Posted: Mar 17, 2006 4:07 pm
We should be renamed the MEmphis "Dangerfields"
DALLAS -- During the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, life as a No. 1 seed is generally like the VIP package at a chi-chi day spa.
You get the pampered treatment: Play close to home, in front of as many fans as you can bring; play a suitably lame opening opponent; field questions about your seeming invincibility. Everything but a mud bath and cucumber slices for the eyelids.
This is not the case for the Memphis Tigers. They're getting the Motel Six treatment here in Big D(isrespect). Mud in the eye, not on the pores.
The first affront came from the selection committee. It sent the Tigers as close to home as possible in Dallas -- but it also sentenced them to share the building with No. 2 seed Texas and, perhaps more importantly, potential second-round opponent and neighboring rival Arkansas.
The Pig People could own more than 25 percent of the American Airline Center's 20,000 tickets Friday, and that could double by Sunday. And they will cheer vigorously against Mississippi River neighbor Memphis all weekend. The two teams played each other every year from 1991-2003, have battled for many of the same players over the years and have no love lost for one another.
Rarely, if ever, has the No. 1 seed ceded potential homecourt advantage to a No. 8 seed.
Then the committee added to the degree of difficulty by pairing Memphis with one of the toughest No. 16 seeds ever, Mid-Continent Conference champion Oral Roberts. Not only can the Golden Eagles play (46 wins over two years, RPI of 130), but they're also more local than Memphis. Tulsa is 3½ hours from Dallas, and four ORU players are from the Dallas area.
Rarely is the No. 16 seed this good -- and rarely is it more at home than the No. 1.
In part because of those two factors, there has been a notable lack of sucking up to the Tigers from the fourth estate. A number of national analysts have identified Memphis as not just the most vulnerable one seed in this tournament, but perhaps the most vulnerable one seed since the field expanded to 64 in 1985. Plenty of people (yours truly included) have picked Oral Roberts to slay the giant, and Memphis is definitely the least popular Final Four pick of the No. 1s.
"They are saying this is the upset because they are not the typical 16 seed," Tigers coach John Calipari said.
They're also wondering whether Memphis is too young (four starters are freshmen or sophomores), too unseasoned after rolling through Conference USA and perhaps too prone to quick-trigger offense to survive the NCAA grind. Starting with experienced and confident Oral Roberts.
Yet Calipari dismissed the notion that he might use this sacrilegious doubting of a No. 1 seed as motivational fuel with his team.
"If I have to do that to get my team to play," he said, "this thing is short-lived."
(Of course, Calipari refraining from pushing every motivational button at his disposal is about as believable as Billy Packer cheering for Wichita State Thursday. There's no way.)
From one source or another, the Memphis players have heard the chatter -- about the invading Hog fans, about Oral Roberts' prowess, about their own vulnerability. They know that Duke and Connecticut are being fawned upon, while the Tigers are not.
"It's been constant motivation, because throughout the season we've been doubted like that," splendid Tigers wing man Rodney Carney said. "It motivates us a lot."
"Some people think we will be the first [No. 1 seed] eliminated, so we want to go out there and prove those people wrong," point guard Darius Washington, Jr. added. "We just have to come out here and play."
The level of competition certainly will be a greater challenge to Oral Roberts than to Memphis. ORU is 0-4 this year against NCAA Tournament teams, while Memphis is 8-3.
But the Golden Eagles are not doubting themselves.
"With this particular group, they really believe we can beat Memphis," ORU coach Scott Sutton said. "That's why this tournament is so great. There are Cinderellas every day in this tournament. I want that to be us. We're going to try to be that Cinderella."
Cinderella figures to have every Razorbacks fan cheering for it Friday afternoon. In fact, Oral Roberts fans will likely be rooting for an Arkansas win in the opening game, just so the Arkansas backers stick around for the second game and become rabid ORU fans for a day.
"If Arkansas fans choose to root for us, we'll take it," Oral Roberts guard Ken Tutt said. "We'll take pretty much any fans we can get."
After taking care of the band and boosters, Arkansas only had about 300 tickets to sell to the public, but that hardly will be the only Hog red in the building. Once the brackets were announced Sunday night, the remaining tickets for Friday's opening round were inhaled by 12:30 Monday afternoon, and NCAA officials suspect that a large number of those buyers are from Arkansas.
The school has a long and strong history in Dallas, dating to its days as the only serious basketball school in the Southwest Conference. Arkansas routinely overran the Southwest Conference tournament, pushing aside the disinterested Texans. The players are hoping for a flashback atmosphere Friday.
"They're going to come out in numbers, have their red on, calling the Hogs," said guard Ronnie Brewer, whose father, Ron, was a star for the Razorbacks during the 1970s.
Sutton grew up in Fayetteville at that time, when his father, Eddie, was coaching some of the great teams in Arkansas history. Scott Sutton is not above pandering to the Pig People for mutual support.
"I'm calling for it," Sutton said. "I'm asking them as an old Arkansan to cheer for Oral Roberts. I told our fans to get here early to cheer for the Razorbacks."
Is the No. 1 seed supposed to be the most booed team in the building, instead of the most cheered? Maybe not, but the Tigers shrugged off the possibility Thursday.
"We didn't care about playing close to home because we play better on the road anyway," Carney said. "On the road we have a greater sense of urgency to win."
The urgency should never be greater than now, because there is no tomorrow otherwise. Here in Big D(isrespect), it's time for No. 1 seed Memphis to prove itself worthy of four-star day spa treatment.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.