The 1970s saw the arrival of Memphis basketball to the national scene. The decade brought with it new coach Gene Bartow and immediately he parlayed experienced players like James Douglas, Don Holcomb and Fred Horton with two young budding stars in Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson. Bartow, who coached the previous six seasons at Valparaiso, promised a wide-open style of basketball along with a zone press defense and some man-to-man.
In his first game as a Tiger in 1970, Finch scored 24 points and let Tiger fans know instantly they had a special player when he swished a 25-foot jump shot just five seconds into the game.
Following Memphis's stirring, 78-75, upset over Louisville on Jan. 9, 1971, the Tigers jumped into the Top 20 for the first time in a decade. On Wednesday, Jan. 15, U of M, with an 11-2 record, found itself ranked 19th in the AP poll.
The 1971-72 season marked the first for public address announcer Fred Cook. Cook worked his first game against Missouri-Rolla that year and would go on to enjoy a long relationship with the Tigers.
In what some called at the time "the greatest game ever played in the Mid-South Coliseum", Memphis fell to No. 2 ranked Marquette, 74-73, Dec. 7, 1971. The Tigers enjoyed a five-point lead in the final minute of play, but a lane violation, missed free throw and a desperation basket on the game's final play sent Al McGuire's team to victory.
On February 2, 1972, 17,000 fans were waiting when the Tigers took the court in Louisville's Freedom Hall. It was a place where Memphis had never won in nine previous tries. Thanks to the scoring of Finch and the rebounding of Robinson, the Tigers defeated Louisville, 77-69, to grab a share of the lead in the Missouri Valley Conference. Due to identical 12-2 conference marks, Memphis and Louisville played a playoff game on March 11, 1972, in Nashville to determine which Missouri Valley team would represent the league in the NCAAs Midwest Regional. The U of M lost to the Cardinals, 83-72, and had to settle for its fifth NIT appearance.
Perhaps the most remembered season in Tiger basketball history, the one that put Memphis State on the map permanently, was the 1972-73 campaign led by Finch, Robinson, Bill Laurie and newcomers Larry Kenon, Billy Buford, West Westfall and Bill Cook. The Tigers reeled off 14 straight wins during one stretch, captured the Missouri Valley title and received the school's first bid to the NCAA tournament since the 1962 season. Playing in the regional finals in Houston, Texas, the Tigers knocked off South Carolina and Kansas State to advance to the Final Four for the first time in U of M history. The Tigers defeated Providence in the semifinals and earned a spot in the title game against the powerful UCLA Bruins, led by Bill Walton. The U of M battled the mighty Bruins to a 39-39 halftime tie, but Walton was too much in the second half as UCLA defeated the Tigers, 87-66. The big red head hit a record 21 of 22 shots and scored 44 points to pace the Bruins. Finch and Kenon were the only Tigers to score in double figures. Finch netted 29 and Kenon tallied 20. Also that season, head coach Gene Bartow was named NABC National Coach of the Year.
Larry Finch, Memphis's head coach from 1986 to 1997, rewrote the U of M record book in 1973 claiming nine of thirteen individual records. During his career at U of M, the 6-2 guard was named to the All-Missouri Valley Conference team three times, was conference player of the year in 1972 and 1973 and was named to seven All-American teams. Nicknamed "Little Chubby", Finch's sportsmanship on the court and his community involvement off, combined to make him one of the best-loved players ever to wear the blue and gray. Finch's number 21 is one of eight retired jerseys hanging in the rafters of The Pyramid.
In 1973, The University of Memphis established the M Club Athletic Hall of Fame. Each year an annual induction ceremony is held during the fall and eight new members are installed. Since its inception, 27 former Tiger basketball players have been inducted into the M Club Hall of Fame. They include Gene Fulghum, Win Wilfong, George Kirk, Lowery Kirk, Larry Finch, Forest Arnold, Frank Snyder, Ronnie Robinson, Skip Wolfe, Mike Butler, Larry Kenon, Dexter Reed, Bob Swander, Bill Cook, Leslie Steele, George Price, Otis Jackson, Wayne Yates, Alvin Wright, Jack Butcher, Phil Hodson, Millard Davis, Coy Creason, Dr. Kenneth Caldwell, Elmore Fortner, Hunter Beckman and Dwight Boyd.
