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Opinion: People should have high expectations for Memphis basketball program

Tubby Smith’s dismissal as the University of Memphis men’s basketball head coach surprised no one who had closely followed the team. The true shock came afterwards when multiple national pundits attacked Memphis, its supporters and the local media for the decision.

Doug Gottlieb, Jeff Goodman and Jay Bilas are just a few of the names in the college basketball media who have criticized Memphis’ choice to part ways with Smith after two tumultuous seasons that will be remembered more for drama than success on the court.

Gottlieb has deemed Memphis fans a “lame fanbase” for years and blamed Gary Parrish and the Memphis media for Smith’s firing. Goodman recently trolled fans when he said Boston College is a better basketball program, and Tiger supporters possess unrealistic expectations. Bilas became incensed at Tiger fan reactions on Twitter and lambasted some as “sophomoric.”

Naysayers wondered why Memphis would release such a venerable figure and former NCAA champion after only the second season of a five-year deal, and Memphians wondered why these talking heads simply cannot or will not understand where we are coming from.

As a group, Memphians will vehemently argue with anyone who dares to downplay or denigrate the things that make us proud and uniquely Memphis. Kansas City has better barbecue? New Orleans has better blues? Memphians beg to differ. Memphis basketball is overrated and has an overinflated opinion of itself? Those are fighting words around these parts, so it makes sense for the Tiger faithful to defend their university tooth and nail.

The “overrated” Memphis basketball program is tied with Kansas State for 31st in total NCAA Tournament victories with 34. Even after the NCAA vacated close to half of Memphis’ Sweet Sixteen appearances, they still have enough — six — to tie for 51st with schools like Wichita State, Butler, Oregon and Missouri. When you add the vacated appearances into the equation, Memphis would tie for 22nd all-time with former national champions Georgetown, Arkansas and North Carolina State.

When you take that history into account and combine it with a $9.7 million basketball budget, which is 22nd in NCAA basketball in 2017-18, according to the United States Department of Higher Education, it is easy to see why fans would not want to come out to FedExForum to view a mediocre product.

Some detractors say former head coach John Calipari blew expectations out of the water at Memphis. Well, here is a news flash for them: Memphis basketball was competitive and recognizable on a national level well before “Camp Cal” and “Refuse to Lose” were a thing.

In 1973, a Gene Bartow-coached Tigers team led by Larry Finch and Larry Kenon made it to the NCAA title game before bowing out to John Wooden and Bill Walton’s legendary 30-0 UCLA team.

During the 1980s, Memphis basketball was one of the premier programs in the country, culminating with a Final Four appearance in 1985. Head coach Dana Kirk loaded the roster with exciting local products such as Andre Turner, William Bedford, Sylvester Gray and Keith Lee, the latter of whom is considered one of the greatest college basketball players of all time. Elliot Perry was brought into the fold in ‘87 as one of Larry Finch’s first recruits. The guard led the Tigers to a thrilling victory over Louisville and Pervis Ellison in the 1988 Metro Conference Championship.

Finch brought more success to Memphis basketball in the ‘90s, reeling in numerous Memphis high school standouts such Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, David Vaughn, Cedric Henderson and Lorenzen Wright. During Finch’s time as head coach, he steered the Tigers to six NCAA Tournament selections, including an Elite Eight in 1992 and a Sweet Sixteen in 1995.

Memphis’ 137 wins in 2006-09 are the most in NCAA basketball history over a four-year period. To expect the program to perform at that level on a yearly basis would be considered unrealistic and silly. No one is clamoring around town for that level of success.

But what we are demanding is being ranked in or around the top 25, scheduling the best teams and recruiting the best talent, especially the Memphis-area blue chippers and All-Americans who Tubby Smith could not or would not touch for whichever reason. Throw in a deep NCAA Tournament run every few years for good measure, and Memphians will all be happy campers.

For Memphis basketball and its fans, it’s completely justified for us to demand a standard that we have become accustomed to after nearly a half-century. You can’t go from eating filet mignon for decades and then switch to chopped steak overnight and be completely cool with it. All we want is all we have ever known, and in the end, that is not really too much to ask.

Former Memphis coach John Calipari directs his players from this sideline. He is now looking for his second National Championship at Kentucky. 

Tubby Smith talks to the media during a post-season press conference. Smith led the team to 19 wins in his first season at Memphis.

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