . . . why not an orange hex? Since the Tigers last jig at the big dance, weve seen four coaches, a sex scandal, and an NIT (yippee!) title. With the Tigers (23-6) matched up against Arizona State (19-11) for their opening game this Thursday in Oklahoma City, here are some keys to Memphis making this sneaker-hop last a few encores.
Keep Chris Massie out of foul trouble. Big number 4 is stronger in the paint than any Memphian since George Hunt (no, Hunt never lettered at U of M). Massies positioning on the post and touch near the basket call to mind Charles Barkley. The first-team all-conference selection has to be on the floor for 30 minutes. Hes the only player this deep Tiger team cant replace. (Apologies to Earl Barron and Duane Erwin.)
Run, Antonio, run. Massie is this Tiger teams backbone, but point guard Antonio Burks is its heartbeat. You wont see a quicker ball handler in the open court than the junior from Booker T. Washington High. A rule of mine has been if Burks converts on two of his swooping, one-handed drives through the lane, the Tigers are on their way.
Connect on long-distance calls. The Tigers have their deepest group of shooters in recent memory. Anthony Rice, Rodney Carney, John Grice, and Jeremy Hunt can all drain three pointers consistently. Theyll have to for Memphis to reach the tournaments second week, to say nothing of a slot in the Final Four. (This is the only way Memphis can keep up with Kansas in a potential second-round battle.)
Make free throws. This is just as important as the home-run balls from beyond the arc. Over the course of their 11-game winning streak to end the regular season, Memphis outscored its opponents by an average of 14 points. (Only once did the Tigers win by less than 7.) With margins like these, the Tigers pedestrian free throw shooting didnt hurt. (Memphis shot 65 percent from the line this year, 12th in C-USA.) To advance in the NCAAs, teams must win games by a bucket or two . . . so every free throw counts.
Avoid overconfidence. This can be tricky with a Calipari-coached team. One one hand, to walk beside John Calipari is to strut, Eastwood like, through the swinging doors, into Miss Kittys saloon and ask, Whos first to join me outside? On the other hand, Calipari enjoys the role of the overlooked, underappreciated -- resented even -- stepchild. The coaches ignore us in their rankings, hell gripe. The RPI is a hoop-nerds computerized answer to measuring talent and is impossible to please. The worlds against us, Coach Cal will preach, so all we have is each other. The Tigers would do well to lean toward that underdog role. With Arizona, Duke, and Kansas fellow members of the West regional, this shouldnt be a problem.
Sleep with a rabbits foot. Not since the days of Wooden has a team won the six-game battle royale that is the NCAA tournament without a little good fortune on its side. From N.C. States Lorenzo Charles to North Carolinas victory over Michigan and Chris Timeout! Webber, NCAA champions typically achieve that magic recipe of three parts talent, one part Lady Luck. Considering the disappointing seeding (seventh) and regional placement, the view here is that the U of M has a break or two on the horizon.