In 1974, Gene Bartow left Memphis and former Tiger All-American Wayne Yates was hired to guide the basketball team. Yates had served as an assistant coach under Bartow. In his five years at the helm, Yates led the Tigers to three straight 20-win seasons, one NCAA and two NIT bids. During his tenure, the U of M roster read like a Who's Who of college basketball with the likes of Bill Cook, Dexter Reed, John Gunn, Marion Hillard, Clarence Jones, John Washington, Alvin Wright, James Bradley, Dennis Isbell, Hank McDowell and Otis Jackson all contributing to the Tigers' success.
On June 13, 1975, The University of Memphis announced that it was joining with five other major universities in the formation of a new athletic conference. Following is a statement that was released by athletic director Billy J. Murphy: "We are very pleased to announce that our president, Dr. Billy M. Jones, has approved Memphis's entrance into a new major basketball conference, which will begin operation immediately. The official name of the new conference is the Metropolitan Collegiate Athletic Conference, and can be referred to as the MCAC or the Metro 6." The Tigers joined with Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Saint Louis and Tulane.
A tragic event hit the Tiger basketball program in the winter of 1976 when, after only three games, star teammate John Gunn was taken ill with a rare disease - Stevens-Johnson syndrome - and admitted to the hospital on December 11. Only 90 minutes before the tipoff of the Memphis-Ole Miss game on December 21, at about 6:35 PM, Gunn died from complications of the disease which attacks the body's mucous membrane. "John Gunn was a great, strong competitor, full of life and energy," U of M athletic director Billy J. Murphy said. "It is very difficult to even imagine that he is gone. Our community and our University will miss him greatly. He fought with all his might to overcome this disease because that's the type person he was. Now it is up to all of us to carry on. That's the way John would have wanted it." The remainder of the '76-77 season was dedicated to Gunn and the players wore black bands on their uniforms as a sign of mourning.
In 1979, Wayne Yates left Memphis and Dana Kirk was hired to direct the Tiger basketball program. Kirk hired two young assistants in Larry Finch, former Tiger head coach, and Lee Fowler, current athletic director at Middle Tennessee State, to help structure the program.
In the 80s, Memphis had such stars as Keith Lee, Elliot Perry, Andre Turner, Bobby Parks, Phillip "Doom" Haynes, Derrick Phillips, Baskerville Holmes, William Bedford, Willie Becton, Vincent Askew, Dwight Boyd, Sylvester Gray and Marvin Alexander. The Tigers made eight postseason tournaments (7 NCAAs, one NIT) and registered a record of 230-87 (.726).
The 1980s saw the great one-on-one battles of Lee vs Akeem Olajuwon, Lee vs Patrick Ewing and Lee vs Wayman Tisdale, not to mention the classic Memphis - Louisville confrontations.
In 1982, Memphis signed a 6-11 basketball phenom from West Memphis, Arkansas, who would rewrite the Tiger basketball record book. Keith Lee, who had led West Memphis High School to two undefeated seasons, made an immediate impact on Memphis basketball. During his four-year career, the Tigers went 104-24, made the NCAA Tournament four times, including one Final Four appearance in 1985, and claimed three Metro Tournament titles.
On January 10, 1982, Memphis was voted the No. 1 ranked team in the country by both the Associated Press and UPI polls for the first time in school history. The ranking was short lived, however. That same night, Virginia Tech upset the Tigers in Blacksburg, 64-56.
