For at least a week, the Tennessee legislature should consider replacing the three stars on the state flag with basketballs. For the first time in the history of the NCAA tournament, all three regions of the Volunteer State will be represented in the Sweet 16, with the University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Memphis each two wins shy of the Final Four. Better yet, with Ridgeway High alum Derrick Byars starring for the Commodores and White Station's Dane Bradshaw starting for the Vols, Memphis will have a say in this event, dammit, one way or another.
As for the Tigers' second-round win over Nevada Sunday, it was as gutsy as any 16-point victory you'll ever see. When the Tigers' top scorer, Chris Douglas-Roberts, went down with an ankle injury with eight minutes to play, Tiger apologists had their excuse should the U of M wilt against the Western Athletic Conference champions. Instead, Memphis outscored the Wolf Pack by nine the rest of the way.
Guts, you say? With the Tiger lead down to two points, sophomore Antonio Anderson took the plank, er, free-throw line and dropped a pair through the twine, lifting the chin of every foul-shot-fearing fan between New Orleans and Memphis. When Joey Dorsey -- he of the sub-50-percent ratio for the season -- made his first free throw to extend the lead to five, one got the feeling the U of M had a vice grip on this one. When Anderson saved the ensuing miss from going out of bounds -- retaining a valuable clock-killing possession for Memphis -- the Tigers seized enough momentum to carry them to the final buzzer.
Guts? Find the smallest Tiger on the floor Thursday night and you'll see the term personified. Dorsey and Douglas-Roberts (missing free throws, injured, or otherwise) are the most valuable Tigers. Anderson and Jeremy Hunt are clutch at both ends of the floor. But this is fast becoming Andre Allen's team.
It takes some doing to join the club of elite Memphis point guards. Recent history has seen Andre Turner, Elliot Perry, Chris Garner, and Antonio Burks provide the electric pulse for NCAA tournament teams. (Some would include Penny Hardaway on this list, though Hardaway's greatness shouldn't be confined by any positional boundary.) Despite being, technically, Willie Kemp's backup, Allen made an imprint on the Tiger wins in New Orleans that was second to no one. A steal and driving layup by Allen were key to a 10-2 run early in the second half of the first-round win over North Texas, a game in which the backup point guard played 36 minutes, compared with the starter's nine. Allen's hyperactive defensive presence in the backcourt establishes the standard for his teammates and serves as the pressure point through which Memphis opponents must begin their half-court offense.
"Andre's motor is going 100 miles per hour," said Coach John Calipari after the Tigers won the Conference USA tournament March 10th. "The greatest thing ever to happen to Willie Kemp is Andre Allen. Willie can't cost us a game. He won't cost us a game, because I won't leave him in long enough. I'll bring in Andre."
Energy -- and guts -- will be a prerequisite to winning the South regional. Thursday night in San Antonio, the best player on the court will be Texas A & M guard Acie Law. The Aggies will be playing in their home state and in the Sweet 16 for the first time since Michael Jordan was a junior in high school (1980). With enough defensive help from Anderson -- and a reasonably healthy CDR -- the Tigers might escape the long arm of Law, and you couldn't ask for a juicier foe in the regional final, regardless of who wins the Ohio State-Tennessee contest. If the favored Buckeyes are victorious, Memphis fans will be booing the very man-child they hope to cheer (as a Grizzly) next season: Ohio State's freshman center, Greg Oden. And if UT wins? Merely a chance to avenge the 18-point drubbing Memphis suffered in Knoxville in December.
Here are the Memphis Tigers, with 24 consecutive wins and -- for the first time since 1985 -- a second straight dance card in the NCAA's Sweet Sixteen. Seems they deserve better than a four-word cliché for their performance to date ... and their chances ahead. But it's a great cliché: no guts, no glory.