Memphis Basketball: Kissed by a (Derrick) Rose

Dan GurleyContributor IApril 25, 2008

Maybe Derrick Rose knew all along that Memphis was just a stepping stone to reaching the NBA.

Whether his mind was made up before the college season began, Rose took Memphis fans on an incredible ride that will not be soon forgotten.

He came in with all the hype, immediately inserted into the starting lineup. He even wore the number of the greatest to play the game (for the record, he claims he didn't choose #23 because of Jordan).

Rose didn't disappoint. He showed flashes of brilliance in his first game, a 17-point, five-assist, six-rebound effort against helpless Tennessee Martin in which the Tigers cruised, 102-71.

But even before that, Memphis fans knew that were witnessing something special. During Midnight Madness, the preseason team scrimmage, Rose showed why he was a top recruit.

Keeping your eye on him was about as easy as following an angry wasp just sprayed with repellent. To put it simply, he blew by would-be defenders.

These were no slouches either. They were guys like Antonio Anderson, Willie Kemp and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Looking back, the excitement in that building was something I'd never experienced before.

Fast forward to Dec. 4, 2007. Memphis went up against USC. More importantly, Derrick Rose took on fellow freshman phenom O.J. Mayo. Both outstanding point guards, Mayo was ranked as a higher recruit than Rose coming into the season. Rose knew that, and he would have revenge.

The highly-touted matchup of star freshman point guards was a bit watered down as both struggled. Mayo would outscore Rose 16-9, but it took him 20 hard-earned shots to do it. Rose finished with nine points, 10 boards and five turnovers. More importantly, Memphis won 62-58 win in overtime.

"You want all the hype," Rose said. "You just go out and play hard and you'll get it but you've got to make sure you don't get too bigheaded when you get it."

Rose always had a sense of level-headedness to him, despite where his game was taking him.

We roll on to the NCAA tournament, where Memphis was widely regarded to be the first No. 1 seed to go down. And, if you happened to talk to Dick Vitale, the Tigers were supposed to get beat by Michigan St...then Texas...then UCLA. The Tigers turned a deaf ear, and Derrick Rose came of age.

In the first two matchups, against Texas-Arlington and Mississippi St. respectively, Rose played great floor games, scoring 17 in each game and averaging seven boards in those two. Memphis easily disposed of the Mavericks from Arlington, but struggled down the stretch at the free throw line against a game Bulldog squad.

Up next came defensive-minded Michigan State. In possibly the greatest half of basketball in Memphis Tiger history, Rose was simply brilliant. In a star match-up with guard Drew Neitzel, Rose dropped 27 points and dished out five assists, showing America who he was.

How about Neitzel? Six points and a wave goodbye from the 92-74 winners, the Memphis Tigers. Rose could not be stopped. Lay-ups, dunks and sharp-shooting from the free throw line marked a statement game for the young Rose.

Next came Texas, with a pair of All-American quality guards in D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams. This would be too much for Rose, right? Two incredible guards who are seasoned, not freshmen. This would be Rose's swan song, right?

Please. The strength and length of Rose overpowered the two smaller guards, who looked helpless in trying to figure out a way to contain the 6-foot-3 guard. Rose would lead the Tigers to a 85-67 victory over the Longhorns, collecting the South Regional's Most Outstanding Player award along the way.

"I'm just living the dream right now," Rose said. As were Memphis fans. Following that game, never have I seen the city so unified, so jubilant. Final Four shirts were printed, cars honking at signs of the Tigers finally reaching this holy ground.

The win against UCLA only bolstered the city's enthusiasm, as Rose continued to make his NBA audition. Even in the agonizing loss against Kansas for the national championship, Rose was at his best, making plays, hitting ridiculous shots.

Although Memphis' luck would run out in overtime, Rose proved that he was a sure-fire top two pick in the upcoming draft.

Following the loss, Memphis fans knew the inevitable. Rose had shown he could play with anyone, and on the biggest of stages. He had taken a team knocked out of the Elite 8 two years in a row to the championship game, two minutes away from claiming it.

When he announced his decision to jump to the big league, Memphis fans sighed...and thanked their young guard for all the memories, albeit only a year's worth.