Starting at (or near) the top
For Tigers, high expectations haven't always led to such fantastic finishes
By Jim Masilak
Sunday, November 4, 2007
In four superlative seasons for the University of Memphis, Andre Turner never played a game in which the Tigers weren't nationally ranked.
Turner played an integral role on Memphis teams that were regularly ranked among the nation's elite during what still stands as the most successful period in the program's history. In a three-year span beginning with the 1982-83 season, the Tigers were ranked either fifth ('83-84, '84-85) or sixth ('82-83) in The Associated Press preseason poll.
The '82-83 squad became the first -- and so far only -- team in school history to reach No. 1 in the AP poll. The '84-85 team advanced to the Final Four, something no Memphis team has managed to do since.
But for all of the highs Turner experienced as the Tigers' point guard, the Little General never played for a team with a preseason ranking as high as that of this year's club.
On the eve of their most anticipated season in more than 20 years, the UofM has been rewarded for back-to-back Elite Eight appearances with a No. 3 ranking in the preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. (The Tigers' AP ranking was not available at press time.)
"It's gonna be a good thing. It's gonna be a challenge for them to stay there and hold that position and aspire to go even higher," Turner said. "You just want them to stay level-headed and let their work do the talking."
History, however, shows that the Tigers' fortunes have varied wildly in the face of high expectations. For every smashing success -- the Final Four runs in '73 and '85 are obvious examples -- there is an equally spectacular failure to serve as a warning. Drexel, anyone?
Memphis coach John Calipari , furthermore, has had a mixed time of it here when it comes to the preseason polls.
The 2001-02 campaign, Dajuan Wagner's first and only season in Memphis, started with a No. 12 national ranking and ended with a NIT title. It was an exciting finish, to be sure, but a disappointment nonetheless. The Tigers started the next two seasons outside the rankings but ended up in the NCAA Tournament. Go figure.
The past two seasons have witnessed the Tigers' longest unbroken stint in the rankings -- 38 weeks and counting -- since Turner was running the point, Keith Lee was dominating inside and the Mid-South Coliseum was the place to be.
This year, however, shapes up a bit different.
Whereas the Tigers started out 12th in '05-06 and 13th last year, with room for improvement and uncertainty in both cases, this season might be more about holding serve than volleying away any doubters.
Calipari doesn't necessarily see it that way. While he has instilled a siege mentality in previous seasons, in the days before the UofM established itself as a perennial NCAA team, his confidence in his current crop of players allays any fears of firing another dud.
"I'm not feeling anything different," the coach said before a recent practice at the Finch Center. "It's worse if you're not sure your team's any good. It was hard three years ago when you knew you had a team that was dysfunctional.
"Last year we didn't know because we had lost 50 percent of our rebounds and 50 percent of our points -- three starters -- so we had no idea."
Calipari may mot see a need to play the us-against-the-world card at this point, but junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts is more than happy to use it. The Tigers may have a higher ranking than in previous years, but they're not about to grow complacent.
"It'll probably be a different experience (being ranked so high), but we're not looking at ourselves as being the No. 1 team in the country. We still have to prove ourselves," Douglas-Roberts said. "The only thing that matters, really, is our seed in the tournament, and we don't think about that 'til the end of the season."
That's probably just as well. As the Tigers have learned, preseason rankings don't always ensure success.
While the Tigers entered the national rankings for the first time in school history during the 1955-56 season, it wasn't until the seminal Final Four season of 1972-73, when they finished runner-up to UCLA, that they were ranked at the start of a season.
Even then, the rankings had not yet been released when Memphis beat UC Davis in their season opener. The next day, the Tigers checked in at No. 11.
Why so low?
"We had Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson back from the year before," said former Tigers coach Gene Bartow, now president of the Grizzlies' Hoops LP. "But we also had three juco transfers in Larry Kenon, Wes Westfall and Billy Buford, and the jury was kind of out on those players. I think (the voters) wanted to see if they would be as good as we thought."
In the end, they were even better.
The Tigers got off to a 3-3 start and fell out of the rankings following early losses to LSU, Marquette and Texas. But they won 22-of-24 games after that before running into a Bruins buzzsaw in the title game.
