There’s a central idea concerning Memphis basketball.
If you’ve been around the program for any substantial period of time you’ve encountered the idea countless times.
You’ve accepted the idea as doctrine, you’ve come to believe it unquestionably.
All Memphis Basketball needs in order to win at a high level is a competent coach that can keep the local talent home.
There it is.
If you’ve listened to talk radio this week, you’ve heard this idea repeated ad nauseam.
It has served as the basis for every modern day criticism, commentary and analysis of the Memphis program, from Dana Kirk to Tubby Smith.
The idea itself undergirds the fan base’s emotional connection to the program.
Penny Hardaway, Larry Finch, Keith Lee, Andre Turner, Elliot Perry.
There’s only one problem.
It’s a myth.
It isn’t true.
It’s a lie.
Think about it. What actual Tiger team or era serves as a basis for the belief that a group of predominately Memphis kids can collectively win at a high level in the NCAA tournament?
No team or era can serve as a realistic basis for this belief.
Folks old enough to remember the 1973 Memphis State NCAA Finalist team will tell you that though the heart of the team may have been Larry Finch, the key to their success was Larry Kenon. Kenon, a 2-time NBA all star, was certainly the player on that team that went on to the most professional success. It may surprise you to know that Kenon was born in Alabama and recruited to Memphis via a Junior College in Texas.
Oh, and the team’s point guard, Bill Laurie, was from Versailles, Missouri.
At first glance, this should be the team / era that provides the most compelling argument for the central idea that recruiting Memphis is enough to establish a high level Division 1 basketball team.
All 5 starters on the 1985 Final Four team were from Memphis, assuming of course that you count West Memphis, AR – home to star forward Keith Lee.
Indeed, this was the team that seemingly gave rise to the myth.
Yet the uncomfortable facts of the 1985 era Tigers undermine the idea of “success” and present an odd parallel from to the present era when you consider the following facts:
- It was later revealed that numerous extra benefits were systematically provided to the players on that team – including cash payments to Lee, cars to William Bedford; and extra pell grant money to numerous athletes.
- The years following 1985 proved to be incredibly dark for many members of this team. The coach served time in prison, the NAACP accused the program of exploiting black athletes, one player (Aaron Price) was murdered, another (Baskerville Holmes) killed himself in an apparent murder-suicide. Bedford had a long struggle with drug addiction. Vincent Askew was later arrested for having sex with a minor.
In other words, if you’re using the 1985 team to prove the point that you can win with Memphis players if you’re willing to – as 92.9 radio host Gary Parrish is so fond of saying – “do what it takes” to get and keep Memphis players happy, then I’m not sure you’re being realistic about what it takes.
Also, literally no other Memphis-dominated team in the ensuing 32 years has produced even close to that level of on-court success.
The Larry Finch era?
Finch coached Memphis from 1986 to 1997 and fully relied on the central idea to build his teams. Finch routinely gobbled up local talent at the beginning of his tenure and was eventually fired, in part, because he started losing Memphis talent to SEC rivals.
Finch recruited a great Memphis high school player, Elliot Perry, to lead his first Tiger teams. Finch surrounded Perry with other local products. Perry was an incredible college player, and eventually went on to a nice career in the NBA.
Care to guess how many NCAA tournament games Perry won at Memphis?
Elliot Perry won one NCAA tournament game at Memphis – probably because the Memphis guys surrounding him weren’t that good.
Finch rode Penny Hardaway to an Elite 8 in 1992 and Lorenzen Wright to a Sweet 16 in 1995, but both those teams were reinforced by Finch’s nephew – David Vaughn of Whites Creek, TN.
Vaughn, a highly skilled 6’9 Forward with a soft-touch, hit last second shots during the Round of 32 during both the 1992 and 1995 NCAA tournaments.
In other words, if it weren’t for the last second heroics of a guy from outside Nashville – Memphis wouldn’t have had a Sweet 16 appearance from 1985 until 2006.
The Calipari Era?
Of course we all know that the great teams of 2006 – 2009 had but a few Memphis guys, typically role players such as Jeremy Hunt, Willie Kemp and Andre Allen.
Indeed, though Calipari rattled off the names of local high school coaches during his introductory press conference, he quickly decided that Memphis kids weren’t worth the trouble and barely recruited them during his tenure.
So again, where’s the proof that a group of elite Memphis high school talent can produce an elite college basketball team?
The Josh Pastner era?
From 2009 – 2016, Pastner worked tirelessly to stockpile high level Memphis talent during what was widely considered to be the high water mark for high school basketball prospects coming out of the city.
Joe Jackson, Tarik Black, Chris Crawford, Adonis Thomas, Austin Nichols, Nick King, Markel Crawford, Dedric Lawson, KJ Lawson.
All came to Memphis as celebrated, big time prospects. All had multiple high major offers from “Power 5” teams. Jackson, Thomas, and Lawson were McDonalds All Americans.
Number of NCAA wins during this 7 year era: two.
All of the above players left Memphis after disappointing careers.
Bad coaching? Maybe. But that debate has been had and had and had again.
The point here, is that it’s time to let the dream die. It’s time to expose the myth.
There is absolutely no proof, absolutely no reason to believe based on the evidence, that recruiting the best talent in Memphis and assembling it into a team is a recipe for high level sustainable success in college basketball.
I don’t know if Tubby Smith is the guy to lead Memphis basketball to sustained success or not. Unlike the self-proclaimed experts on talk radio, I’m willing to give him more than one season and two recruiting classes before declaring the hire a disaster. Certainly the early returns are troubling.
What I do know is that judging Smith exclusively on his failure to recruit or retain Memphis kids is shortsighted and ignores the totality of the modern history of the program.