Inspired Vols seize No. 1 ranking from flawed Tigers
Posted: Sunday February 24, 2008 2:40AM; Updated: Sunday February 24, 2008 3:01AM
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- It was a scene one usually must wait until late in the NCAA tournament to find, and only then after treading cautiously into losing-team interview sessions: Here, in the Memphis locker room at FedEx Forum late on Saturday night, hung an uncomfortably thick silence. Everywhere on the Tigers' faces were expressions of dejection and anger associated with the end of something big.
In March they would mean the premature death of a championship run. On Saturday they were reactions to the end of an undefeated regular season and a 47-game home winning streak. All-America candidate Chris Douglas-Roberts slumped back in his locker, his white jersey draped completely over this head so he would not have to face the media. Joey Dorsey hunched over on his stool and refused to take questions, remaining in the same position for more than 20 minutes. The few Tigers who agreed to talk were sullen; all Andre Allen would say was, "It doesn't feel good. It feels like a loss."
If a blemish on their perfect record was supposed to be good for No. 1-ranked Memphis -- as coach John Calipari said afterwards, "You guys all said we needed to lose one, so we lost one," -- the formerly 26-0 Tigers were in denial of that after falling 66-62 to No. 2-ranked Tennessee. Saturday night's nationally televised game was intended to be the crown jewel in Memphis' run at history -- a circus-like affair that had fans lining up outside in the wee hours of the morning, tickets being scalped for $500 on the street, Peyton Manning in the crowd and Priscilla Presley seated courtside, the only thing missing being the The King himself.
Instead what this result did was put the Tigers' legitimacy as a national-title team into question, mostly because of the same deficiencies they were able to overcome while cruising through Conference USA victories. Memphis shot just 47.1 percent from the free-throw line, and 29.6 percent from three-point land on Saturday -- and crowned their intrastate rival as the nation's new No. 1 in the process. Calipari said this was "what a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game was supposed to look like," and it did, in fact, have the feeling of a Final Four-caliber, heavyweight fight. But it also made it clear that Memphis was not, as many had thought coming into this contest, the best team in the nation.
In the lead-up to what was billed as the biggest college basketball contest in the history of the state of Tennessee, Calipari had been calling this an "ego game." And now the question is not if the Tigers' egos will be dangerously over-inflated heading into the NCAA tournament, but if their egos can recover from flopping on the grandest home-court stage they'll appear on in their careers.
Memphis failed to run its Dribble Drive Motion offense (or DDM for short) with any success, often abandoning it altogether. If anything, the Tigers' attack was DRD (Derrick Rose Dribbling, en route to 23 points) and a bunch of others -- particularly Antonio Anderson, whose ill-advised runner missed horribly with 12 seconds left -- taking questionable shots down the stretch. Memphis inexplicably failed to capitalize on its crowd's exuberance. A sold-out FedEx Forum produced a level of energy in which Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl and his players seemed to thrive. During a game that came down to a pair of free throws by Chris Lofton with 2.9 seconds left, Pearl said he at one point looked toward ESPN's Dick Vitale and thought, "I hope he's bringing this back to America like I'm feeling it. ... I can't imagine there's anything more electric. This was it, this was as good as it gets."