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Tigers' season starting to look familiar

DaJuan Wagner was supposed to lead his team to the Final Four in his lone season at the University of Memphis
DaJuan Wagner was supposed to lead his team to the Final Four in his lone season at the University of Memphis
(AP Photo/Alan Spearman)

For those of you who have been following my articles, I'm changing things up a bit. From now on and through the C-USA tournament I'll be posting the Tigers' daily RPI rating according to RealTimeRPI.

Today's Memphis Tigers RealTimeRPI rating: 38

Picture this scenario. A Memphis Tigers team enters the season with lofty expectations. They have signed the nation’s top recruiting class and begin the year with a top 15 preseason ranking. A bevy of freshman surrounded by a ton of hype includes a scoring sensation at one of the guard positions and an outside sharpshooter at the other. Another newcomer has the size and strength that will allow him to dominate in the post. At Midnight Madness, the crowd is elated and serenades the players with chants of, “Final Four!” This will be the year the Tigers make a deep run into the NCAA tournament after the previous season’s disappointing NIT berth.

The year gets off to a disappointing start, but the squad manages to rattle off some decent wins in midseason. Just when fans believe the team might be figuring things out, the Tigers follow up their impressive run with a series of disappointing losses in the conference late in the season.

Although it might sound familiar, this is not a reference to this year’s University of Memphis basketball season. It is actually a recount of the 2001-2002 version. There are a lot of obvious similarities between the two teams. DaJuan Wagner was one of the top recruits in the country and was expected to light up the world of college basketball with his deft scoring touch just as he had done in high school. Anthony Rice, another heralded freshman, was to display his uncanny outside shooting. Junior college transfer Chris Massie would rule the inside. One of the main differences between the teams was that the 01-02 Tigers also featured senior forward Kelly Wise, who was projected to be player of the year in Conference USA. The team also returned a slew of sophomores and juniors who would provide the leadership to push them over the top.

But history shows us that those particular Tigers found their way back into the NIT. The heralded newcomers played okay, but none of them ever really lived up to the hype. And the senior forward never got close to performing like a conference MVP. Fans were disappointed, and many of them called for the coach’s head. They wondered why the school had ever hired John Calipari in the first place, let alone pay him such an exorbitant amount of money. He’d already been here two years, and the team hadn’t even made the NCAA tournament. And in Memphis, that’s simply not good enough. The Tigers should have had at least one national title by this point. Mind you, the team did go on win to the NIT that year, the first national championship of any kind in the history of Memphis basketball.

Fast forward to today. Josh Pastner finds himself in a similar situation. Of course, his team didn’t have the benefit of having experienced, talented upperclassmen with a history of consistent performances to lean on. And as of today, their NCAA tourney hopes are still alive, if just barely. But you can be sure that the criticism won’t stop anytime soon, probably not even when he finally gets his team headed in the right direction. After all, this is Memphis. The good news is, if you’re a Tiger fan, you’ve been through all this before.

2001-02 Memphis Tigers quick facts:

Head Coach: John Calipari

Preseason ranking: AP no. 12

Final regular season record: 22-8

Conference USA Tournament results: Lost to Houston in 1st round 80-74

NIT: Champions. Beat South Carolina in final, 72-62

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