The sports world is dormant right now, and that’s brutal for all sports fans. What I am missing the most is the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. Instead of March Madness, it is March Sadness this year. With nothing new to watch, I have been watching classic March Madness games, and I came up with the idea for this series called “The Runners-Up,” where I take a deeper look into the teams that came up just short.
This series will highlight some of the best teams in the last 20 years who made it to the National Championship game but lost. A different bounce here or there and these teams may have gone down in history, but instead they had to settle for the silver medal. This series serves to give some of those teams — which may have been forgotten — the recognition they deserve. I already have a few ideas in mind, but if anyone has any tournament runners-up they would like me to cover, shoot me an email. I hope you enjoy!
Let me preface this article by addressing the obvious. The 2008 Memphis basketball team had all its wins vacated because one of its star players, Derrick Rose, allegedly had someone else take the SAT for him. There was an NCAA investigation one year after Rose left Memphis for the NBA, and although there was no direct evidence, the league ruled that Rose probably didn’t take his own test and thus ruled him ineligible for that season. As a result, Memphis was forced to vacate all its wins and its appearance in the National Championship game that year.
So in the NCAA record book, this season didn’t even happen.
But it did happen. We all saw it happen, and this team was too damn good to neglect just because Rose may have been too lazy to take his own test. The SAT isn’t even that bad! But I digress.
That 2008 Memphis team was something special. It had the talent to win the National Championship. Frankly, it should have won the championship. If not for some poor late free throw shooting and a miraculous 3-pointer by Mario Chalmers, this team would have won the title, and I’d be highlighting that Kansas squad instead. But we’ll get to that later.
There was Rose, who as a freshman point guard led the team on the court like a senior. There was Chris Douglas-Roberts, who led the team in scoring with over 18 points per game and was a consensus first-team All American.
It was a deep team around the stars, as well, which featured six more players who averaged five points per game or more, including key role players like Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier.
The team was coached by John Calipari, who brought his second program to a Final Four after bringing UMass in 1996 (also vacated due to an ineligible player). He has since added a third team, bringing Kentucky four times and finally winning a title in 2012. While he didn’t win the championship, it was this 2008 season that solidified him as one of the elite coaches in college basketball. It also earned him a big contract with Kentucky after the next season.
This team would be the first ever to win 38 games in a season. It’s easy to discredit that because the Tigers played in the lowly Conference USA, where they went 16-0. But Memphis actually played a very strong out-of-conference schedule that season, beating teams like UConn, Oklahoma, USC, Georgetown and Arizona. So this team didn’t just beat up on bad teams; it beat up on good teams as well.
The Tigers’ only loss before the National Championship was a 66-62 defeat to Tennessee, ranked No. 2 in the country to Memphis’s No. 1.
After winning the Conference USA Tournament easily, Memphis went on to cruise in the NCAA Tournament, beating every opponent except Mississippi State by double digits. That included a UCLA team in the Final Four that had future NBA all stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. Memphis beat them fairly easily 78-63 behind 28 points from Douglas-Roberts and 25 from Rose.
Then came the classic National Championship game. Now, the 2008 NCAA Tournament was very unique. It was the first and only time that all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four, and it was one of the few times where the National Championship actually featured the two clear-cut best teams in the country, the 38-1 Memphis Tigers and the 36-3 Kansas Jayhawks.
Memphis and Kansas had eerily similar stats coming in. They both averaged about 80 points per game and held opponents to about 61. This game was expected to be special, and it certainly lived up to expectations.
The whole game was basically played in a six-point bubble, with neither team able to mount up much of a lead. There were numerous lead changes in just the first half but Kansas went into the half up five. The Tigers erased that quickly and it was another dog fight in the second half until Rose, who had been quiet all night, began to heat up.
Once Rose got going, he helped Memphis build its largest lead of the game. He scored 15 points in just the second half and at one point scored 10 straight Memphis points. The Tigers found themselves up nine with two minutes to play; they could smell the championship.
Kansas had different plans. The Jayhawks executed everything nearly perfectly, including a huge steal and 3-pointer by Sherron Collins to get them back in it. But in order to complete the comeback they needed some help from Memphis.
They got it when Memphis missed four huge free throws in the last minute, which allowed Kansas to come within three points with a chance to tie in the final seconds.
You know what happened next. Chalmers hit the biggest shot in Kansas basketball history to send the game to overtime.
Overtime wasn’t much of a contest as Kansas held all the momentum and won 75-68, leaving the Tigers heartbroken and stunned.
Despite this crushing defeat, the 2008 Memphis Tigers had one hell of a run, one that is worthy of them being regarded as one of the best runners-up of this century.