Are the Tigers better?
By Jim Masilak
March 13, 2007
There are many definitions for the word "team" as applied in a sporting sense.
According to Dictionary.com, a team is comprised of "a number of persons forming one of the sides in a game or contest."
That's undoubtedly true, but if the University of Memphis basketball team were to provide its own interpretation, it would be more like that found in The American Heritage Dictionary.
A team, it says, is "a group organized to work together."
When comparisons are made between the Tigers' Elite Eight squad of a year ago and this year's NCAA Tournament-bound bunch -- when someone is asked pointblank which team is better -- the answer inevitably hinges on such subtle distinctions.
"Last year's team was more talented but didn't play as well as a team as this year's team," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "They were a good team, don't get me wrong, but this team is a better team."
But is that the same as being, well, better?
The Tigers' 2005-06 squad was dominated by the star power of three transcendent players: forwards Rodney Carney and Shawne Williams and point guard Darius Washington.
Led by that trio, two of whom became NBA first-round draft picks, Memphis set a single-season school record for victories (33) and captured the school's first outright Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles.
The '05-06 Tigers won six games against RPI top-50 teams and went 13-3 against the top 100.
They limited opponents to 38-percent shooting from the field, 30.3 percent from 3-point range and out-rebounded them by a 6.7 per-game margin -- figures slightly superior to what the '06-07 unit has produced.
And while their 13-1 Conference USA record wasn't quite as impressive as this year's 16-0 mark, that loss came on the road against a UAB team that qualified for the field of 65.
"They very easily could have won a national championship," Houston coach Tom Penders said of last year's Tigers.
In terms of accomplishments, this year's crew still has some work to do to match or top its most recent predecessor.
While the Tigers are once again 30-3 heading into Friday's 11:30 a.m. NCAA Tournament first-round game against 15th-seeded North Texas at the New Orleans Arena, their resume still pales a bit in comparison.
Whereas last year's Tigers clamored for and received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the current group was more than happy with a 2 and likely would have settled with a 3.
Whereas last year's Tigers claimed victories over the likes of Gonzaga, Tennessee and UCLA, all of which were seeded third or better in the NCAAs, the current group went a mere 1-2 against RPI top-50 opponents and beat just three tournament-bound opponents. None of those teams -- Gonzaga, Jackson State and Kentucky -- are seeded higher than eighth in this year's bracket.
Despite all that, Memphis assistant coach Derek Kellogg says, "My initial reaction is this year's team is a better team."
"I'm not saying we'd win if we played them," Kellogg added. "These guys just seem to be more cohesive. ... The thing I love about this team is it seems like they have a burning desire to win. When the game's on the line, they're gonna make the plays to win the game."
In assessing the squads' relative merits, a man-for-man comparison makes a surprisingly strong case for this year's club being slightly the better of the two.
Point guard: Darius Washington and Andre Allen ('06) vs. Antonio Anderson, Allen and Willie Kemp ('07): Washington never came to grips with his point guard duties, but he and Allen complemented each other well, combining for 17.5 points and 6.0 assists. Kemp has struggled with the transition from high school, but he and Allen have teamed up for 11.7 points and 5.6 assists. Anderson's emergence as the team's top distributor (119 assists) makes the difference.
Shooting guard: Chris Douglas-Roberts and Anderson ('06) vs. Jeremy Hunt, Anderson and Doneal Mack ('07): This is no contest. A year ago, Anderson and Douglas-Roberts largely demurred to the forwards. While they still combined for 15.5 points per game, they were firmly in the big boys' shadow. Now, with Hunt's return from suspension and Mack's arrival, the two is the Tigers' strongest position -- even with Anderson's reluctance to shoot.
Small forward: Rodney Carney ('06) vs. Douglas-Roberts ('07): While Douglas-Roberts is the better defender of the two, shoots at a higher percentage and has emerged as the team's leader, Carney's 17.2 points and general explosiveness were critical to last year's success. Despite his NBA athleticism, Carney often found himself on the bench late in close games. Douglas-Roberts is indispensable to the Tigers' hopes.
Power forward: Shawne Williams ('06) vs. Robert Dozier ('07): Williams wasn't the most powerful forward, but he was assertive enough to average 13.2 points and 6.2 rebounds. His length and perimeter shooting made him a tough matchup, but Dozier doesn't pale in comparison. He averages fewer points (9.8), but the rebounds are even and, given his willingness to work inside despite a slight frame, Dozier shoots at a higher percentage from the field (.478 to .416). But Williams had the ability to take over games.
Center: Joey Dorsey ('06) vs. Dorsey ('07): This one's easy. For all his inconsistencies, the 6-9 junior has increased his production (8.7 ppg and 9.6 rpg) from a year ago despite playing roughly the same amount of minutes. He can frustrate, to be sure, but he's better now than at this time a year ago.
In terms of individual talent, the Tigers clearly had more of the professional-ready variety a year ago than they do now.
While Douglas-Roberts, Dorsey and Hunt have had fine seasons, no one is yet projecting them to be drafted in June.
"You had probably three really talented players last year who could get their own shot at any time in a game," Calipari said. "If two or three guys on this team don't show up, that affects us, whereas last year they could (rely) on Shawne or Rodney or Darius to make something happen."
The Tigers, however, say they're better now due mainly to their reliance on one another.
"Last year the team wasn't close. There were just two or three guys that hung out," Anderson said. "Now we all go to movies together and go out to eat together every day. We all know that, in order for us to win, we need to be a team."
On the rare occasions when things went wrong last season, Anderson said, "there was a lot of finger pointing."
Now, Douglas-Roberts said, "we're a real team."
"There's no selfishness on this team," he added. "Last year, somebody could sit out and we could win without him. We can't win any game now without (everybody) playing."
While that might seem to undermine the idea that this year's team is better than last year's, at least one observer isn't so sure.
Few analysts have watched Memphis more in person over the past two seasons than former Virginia coach Pete Gillen, who now calls games for CSTV.
When asked which of the two teams he preferred, he didn't hesitate in answering.
"No question, I like this team much better," Gillen said. "Last year's team was a great team, but it seemed like there might have been some hidden agendas. This is a team."
Attempts to reach Carney and Williams, now playing for the 76ers and Pacers, respectively, were unsuccessful. Washington, who went undrafted, is playing overseas professionally and could not be reached.
In the end, whether the Tigers really are better now than with that trio remains to be seen.
"They were a great team last year and this year's team, in my opinion, is just as good if not better," Houston's Penders said. "They have everything it takes to be a championship team. I see no reason, other than the luck of the draw or having a bad game, that they can't go all the way."
-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311