LEXINGTON, Ky. — In only six years, Memphis State coach Dana Kirk has taken the Tigers' basketball program from skid row to the Final Four.
When Kirk accepted the Tiger job in March of 1979, he inherited a team that had just completed a 13-15 campaign--a far cry from the lofty heights Memphis State reached in 1973 when the Tigers dropped an 88-67 decision to UCLA in the NCAA championship game.
Instituting what he recently called a "three-phase program," Kirk said he "wanted to rebuild a program that was down, win the Metro Conference title and compete for the national championship."
In his first two seasons, Kirk's Tigers gave an indication of their potential power with victories over Arkansas, Louisville, Mississippi and Virginia Tech.
The 1981-82 Tigers captured their first Metro title and Saturday the nation's fifth-ranked team will rekindle that 1973 championship fever by placing its 31-3 record on the line against Big East foe Villanova (23-10) at Rupp Arena.
The victor advances to Monday night's finale against the winner of Saturday's second game between No. 1 Georgetown and No. 3 St. John's.
Key to the Tigers' resurgance has been the recruiting efforts of assistant coaches Larry Finch and Lee Fowler.
Using Kirk's self-described "inside-outside" approach to recruiting, the Tigers began to gather their players from the talent-rich Memphis area.
Included among those caught in the Tigers' net are All-American forward Keith Lee and point guard Andre Turner, only two of 10 Memphis-area products on this year's squad.
The 6-10, 220-pound Lee, who is averaging 19.9 points and 9.3 rebounds, was a prize catch that both Fowler and Finch worked hard and long to land, including spending three weeks on a curb in west Memphis, Ark.
"No one could see or talk to Keith Lee at his high school during the last days of recruiting," Fowler recalled recently.
"So Larry Finch and myself just sat outside the school in full view for three weeks. We just wanted Keith to know we cared."
Fowler points out that this year's Tigers are just "one of the best Memphis State teams of the last four seasons.
"We're capable of winning the national championship, but we've had three other teams this good. Just remember our previous NCAA pairings. Twice we were matched against Houston and Akeem Olajuwon," Fowler said.
"This time we were never matcied against a big pivotman and Villanova doesn't have one for us to work with Saturday," Fowler said. "Of course, Georgetown has a guy we all know (Patrick Ewing), but we'd like to have that challenge Monday."
Of course, Fowler and the Tigers aren't forgetting that the last team to defeat Georgetown in NCAA Tournament play was Memphis State by a 66-57 score in 1983.