In the second round of the 1983 NCAA Tournament, Memphis took on Georgetown in a game that will never be forgotten by Tiger fans. It would be a battle of Lee against Patrick Ewing. Lee owned Ewing on this day, scoring 28 points and grabbing 15 rebounds to lead the Tigers to a 66-57 victory. The win set up a regional matchup with No. 1 ranked Houston and Akeem Olajuwon.
The 1984-85 campaign would go down as another magical season for Tiger basketball. The U of M breezed to a 24-3 regular season record and swept through the Metro Conference Tournament in Louisville before being sent to Houston, Texas, for the first round of the NCAAs. The U of M defeated Pennsylvania, UAB, Boston College and Oklahoma to earn its second trip to the Final Four. The Tigers met Villanova in the semifinals in Lexington, Ky., and fell to the eventual champion, 52-45. MSU ended the year with 31 wins, the most ever in a school history.
The 1985-86 season got off to another flying start as the Tigers raced to a school record 20-0 start that included wins over nationally-ranked Kansas and Louisville. Memphis, ranked No. 2, traveled to Blacksburg, Va., to take on Virginia Tech, a team they had beaten by 22 points just five days earlier. But the Hokies handed the Tigers their first loss of the season, 76-72. The U of M ended the year with a 28-6 mark and a final ranking of No. 7 by the Associated Press.
After another NCAA appearance in 1986, Memphis basketball moved to a new era the following season, when it announced that former All-American guard Larry Finch would take over the reins as head coach. The announcement came on September 25, 1986.
In his first season, Finch inherited a team on probation and three key players lost to graduation and the NBA. No one expected him to win, so what did he do? Finch guided the Tigers to a 26-8 season, a Metro Tournament championship and was named Basketball Times Rookie Coach of the Year. With the Tigers on probation, Metro officials took a vote whether they should allow the Tigers to compete in the tournament. The vote was unanimous much to the chagrin of Louisville coach Denny Crum. "I don't think anybody should be in the Metro Tourney if they are on probation," said Crum. U of M beat Cincinnati and South Carolina before beating Crum's Cardinals for the third time in 1987, 75-52.
Finch's first season was also dubbed the "Season for Miracles" after U of M's numerous comeback victories. In the season opener against Cleveland State, the Tigers trailed with 10 minutes to play before mouting a 70-66 come-from behind victory. In one of the most incredible wins in Tiger history, U of M trailed Oral Roberts on the road by seven points with 15 seconds left in the game. The Tigers ended up winning when John Wilfong hit a last second three-pointer. Dubbed the Cardiac Kids, the Tigers forced U of M officials to post signs warning people with heart conditions to not watch the Tigers play. After embarrassing Louisville on national television, New Orleans came to town and led the Tigers by eight points with under two minutes to play. Yes, you guessed it. U of M reached into its bag of tricks and pulled out another "miracle" win on a last second shot by Wilfong. Memphis also went on to post come-from-behind victories over Southern Miss and South Carolina.
One of Finch's first recruits as a head coach was the exciting Elliot Perry, who played for the Tigers from 1987-91. Perry, who had his jersey number 34 retired in 1992, is the second all-time leading scorer in U of M history.
One of the unbelievable highlights of the 1988-89 season was a 24-0 start for the Tigers against eighth-ranked Louisville in Freedom Hall. U of M, however, had to hang on to win, 72-67. That same year, the Tigers made the NCAA field as a number five seed and Finch was named Metro Conference coach of the year.
The decade of the '90s got off to a sweet start when the No. 1 high school player in the nation, Anfernee Hardaway, inked with the Tigers. The 6-7 swingman from Memphis's Treadwell High School, was the Parade Magazine National Player of the Year in 1990 after averaging 36.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 3.3 steals a game.
