A Whole New Game
Over the last 12 months, the Memphis sports scene has endured its share of turnover and turmoil.
A year ago in these pages, you would have read about a pair of basketball coaches with distinctly Italian names. You would have read about uncertainty at the quarterback position for the city's flagship college football team. And you would have read about a baseball team slugging its way toward postseason contention.
That was then. >>>
Whatever the 2008-09 Memphis Grizzlies may have lacked in the win department, they made up for with the prepackaged optimism of youth. The Grizzlies often took the floor with five players who entered the season with a combined three years of NBA experience: Rudy Gay (age 22 on Opening Night), Mike Conley (21), O.J. Mayo (20), Marc Gasol (23), and Darrell Arthur (20). The precocious Mayo scored at least 10 points in each of his first 25 games, the longest such streak to begin an NBA career since 1989. He combined with Gay to give Memphis a pair of the best young swingmen in the league.
But optimism doesn't help a coach's resume, as Marc Iavaroni found out on January 22nd, when he was fired halfway through his second season with the team having lost seven straight games to fall to 11-30. Having won five of their first six games in December, the Grizzlies won only two games between December 15th and February 1st, bridging Iavaroni's last days at the helm and the return of Lionel Hollins (who coached the Grizzlies for most of the 1999-2000 season during their days in Vancouver).
Memphis won four of its first five games in February — including victories over playoff-bound Houston and New Orleans — only to stagger and lose 17 of its next 19. A dreadful March schedule that had the team play 11 of 15 games on the road didn't help. Overall, the Grizzlies finished at 24-58, a two-game improvement on the previous season.
Youth was served if you examine the numbers for the season. Gay (18.9 points per game) and Mayo (18.5) were the squad's leading scorers, while Gasol — the younger brother of former Grizzly All-Star, Pau – earned fans quickly with a team-leading 7.4 rebounds per game. Conley enjoyed his first injury-free season as a pro and led the team with 4.3 assists per game.
On June 25th, the Grizzlies used the second pick in the draft to select Hasheem Thabeet, a 7'3" All-America center from Connecticut. The hope is that Thabeet provides enough defensive presence to offset his still-developing offensive skills. Shortly after drafting their new center, the Grizzlies shipped Darko Milicic to the New York Knicks for veteran guard Quentin Richardson, then dealt Richardson to the L.A. Clippers for mercurial forward Zach Randolph.
The ever-growing legion of Memphis Tiger basketball fans felt crushed last March 26th, when the third-ranked Tigers — a second seed in the NCAA tournament's west region — were upset by Missouri to fall a win shy of the program's fourth consecutive appearance in the Elite Eight. But the shock of the season's sudden end (and the team's first defeat in more than three months) merely preceded the collective upheaval to hit the program five days later.
Most college basketball teams that lose three starters to the NBA endure at least a season of rebuilding, a transition period during which new players gain traction at the Division I level before leading the program back into the limelight.
Not the 2008-09 Tigers. Having lost Derrick Rose (the draft's number-one selection who went on to 2009 NBA Rookie of the Year honors), All-American Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Joey Dorsey to the pro ranks, the U of M followed up its record-breaking 38-2 season with a 33-win campaign that included a school-record 27-game winning streak and earned its senior class more career wins (137) than any in NCAA history.
Tyreke Evans led the Tigers in scoring and became the sixth Memphis player in eight years to earn Conference USA's Freshman of the Year award. Coach John Calipari's decision to move Evans to point guard — after a 6-3 start left Memphis outside the Top 25 for the first time in three years — preceded the program's third winning streak of at least 25 games in as many seasons. Senior guard Antonio Anderson became the first Tiger in history to score 1,000 career points, grab 500 rebounds, and hand out 500 assists. Fellow senior Robert Dozier also eclipsed the 1,000-point mark and finished his career sixth in rebounds at Memphis.
Along the way to a third straight undefeated season in Conference USA play (the Tigers will open the 2009-10 season having won 61 straight C-USA games), Memphis earned road wins at Tennessee and Gonzaga and climbed from unranked to number-five in the country in five short weeks. The Tigers breezed to a fourth straight C-USA tournament championship at FedExForum (beating Tulsa for the title) and entered the NCAA tournament with hopes of matching the 2008 run that had the Tigers within two minutes of a national championship.
Rookie guard Roburt Sallie came off the bench for 35 points — a Memphis record for the NCAAs — in an all-too-narrow win over Cal State Northridge in the first round of the Big Dance. The Tigers then beat Maryland, 89-70, to set up an all-Tiger matchup in the Sweet 16. Having not allowed as many as 80 points to an opponent all season, Memphis gave up a whopping 102 to Mizzou, a loss that overshadowed the season-high 33 points from Evans in what proved to be his finale as a college player.
