Is Memphis back in business?
Jeff Goodman / FOXSports.com
Nobody has a clue whether Memphis is for real. Not even John Calipari.
However, while just about everyone else continues to beat up on one another, the Tigers (17-3) continue to slowly and methodically move up, unimpressive victory after unimpressive victory.
From 22 to 20. Then to 17. Don't look now, but Cal's Tigers have climbed all the way to No. 11.
How'd that happen?
Even when they had Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams and Darius Washington Jr. last season, there were plenty of skeptics: C'mon, they play in the one-bid Conference USA. They are wild and don't play anyone, right?
"The same thing happened to us last year," Calipari said. "Everyone said we shouldn't have been a number one seed. Our league didn't hurt us last year and it's not going to hurt us this year."
"No one is giving us any credit and it definitely motivates us," Memphis sophomore guard Chris Douglas-Roberts added. "It's another knock on us, but it was the same thing last year when we got to the Elite Eight."
But last season the Tigers had name recognition with Carney, Williams and Washington. The trio may be gone, but Calipari has turned Memphis into a program that just re-loads and can coast to a conference title.
While other teams around the country have a small margin for error and their coaches are afraid of in-season change, Calipari has a completely different outlook.
He's able to tinker with his rotation, his system or whatever the heck he wants and still come out on top in conference play.
He's got that luxury.
Washington's loss wasn't pivotal — except for maybe his mental toughness. Williams can be — and has been — replaced. However, it's Carney whom the Tigers miss most from a year ago.
"We don't have a guy that can go for six straight 3's like Rodney," Calipari said.
"We don't have a guy that can jump like that," added sophomore Antonio Anderson.
Chris Douglas-Roberts has stepped into the void and grabbed a role as leader of the Tigers. (Otto Gruele Jr. / Getty Images)
Instead, Calipari has a team that admittedly still has a ways to go.
"We're January 31st ready," he said. "We're not March ready, but if someone is, I think they're peaking too early."
Early in the season, the Tigers lost to Georgia Tech in Maui and lost on the road at Tennessee and Arizona. Since the setback in Tucson, Memphis has reeled off nine straight entering Wednesday night's game at Central Florida.
But it's come against eight different teams — none of which are ranked in the Top 75 in the RPI.
"It's definitely hard to get up for every game, but we've learned we've got to do it," Douglas-Roberts said. "It's harder at home because the games are always sold out on the road because everyone in the league wants to give us their best shot."
"We know that Conference USA isn't the ACC or the Big 12, but it's not a bad league," he added.
Memphis slid by Southern Miss, 67-64, last week on its home floor. Other than that, it's been double-digit win after double-digit win since the loss to Lute Olson.
"We're real good," Anderson said. "Last year was the first year running this offense. Now we know it better, we've cut down on turnovers and are taking better shots."
The chemistry is also as good as just about any Memphis team since Calipari took over the program a half-dozen years ago. Without Washington, the team is clearly more unselfish. Instead of one or two passes prior to a shot, this team is routinely making three or four passes each possession. Credit pass-first point guards Willie Kemp and Andre Allen for setting the tone on the offensive end.
Douglas-Roberts has emerged as the team's top scoring threat, but he can do a little bit of everything. Anderson's game is similar. Jeremy Hunt is back and turned into the team's most consistent perimeter threat, while Joey Dorsey has been an animal in the paint.
But Calipari knows the Tigers still aren't quite there yet.
"We need to be tougher — mentally," he said. "My teams at UMass had that mental toughness. I think we've got a chance."
A chance for the Final Four?
"For sure," Anderson said. "I don't see why not."
Most people don't see why.
Jeff Goodman is a senior college basketball writer for FOXSports.com. He can be reached at GoodmanonFOX@aol.com.