Expectations. Every year for Memphis Tiger basketball fans they are a little bit different. During the latter years of Coach Calipari’s tenure, the average fan began to assume the team would make the NCAA tournament, and then if the ball didn’t bounce just the right way, maybe he’d have to settle for the Sweet Sixteen.
Then the unthinkable happened. Cal left for Kentucky and raided the recruiting and staff refrigerator on his way out. The program was left in dire straits, and after a debacle of a coaching search, the U of M was stuck with a rookie at the helm and nothing left in the cupboard. Everything seemed lost.
Then, out of the blue, fortune finally struck. Elliott Williams, a former Memphis high school player, and McDonald’s All-American decided to transfer from Duke to the Tigers, and was allowed by the NCAA to play immediately due to his mother’s medical condition. Suddenly, a team that was expected to do nothing, maybe even dwell in the bottom half of Conference USA, once again became a sure-fire NCAA tournament team and likely league champion. But a funny thing happened along the way. Williams ran into injury problems and the team was forced to settle for an NIT berth, falling in the second round to local rival Ole Miss.
But this was just a rebuilding year. Memphis had once more garnered one of the top recruiting classes in the country and was sure to be on its way back to greatness. One of the signees even guaranteed a national championship. And who would be foolish enough to think otherwise? The incoming freshmen were extremely talented. They had depth at just about every position. And this was possibly the best three point shooting team the school had ever seen. Heck, the coach even said as much. Talk radio shows, blogs and newspapers were filled with commentary from vehement fans who couldn’t contain their excitement. This team was on its way to greatness; nothing could stand in their way.
But again, a funny thing happened. The freshmen played like… well, freshmen. One of the big men left to play in Europe. One of the heralded newcomers was kicked off of the team. They blew big leads to inferior opponents, sometimes barely escaping with a win, and other times not coming out with a loss. They were outclassed and manhandled by top ten opponents. They lost back to back conference games. They lost games to teams that had never beaten them before. The comments quickly changed. This was no longer a team that couldn’t be beaten. It was now a team that was pathetic. The coach needed to go. The new guys were all overrated. This was supposed to be a national championship, and now they’d be lucky to get to the NIT. What had happened? How could things have gone so wrong? This was a sure thing, right?
Then again, a funny thing happened. The team started pulling out some of the close games. The freshmen started stepping up in key moments and playing more like veterans. The coach started making smarter decisions and getting tough at just the right times. A road win over a quality opponent who had also found themselves struggling gave the young Tigers more confidence. So, now everything is back on track. Before Saturday’s loss to Rice, most prognosticators had Memphis in the NCAA tournament, some of them projecting that the U of M will get C-USA’s automatic bid. So, just who are these Tigers and what should fans expect of them?
They probably won’t win the national championship. Maybe they will go back to playing like freshmen down the stretch and be relegated to the NIT. Or maybe — just maybe — they’ll play like a team that is still learning and getting better which will ultimately have them finishing somewhere in between. Even if that scenario doesn’t quite match anyone’s expectations.
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