Hardaway, however, had to sit and watch helplessly during the 1990-91 season because he was unable to play due to academic problems. Patiently waiting, Hardaway was struck with tragedy in April of 1991 when he was shot in the foot while being robbed. Hardaway missed summer workouts, but was ready when practice opened on Oct. 15 with the bullet still lodged in his foot. On Oct. 26, the bullet was removed after it had shifted to a spot that was advantageous for removal. Hardaway was back to 100 percent, but still a little rusty after all the missed time.
The 1990-91 season marked Memphis's last in the Metro Conference as they prepared to move to the newly-formed Great Midwest. The Tigers enjoyed 16 successful seasons in the Metro, recording an overall 134-85 mark in conference games. U of M also collected three regular season championships and four tournament titles. The year also meant the end of the highly-competitive series with Louisville.
Later that season, the Tigers closed out 27 years at the Mid-South Coliseum on a sour note by falling to Arkansas State, 58-57, in the second round of the NIT. Memphis compiled a 343-90 (.792) record at the "Roundhouse", including three unbeaten seasons (1981-82, 1984-85, 1985-86). The Memphis athletic department recognized and invited back all the players, coaches and administrators, who were associated with the program during the Mid-South years, to the final regular season game against Virginia Tech.
In the fall of 1990 Finch's nephew, David Vaughn, inked with the Tigers. The 6-9 Vaughn, a McDonald's and Parade All-American, was rated one of the top five recruits in the country by some analysts.
On November 16, 1990, an official press conference was held at the Downtown Athletic Club in Chicago announcing the formation of the Great Midwest Conference. Along with Memphis, the other five charter members were Alabama-Birmingham, Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette and Saint Louis.
The University of Memphis basketball took on a new look in 1991-92. Not only was it the beginning of the Hardaway/Vaughn era, but it also marked the first year in the Great Midwest Conference and the inaugural season in The Pyramid. Everything came together at once on November 29, 1991, in the season opener against 20th-ranked DePaul. The game, which was nationally-televised by ESPN, was the first game for Hardaway and Vaughn, the first contest in The Pyramid and the first game between two Great Midwest foes. The Tigers, however, fell in overtime to the Blue Demons, 92-89.
The Tigers struggled early in '91-92 and carried just an 8-6 record after the first half. But then Hardaway and Vaughn started to click and The U of M won 10 of its last 13 regular season games, including victories over Vanderbilt, No. 5 ranked Arkansas and 21st-rated Tulane. The U of M made it all the way to the championship game of the inaugural GMC Tournament before losing to 14th-ranked Cincinnati, 69-59. Memphis' season didn't end there as it earned a trip to the NCAAs as a sixth seed in the Midwest Regional at Milwaukee. In the opening round, the Tigers defeated Pepperdine to setup a second round game with sixth-ranked Arkansas. In a game filled with emotion, Memphis prevailed for the second time when David Vaughn hit the game-winner with five seconds left. Memphis was now in the Sweet Sixteen and would travel to Kansas City, Mo., to meet Georgia Tech. It looked like the Tigers' season would end when Yellow Jacket center Matt Geiger completed a three-point play with 36 seconds left to give Georgia Tech a 74-70 lead. The U of M, however, kept the faith and its poise as Billy Smith sent the game into overtime with 11 seconds left on a running one-hander. In the extra period, Memphis hit 9 of 10 free throws to propel them to an 83-79 overtime victory. The Tigers were now in the Elite Eight, but it was short lived as conference foe Cincinnati ended Memphis' run at the Final Four with an 88-57 win over the Blue and Gray. It marked the fourth time in '91-92 that the Tigers had lost to the Bearcats.
Elliot Perry (1987-91) joined an elite club on February 8, 1993 when Memphis retired his jersey in a pregame ceremony. Perry became the sixth U of M player to be so honored, joining Win Wilfong, Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, John Gunn and Keith Lee. "He meant a lot to this program and I'll be forever grateful to the little guy," former U of M coach Larry Finch said. "Everyone in America wanted him, but he stayed here. He's a role model-type individual. Everybody that knew him loved him." Perry graduated in May of '92 with a degree in marketing.