Less than a week later, the Tiger program was without a coach, as Calipari agreed to a deal with the University of Kentucky that will place him in the seat made legendary by Adolph Rupp, but one that hasn't seen a national championship since 1998. The departure of the program's most successful coach (252 wins) was met with community-wide bewilderment. However prestigious Calipari's new gig may be, though, Tiger Nation took to finding his successor with the fervor and thirst for information rivaled in these parts only by Elvis sightings (before or since 1977).
On April 7th, that successor was introduced at the U of M's athletic office building: 31-year-old Josh Pastner. As if entering his first season as the second-youngest coach in Division I weren't foreboding enough, Pastner must now solidify a program rocked by the news in late May that Rose may have cheated on his SAT exam before enrolling at Memphis for the 2007-08 academic year. If the allegations prove true, all 38 wins (an NCAA season record) and the team's Final Four berth from Rose's single campaign as a Tiger will be vacated.
Veterans like Willie Kemp and Pierre Henderson-Niles will be counted upon for a degree of continuity in a program otherwise turned inside out. Pastner landed his first prize recruit — forward Latavious Williams from Houston — in late May and Tiger fans have their fingers crossed (probably more so than ever) that he qualifies academically. The return of a native son — guard Elliot Williams, who is transferring from Duke — will help stabilize the backcourt. Williams hopes to receive a waiver from the NCAA that will allow him to suit up for the Tigers immediately, since he's returning to Memphis to be near his ailing mother.
The 2008 Memphis Redbirds enjoyed the best season local baseball fans had seen since the 2000 club won the Pacific Coast League championship. Despite an injury-plagued season from the St. Louis Cardinals' top prospect (Colby Rasmus), Memphis went 75-67, good enough for second place in their division of the PCL. Outfielder Nick Stavinoha hit .337 and drove in 74 runs on his way to the league's postseason all-star team, while Josh Phelps (31 home runs), David Freese (26), and Joe Mather (17) contributed to a power surge at AutoZone Park.
On the mound, Mitchell Boggs became the fifth Redbird in 11 years to lead the PCL in ERA (3.45). Boggs was one of three nine-game winners on the pitching staff, which also included a pair of flame-throwing relievers: Chris Perez (11 saves) and Jason Motte (9). Up in St. Louis, Mark Worrell became the fifth former Redbird — and third pitcher — to homer in his first big-league at-bat.
The first three months of the 2009 campaign saw a busy shuttle between the Bluff City and Busch Stadium as injuries to the Cardinal roster forced a series of promotions for players with Triple-A plans. Shortstop Tyler Greene, outfielder Shane Robinson, pitcher Jess Todd, Stavinoha, and Boggs were among the call-ups when the likes of Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, and Chris Carpenter went on the shelf in St. Louis. While the Memphis pitching staff held the fort admirably (near the top of the PCL in ERA), the bats went all but silent as summer's dog days approached. Even with the promotion of the Cardinals' top 2008 draft pick — third-baseman Brett Wallace — the Redbirds were near the bottom of the PCL in batting average, and suffered a June swoon that saw them go 11-16. Starting pitcher Adam Ottavino — a first-round pick by the Cardinals in 2006 — was fast becoming the face of a hard-luck team, sporting a record of 0-9 entering the season's final two months.
The most stable local team, as astonishing as it may seem, is the Memphis Tiger football program. Coach Tommy West's squad managed a first in 2008: reaching a bowl game and finishing with a losing record (6-7) in the same season. Considering the U of M lost its first three games last fall, the postseason play was an unlikely bonus (and the fifth such trip for the Tigers in the last six seasons). Tiger highlights were few and far between at the St. Petersburg Bowl, a game won handily by South Florida, 41-14.
A pair of junior-college transfers led the Tigers' offensive attack and will be in uniform for their senior seasons this fall. Quarterback Akelon Hall passed for 2,275 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing three games with a broken thumb late in the campaign. Memphis beat Southern Miss and SMU in Hall's absence, part of a season-saving stretch that saw the Tigers win five of seven games. Tailback Curtis Steele became only the fourth Tiger to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards (1,227). Steele was also the first runner since All-American DeAngelo Williams to gain 200 yards in a game (a 203-yard effort in a Memphis win over Arkansas State). Hall and Steele will be joined in 2009 by senior wide receiver Duke Calhoun, who enters his final season needing four receptions and 66 receiving yards to establish new career standards for the Tiger program.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers will be led in 2009 by veteran linebackers Greg Jackson, Jeremy Longstreet, and Winston Bowens. Line play will be boosted by another juco transfer, 290-pound tackle Justin Thompson.
The 2009 Tiger home schedule: Ole Miss (Sept. 6), UT-Martin (Sept. 19), Marshall (Sept. 26), UTEP (Oct. 10), East Carolina (Oct. 27), UAB (Nov. 14).