While the Tigers started off in the top 20 in each of the next three seasons, they didn't win another NCAA Tournament game until 1982, when Dana Kirk began re-establishing the UofM as a national power.
When Memphis opened the '82-83 season ranked No. 6 in the country, it set the tone for an eventual return to the Final Four two years later.
"Going in ranked, we felt we had accomplished something," said former Tigers standout Bobby Parks , a junior in '82-83. "It gets you ready to play every night. When you're not ranked, you have a tendency to not be up for a game, unlike when you're ranked."
Parks said the preseason rankings were a big deal to the players when he was in school.
"That's all you think about during the (offseason)," he said. "The coach doesn't think about it, but as players you were waiting to get that sports magazine to see where you were gonna be ranked."
The Tigers achieved the first and only No.1 ranking in school history on Jan. 10, 1983. For all intents and purposes, it lasted just a few hours. The Tigers traveled to Virginia Tech and lost, 64-56, to the Hokies on the same day the poll was released.
"No one told us before the game we were ranked No. 1," Parks said. "I think Coach was gonna surprise us. ... Who knows? If we had known we were No. 1, we might have had a different approach to the game."
The Tigers advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 1983 NCAAs and lost to eventual national runner-up Houston. But Memphis remained a fixture in the rankings for years to come.
Ranked fifth in '83-84, their season once more ended with a Sweet 16 loss to Houston.
The breakthrough came the following year. Ranked fifth to begin the magical '84-85 season, the Tigers were never ranked lower than sixth en route to the Final Four, where they lost to the eventual champion, Villanova.
"It was a huge, huge deal. It wasn't everything, but it did mean something," Turner said of those high preseason rankings. "It let us know we were getting that attention and recognition for the hard work we were putting in each day in practice and games.
"Teams were always up for you. There was never a day off when we could say, We can play OK today, and we'll get a win regardless. Teams always played up a level."
But Memphis didn't always respond.
The Tigers were 14th at the start of the '85-86 season and climbed to No. 2 before losing again to Virginia Tech. Kirk's final season in Memphis ended with a second-round NCAA loss to LSU in Baton Rouge. The 83-81 defeat still rankles with Tigers fans, but there was more disappointment to come.
In 1992-93, a Memphis team featuring Anfernee 'Penny' Hardaway and David Vaughn entered the season No. 8 in the country. It was the highest preseason ranking of the Larry Finch coaching era. But when Vaughn was injured in the season opener at Arkansas, the Tigers limped to a 0-3 start, fell out of the rankings and finished the year with a meek first-round NCAA loss to Western Kentucky in Hardaway's final game.
"There was a lot of excitement. People thought that team was really gonna take off. But (Vaughn's injury) killed it. It absolutely killed them," UofM radio analyst and team historian Matt Dillon said. "They went to the tournament, but they were never the same after that."
The Tigers didn't return to the polls until the start of the 1995-96 campaign. However, having generated excitement with a Sweet 16 run the previous year, they quickly rose from No. 12 to No. 3 on the strength of wins over Purdue, Tennessee and Temple. On Jan. 4, 1996, Memphis had Calipari's top-ranked Massachusetts club on the ropes before the Minutemen battled back for a three-point victory that arguably changed the course of Memphis basketball.
Having narrowly missed out on the second No. 1 ranking in school history, the Tigers lost at Houston two days later and never recovered. They earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA West Regional, but their season ended in ignominious fashion with a first-round loss to 12th-seeded Drexel. It was one of the lowest moments in the program's history, and the beginning of the end for Finch.
"That's where Larry lost that team. ... That's when they threw in the towel," Dillon said. "They played Drexel in the tournament and laid an egg in Albuquerque. That team just quit on him."
And that was pretty much it for Memphis until Calipari blew onto the scene.
As excited as the Tigers are about their prospects this season, they aren't getting carried away by their preseason accolades.
"We still have something to prove. We'll always play with that chip on our shoulders," Douglas-Roberts said. "It's really no different. We're still the Memphis Tigers, and we still play with that chip on our shoulders.
"Even though they're respecting us now, we have to play like they aren't."
-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311