One week ago, on the eve of the Midwest Regional final between Oklahoma and Memphis State, Oklahoma Coach Billy Tubbs said he would "guarantee" that the winner would defeat the winner of the Southeast Regional in the semifinals of the Final Four.
Memphis State Coach Dana Kirk quickly agreed, even before his team went on to beat the Sooners. Today, on the eve of meeting that Southeast Regional winner -- Villanova at about 3:42 p.m. -- Kirk attempted to remove his foot from his mouth.
The question came up only after Kirk had gone through the coaching ritual of making the opposition sound like Sherman's army marching to the sea. Suddenly, as he was going on at length about the quickness of Villanova center Ed Pinckney, the toughness of guard Gary McLain and forward Dwayne McClain and the intelligence of Coach Rollie Massimino, Kirk was asked about the guarantee.
"I made a mistake," he said, his West Virginia twang softening. "Billy Tubbs made the statement and I agreed with him. I hope y'all will let me back up on that one."
Backing up is something Kirk has had to do more than once: He often reacts first and thinks later. Never was that more evident than in his first season at Memphis State, when he pulled his team off the floor during a game at Florida State and forfeited because he objected to a referee's call.
Kirk apologized for that, too.
But through it all the curly-haired Kirk, 49, has built winning programs. He did it at Virginia Commonwealth for five years and he has done it for six years at Memphis State. Saturday, the Tigers (31-3) will play Villanova (23-10) for a spot in Monday night's national championship game; odds makers rate them 2 1/2-point favorites to beat the Wildcats. One doesn't reach this point without doing some things right.
"We've just played with a lot more confidence in tough situations this year," said point guard Andre Turner, one of the most improved players in the country. "When things get close, we usually find a way to win."
There is irony in that statement. Many coaches sitting in the stands at Rupp Arena today watching Kirk put his team through its paces might think that Kirk couldn't X and O his way across the street. But he's still coaching and they're watching.
What's more, the Tigers have gotten here by winning three straight at, or just before, the buzzer. They beat Alabama-Birmingham, 67-66, in overtime on Turner's jumper with one second left, beat Boston College, 59-57, on another shot by Turner and beat Oklahoma, 63-61, when the Sooners missed with one second left.
"The key for us is that our guys are more confident playing without Keith Lee," Kirk said today. "We've had to play without him and we've done it."
Lee is the beginning, middle and end of any story about Kirk's building of this program. Memphis State was 13-14 in each of the two seasons before Lee's arrival. Since the 6-foot-10 forward arrived, the Tigers are 104-23. He has broken every school record worth mentioning, is averaging 19.9 points and 9.3 rebounds this season and already has had his No. 24 jersey retired by the school.
But in 11 of the last 12 games, Lee has gotten in foul trouble. He didn't score a field goal for 35 minutes against Boston College. He has been accused of disappearing when an opponent gets physical with him. Yet, the Tigers have survived, largely because of the development of 7-foot sophomore center William Bedford and the vast improvement of Turner.
"Andre's our general, he's got five stars," Kirk said. "When things are close, I want the ball in his hands."
One year ago at this time, after the Tigers lost in the round of 16 for the third straight year, the 5-10 junior was aptly nicknamed "Andre Turnover." He averaged nearly five per game last season. This season, he cut that number in half while increasing his assists from 4.8 per game to 6.7. With Lee often in foul trouble, he has become the Tigers' glue.
His role against Villanova will be particularly important. The Wildcats have gotten here with a constantly changing zone defense that confuses opponents and has kept the ball from getting inside.
"Our defense is built around deception," Gary McLain, Villanova's point guard, said today. "The other team's point guards have been stymied when they go against us. You can see it in their eyes."
As for Turner: "I know Gary McLain thrives on defense. But so do I. If I get active on defense and get it going, the offense will come."
Memphis State has averaged nearly 74 points a game this season. In the NCAA tournament, Villanova has given up an average of 48. Something will give Saturday.
At least one person here thinks Memphis State, being the only school not from the Big East in the Final Four, is in a wonderful position. His name is John Thompson.
"If I were Memphis State, I would feel most comfortable," Georgetown's coach said. "They've been invited to a Big East party. They should be loving this. They're the honored guests and they have a damn good team, too. I'd love to be in that position."
Kirk loves his position. "We've already won the non-Catholic national championship," he said, alluding to the backgrounds of Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova. "Anything else we can do here will be great."
One other thing: the last time Georgetown lost an NCAA tournament game was in the second round in 1983. The score was Memphis State 66, Georgetown 57. Lee had 28 points and 17 rebounds.
If Memphis State can figure out Villanova's zones and keep Lee on the court most of the game, Kirk can withdraw today's withdrawal Saturday at dusk.
"Golly," he said, his drawl full of cheer again. "Just being here is great."