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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Sophomore Stars Carrying Tigers to Brink of Final Four

Sophomore stars carrying Tigers to brink of Final Four

By Dan Wolken
March 24, 2007

SAN ANTONIO -- John Calipari saw it in a living room in Detroit and on the basketball courts in New England. He saw it in the way Chris Douglas-Roberts loved his mother and the way Antonio Anderson could defer or take a charge with equal passion and skill.

Calipari wasn't just recruiting two basketball players. He had already brought plenty of those to the University of Memphis. But when Calipari interacted with them, he knew they were different.

"Boy," Calipari recalled saying to himself. "This could be special."

And so last summer, as Calipari contemplated a team with one senior, one junior and more questions than even the Tigers themselves acknowledged, he called Douglas-Roberts and Anderson to his home. Though the players didn't know it -- they couldn't have known it -- they were about to be given the biggest assignment of their college careers.

"It was very relaxed," Douglas-Roberts said. "He just let us know, in order for us to be an elite team this year, you two have to take on leadership roles."

Led by two those sophomores, the Tigers have already stamped themselves as elite. And with one more win today over No. 1-seeded Ohio State in the NCAA South Regional final, Memphis can make the historic leap from Elite Eight to one of the Final Four.

"Can we win one more?" Calipari asked again Friday. "Everybody says, no, absolutely not. And then the city of Memphis is saying, absolutely. This team is saying, we can and just trying to lay it out there for everybody to hear and see."

Calipari has often talked about how the Tigers are connected in a way none of his teams have ever been, how one individual contribution has led to another.

But at the very top of that chain, Anderson and Douglas-Roberts are perhaps the most crucial links. When the Tigers have needed a voice, they have spoken. When the Tigers have needed winning plays, they have delivered them. And when Memphis fans look back on this era, it very likely will be defined by the two 6-6 guards who have, coincidentally, won 66 games as Tigers.

"Guys love those two guys," forward Robert Dozier said. "Those are guys they can listen to and they look up to. Guys believe in them."

And so did Calipari, essentially from the moment he saw them. In Douglas-Roberts, he saw offensive wizardry and toughness, both of which were on display Thursday in his 15-point performance on a sprained left ankle against Texas A&M.

But there was more.

"When I went to meet with him and his mother I was convinced," Calipari said. "When I got around him, I said, This is a beautiful kid."

In Anderson, he saw a clutch playmaker who could be one of the best defenders in the country, as he showed by harassing Texas A&M all-American Acie Law into a 6-of-17 shooting performance and then making two free throws with 3.1 seconds left to send Memphis into the Elite Eight.

But there was more.

"You always want to see when the great ones will defer," Calipari said. "If he can really play but he'll defer, what a sign. When it's time to step up, I'll do it, but I'm not afraid to defer."

As freshmen last season, both Douglas-Roberts and Anderson deferred to older teammates. And after Calipari had asked them to take the leadership reigns of this team, they at first weren't sure how it would go over in the Tigers locker room.

"At first we're like, it's going to be tough, guys aren't going to listen," Anderson said. "But we said, hey we want to win. We're not going to boss you around, but you've just got to listen. And if we say something, it's to help, not to hurt, and guys took that in.

"Guys have bought in. They're being men, not acting like little kids. Everybody's mature, and they feel me and Chris can lead the team."

Though Douglas-Roberts and Anderson began exerting their influence long before the season began, it first became obvious to the public during preseason practice in October.

After junior forward Joey Dorsey's name had shown up in two police reports -- one for a minor traffic violation and another for an alleged water bottle incident on campus -- they voluntarily stepped forward as co-spokesmen, immediately establishing themselves as mature voices beyond their age or experience.

"Even when I wasn't really in the spotlight I always could talk for myself, I knew what to say and what not to say, and that really prepared me," Douglas-Roberts said. "We can handle a lot of different things."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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