Memphis' madness draws near sellout
With more maturity from its key players and the anticipation of another trip to the NCAA tournament, Memphis unveiled its team Friday night before an almost full house at the FedExForum.
Fans were waiting outside the arena when the doors opened 90 minutes before the start of Memphis Madness. The festivities included a dunk contest, a 3-point shooting display and a scrimmage.
Rapper Rick Ross was supposed to be the featured entertainment for the evening, but he suffered a medical problem on a flight from Fort Lauderdale Fla. to Memphis, that forced him to miss the event.
Memphis, which struggled in midseason before winning the Conference USA tournament last March, returns its top six scorers from last season. The Tigers were eliminated in their opening game of the NCAA tournament, losing to 77-75 Arizona to cap a 25-10 season.
With the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies not playing because of a labor lockout, and a punchless Tigers football team struggling through a 1-5 start, the opening of basketball season is highly anticipated.
''It was electric just like last year,'' sophomore Will Barton, the team's leading scorer from last season, said. ''It was just very exciting. The crowd was showing a lot of support and a lot of love.''
The Madness event had to deal with a bump when Ross was unable to make it due to the illness. He tweeted shortly after 5 p.m. that he was on his way to Memphis, an indication he had overcome the medical episode that first diverted him back to Florida earlier in the day. But he never arrived after a second effort to reach Memphis led to an unscheduled landing in Birmingham when he became ill again.
Despite Ross' illness, it was a night for fun for the Tiger faithful to enjoy the opening of another season. From the introductions of the players, fans were on their feet all the way to the upper rafters of the arena. The crowd erupted into cheers when the lights went off and the opening video montage started.
The biggest applause during the introductions was reserved for freshman guard Adonis Thomas, the prize of this year's recruiting class for coach Josh Pastner, Barton, post player Tarik Black and point guard Joe Jackson, all sophomores.
''I enjoyed it from the time I got on the bus until the end of it,'' said Thomas, who played high school ball at Memphis Melrose. ''It was a great experience for me as a freshman. It was probably beyond what I expected. I wanted to come out and just show the fans that I'm still the type of player they recruited for Memphis.''
There were fireworks, shooting flames from atop the backboards and sonic booms.
Guard Antonio Barton won the 3-point shooting contest. The dunk contest was judged by current and former NBA players Anfernee Hardaway, Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph.
There were plenty of misfires that drew groans from the crowd. However, Barton's dunk over two teammates even brought Randolph out of his seat. Then D. J. Stephens took a high bounce and soared to the basket for his dunk. That helped Stephens take the title.
After a short scrimmage, the night of fun was over, and Pastner told his team it was time to get serious.
''It was a fun event, a fun evening,'' Pastner said. ''Obviously, the scrimmage at the end, I just wanted to avoid any injuries.
'' But I told our team: 'It's on. This was for you guys and the fans, but it is on from this point forward.'''