"He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determines the end." -Harry Emerson Fosdick
We were up before the sun and on the road by the time the first light filtered through the low, gray sky. We drifted south through the southernmost part of Illinois and then paralleled the Mississippi River. For the beginning of this journey that will be the 2011-12 season, I figured someone else should enjoy the travel and games with me whenever possible, so I invited my friend Drew. He was able to get a day off from enlightening young minds on the ways of physical education, and we were on our way to Memphis.
We had already made plans to attend what would have been the first game of my personal journey in Carbondale, Illinois, at 7 pm. However, thanks to a certain sports network's idea of having a "marathon" of college basketball games, the Memphis Tigers hosted the Belmont Bruins at 11 am on the same day. A quick study of the map showed a trip reaching both games could easily be done, and knowing our noble leader had done it many times in his travels, we decided it should be done. It would be my first trip to the Land of the Delta Blues, Drew's third.
We arrived in downtown Memphis under the same low, gray sky we had left in Illinois. Despite the logos on the court claiming this game was part of the Maui Invitational, the only things these two places have in common are the letter M, their proximity to water, and maybe their desire to eat fire-roasted pork.
The Memphis Tigers play their home games in FedEx Forum, a stunningly large building right in the heart of the tourist mecca Beale St. District, which currently sits unoccupied by its professional sports tenant. After showing Drew the subliminal message in the design of the FedEx logo (hint: Look at the lower half of the E and the x), we made our way inside and found our seats high above the court just as the starting lineups walked onto the court for the opening tip.
Right away something seemed odd about the place. I knew it was an NBA arena and thus would have more of an NBA flavor, but I underestimated how much closer to NBA than NCAA the crowd would be. On the court, Memphis quickly showed it was the faster and more accurate team, and jumped out to a 16-4 lead after the first six minutes. Belmont stuck with their early game plan matching the Tigers drive for drive. Memphis was kept honest by foul calls that actually seemed to lean toward the Bruins at times and allowing for timely inside-out plays for superhoops from sophomore gunner J.J. Mann and frosh Spencer Turner. The Memphis lead evaporated to two, then crawled back to seven as we approached halftime.
Back in the stands, Drew and I hoped we would see a game similar to Belmont's first effort, where they played the mighty Duke to within a point at the Cameron Indoor. Of course the score and opponent brought a cluster of comparisons to another B school, and in their constant drive to determine what's "next" many of the so called "experts" had opined these Bruins were the heirs apparent to Butler's giant-killer crown. We just hoped to see the "now" Belmont play another close game against a top ten foe.
The crowd around us in the uppermost seats were a vocal group of mainly students with a few older gentlemen mixed in. There was no student section to speak of at FedEx Forum, and we wondered if it was because of the timing of the game, or because it's not a campus site. With their recent success, I can't imagine student interest lacking at Memphis, but their configuration certainly doesn't encourage it.
After a quick game of human ring toss using hula hoops (in honor of the Maui Invitational) as halftime entertainment, we settled in for the second half. Memphis started the half by making their first five field goal attempts and pushing their lead to 59-44 at the 16 minute mark, and then 72-54 just four minutes later.
Sometimes you don't actually realize how much you enjoy something until you realize it's not there: the "Big Yellow Taxi Effect" if you will.
It took Drew and I about three-quarters of this game before we realized just how much we missed the non-existent student section. There was a crowd, 16-thousand strong, and they cheered a lot, but there was no organization to it. No droning "OOOOHHHH" on defense, no taunting four-syllable chants, no "Scoreboard" or "I Believe That We Will Win." The most glaring example came with two minutes left when Bruins senior forward Mitch Hedgepeth fouled out. After a brief smattering of applause and waves, Hedgepeth quietly sat down. No marching orders (Left! Right! Left! Right! SIT DOWN!) were given.
Despite the fans' plea for Memphis to hit triple digits, the Tigers ended their offensive clinic of a second half, one marked with 64% shooting and 11 assists to only two turnovers, with only 97 points to Belmont's 81. The close game we had hoped for did not materialize, but we agreed scoring 81 on any defense showed Belmont should be their usual selfs as far as the Atlantic Sun and potential March action is concerned.
Afterwards, Drew and I took a quick walk along the famous Beale Street, but we did not have much time to be playing tourist. Our next game awaited us 200 miles to the north. With 5 hours of our personal marathon done, Drew and I crossed back over the Mississippi River and turned our car northward to Illinois, which welcomed us with familiar territory, familiar people, and a much more familiar, much more collegiate environment.
at MEMPHIS 97, BELMONT 81 11/15/2011
BELMONT 0-2 (0-0) -- D. Hanlen 3-7 3-5 9; K. Johnson 4-10 5-6 13; J. Mann 7-15 1-2 18; I. Clark 5-7 4-4 16; M. Hedgepeth 3-7 4-6 10; S. Saunders 1-6 2-2 4; B. Baker 0-4 2-2 2; B. Jenkins 1-7 0-0 2; A. Barnes 1-1 0-0 2; S. Turner 1-2 0-0 3; T. Noack 0-1 2-2 2; R. Chamberlain 0-0 0-0 0; H. Mobley 0-0 0-0 0; S. Cavera 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-67 23-29 81. MEMPHIS 1-0 (0-0) -- W. Barton 7-12 9-14 23; J. Jackson 6-7 7-9 20; W. Witherspoon 8-8 3-6 22; C. Carmouche 3-6 0-1 8; A. Thomas 5-9 1-2 12; C. Crawford 1-5 0-0 2; S. Simpson 2-4 0-0 4; T. Black 2-5 2-2 6; A. Barton 0-2 0-0 0; D. Stephens 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 34-58 22-34 97.
Three-point goals: BELM 6-20 (B. Baker 0-4; D. Hanlen 0-3; I. Clark 2-3; B. Jenkins 0-1; K. Johnson 0-1; J. Mann 3-7; S. Turner 1-1), MEM 7-14 (W. Witherspoon 3-3; C. Carmouche 2-2; A. Barton 0-1; W. Barton 0-4; C. Crawford 0-1; J. Jackson 1-1; A. Thomas 1-2); Rebounds: BELM 39 (M. Hedgepeth 8), MEM 27 (W. Witherspoon 5); Assists: BELM 13 (K. Johnson 6), MEM 20 (J. Jackson 7); Total Fouls -- BELM 27, MEM 20; Fouled Out: BELM-M. Hedgepeth; MEM-None.