On June 11, 1992, Hardaway is named one of eight collegiate standouts selected to train with the '92 Dream Team. The collegians were brought together to scrimmage the NBA stars from June 22-26 in San Diego to better prepare them for the Olympics in Barcelona. Others named to the squad were: Grant Hill (Duke), Allan Houston (Tennessee), Bobby Hurley (Duke), Jamal Mashburn (Kentucky), Eric Montross (UNC), Rodney Rogers (Wake Forest) and Chris Webber (Michigan).
Larry Finch reached a milestone on December 21, 1992 against Chaminade in Maui by competing in his 500th game as a player, assistant coach and head coach combined at Memphis.
Against Georgia State on January 4, 1993, Hardaway registered the school's first-ever triple-double with 21 points, 15 rebounds and a career-high 14 assists. Two nights later in a win over 18th-ranked Vanderbilt, Hardaway made it back-to-back triples with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
On February 6, Memphis upset fourth-ranked Cincinnati, 68-66, to record the school's 1,000th all-time basketball victory. The win gave the Tigers a 72-year combined record of 1,000 wins and 644 losses (.608). The NCAA, however, did not recognize Memphis as winning its 1,000th game until it recorded three more victories. The reason for this discrepancy is because the NCAA does not acknowledge U of M's participation in the 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1986 NCAA Tournaments where the Tigers compiled a combined 9-5 record because of violations. Therefore, the NCAA shows the Tigers entering the 1993-94 season with an all-time mark of 997-632. The Tigers, however, recognize the games as being played and went on to celebrate their milestone victory.
Anfernee Hardaway became the highest drafted Memphis player ever when Golden State picked him as the third player in the first round of the NBA draft on June 30, 1993. Hardaway, however, was a Warrior for just 20 minutes as Golden State traded him to Orlando for Chris Webber. The Magic also received first round picks in 1996, 1998 and 2000. "He was absolutely spectacular. He impressed everyone in the building and practically everyone within a half-mile," Magic President Dick DeVos said following Hardaway's workout the day before the draft. After the draft, Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan said "Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway will be in the '90s what Kareem and Magic were in the '80s."
Other Hardaway highlights: Was the only player in Division I-A, in 1991-92 and 1992-93, to rank in the top five in his respective conference in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots ... A two-time Great Midwest Conference MVP ... National Player of the Year finalist for John Wooden, Dr. James Naismith, Adolph Rupp and U.S. Basketball Writers ... Named to six different first team All-American squads ... Voted GMC Player of the Week a conference record four times his junior year ... His 729 points as a junior were the most ever scored in a single-season at Memphis and his 73 three-pointers were also a new school mark ... Is the only player in Tiger history to score over 700 points, grab more than 200 rebounds, hand out 200-plus assists and collect 70 steals in a single-season ... Scored his 1,000th career point against Tennessee Tech on January 18, 1993, in just his 50th game to become the third fastest to reach that milestone in Tiger history.
In April of 1993, Larry Finch completed his recruiting class in fine fashion by inking one of the nation's top players in 6-6 Deuce Ford. The '93 class was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country and was the best under Finch. Ford, Cedric Henderson and Johnny Miller were all rated among the nation's top 30 prospects.
The University of Memphis made history on December 30, 1993 when it became the first Division I program to televise a men's and women's basketball doubleheader live. The Lady Tigers hosted nationally-ranked Tennessee at The Pyramid, which preceded the Tigers' game with Georgetown. WPTY-TV in Memphis televised both games.
On July 1, 1994, Memphis State University officially becomes The University of Memphis.
On July 26, 1994, the Tigers left for Australia to play an eight-game basketball tour. It marked the first-ever trip overseas for The University of Memphis. The team went 5-3 on the 16-day trip, comes closer together as a group and learns a lot about a different part of the world.
On March 2, 1995, the Tigers capture the 1995 Great Midwest Conference title with a win on the road against Cincinnati. Junior Michael Wilson exploded for 33 points.
For the second time in his career, David Vaughn hit a last second shot, this time against Purdue, to send Memphis to the Sweet Sixteen. The Tigers went on to Kansas City where they fell to Arkansas in an overtime heartbreaker, 96-91.
On August 12, 1995, Lorenzen Wright left for Florida to practice with the 1995 World University Games team. Wright and his teammates flew to Japan on August 24 to compete. Wright, a team captain, helped lead the USA to a 7-0 record and a gold medal. Wright is the first player in Tiger history to play in major international competition and win a gold medal.
The University of Memphis began basketball practice for the 1995-96 season with Midnight Madness for the second straight year. A standing room crowd of 4,000 packed inside Elma Roane Field House with hundreds of more fans being turned away at the door. The highlight of the evening was Michael Wilson's attempt to break the Vertical Height Dunk Record of 11 feet, seven inches. Wilson attempted a dunk of 11 feet, eight inches and fell about one half inch from successfully making the attempt. ESPN covered Wilson's attempt.
On Dec. 20, 1995, University of Memphis star Lorenzen Wright was named one of 10 finalists for the prestigious AAU Sullivan Award. Wright made the final cut from 36 nominees and is the only men's college basketball player to make the list. The AAU Sullivan Award is considered the "Oscar" among sports awards.
On Feb. 20, 1996 , former coach Larry Finch won his 200th career game with the Tigers' 91-66 victory over Southern Miss. The win also assured Memphis of a first round bye in the C-USA Tournament.
The Rebounders Club sponsored the annual Basketball Honors Night at The Peabody Hotel on April 13. The 1995-96 Tigers were recognized and awards were handed out to the entire team. Lorenzen Wright was named the team's MVP. The guest speaker was ESPN analyst Mike Tirico.
Former University of Memphis center Lorenzen Wright was taken as the seventh overall pick in the '96 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. Wright became just the third Tiger player to be a lottery pick and is the third player in the last four years to be taken in the first round. Wright left Memphis following his sophomore season.
Michael Wilson, who played for the Tigers from 1994-96, became a member of the Harlem Globetrotters in August of '96. Wilson, who started being pursued by the Globetrotters that March, is the first Tiger in school history to join the world travelling and entertaining basketball team.
Following Memphis' win over Southern Miss on January 30, 1997, Larry Finch announced at a press conference that he would be stepping down as head coach at the conclusion of the 1996-97 season. The announcement, carried live by local television stations, marked the end of an 11-year stint as leader of the Tiger program.
On March 27, 1997, athletic director R.C. Johnson introduced to Memphis boosters and fans Tic Price as the Tigers' new head men's basketball coach. Price came to the Tigers via New Orleans, where he was the head coach for three seasons.
On April 24, 1997, WGKX FM 106 and the University of Memphis finalized a new two-year agreement with the option for three additional years. WGKX bid $360,000 for Memphis' rights for 1997-98 and $325,000 for 1998-99 to carry Tiger football and basketball games. This bid is the highest dollar figure in the history of Memphis athletics.
On June 25, 1997, former Tiger star Cedric Henderson was selected in the second round as the 45th overall pick in the NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Rookie Marcus Moody poured in a freshman record 41 points in the Tigers' 80-78 win at Oklahoma on Dec. 13, 1997.
Memphis clinched a National Division championship with an 89-76 win over Houston in the Tigers' final regular-season home game Feb. 26, 1998. The victory cinched a first-round bye for the U of M at the Conference USA Tournament but the Tigers were upset by Southern Miss 85-57 in the championship's quarterfinals played in Cincinnati.
In March of 1999, the University of Memphis and WMC-AM 790 finalized a three-year agreement for broadcast rights to Tiger football and basketball games. Memphis' game-day broadcasts return to a station which aired Tiger athletics for 28 consecutive years.