Tigers' title talk
Players focused on crown before they got to town
By Dan Wolken
March 18, 2007
NEW ORLEANS -- Night after night, during the year they spent together at Laurinburg Prep in North Carolina, Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier sat in the dorm room they shared, plotting how they would transform the University of Memphis into one of the nation's elite programs.
"That's all we talked about," Anderson said. "We'd watch them on TV, and when they lost we were like, 'Man, I wish we were in that gym. We'd have won that game. We're going to win a championship.'"
Ever since they arrived at Memphis two years ago, Anderson and Dozier, along with Chris Douglas-Roberts and Andre Allen have won 64 games. They have been within a whisper of the Final Four.
And today, they can put their permanent stamp on Memphis. Since 1997, only 22 programs have been to the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons. They are the elite of college basketball, from Kentucky to UCLA, North Carolina to Duke, Arizona to Syracuse to Florida and Connecticut.
And if the No. 2 seed Tigers can beat No. 7 seed Nevada today in an NCAA second-round game at New Orleans Arena, that group will have a new member.
"I thought last year set the bar on how everybody would be judged," coach John Calipari said. "Now, all the sudden -- they haven't yet -- but this team could be that team."
That team. The one that could give Memphis the staying power it has envisioned ever since Calipari rode into town seven years ago talking about becoming a national program that could not be held back by geography or conference affiliation. The one that lost two first-round NBA draft picks, a star point guard and returned to the NCAAs every bit the contender.
"We already feel we belong there," said Douglas-Roberts, perhaps the most crucial member of the Tigers' sophomore core. "We feel we belong in that elite group. We thought we were an elite team, but we still have to prove it, which is fine with us. We want to prove we're good. We're trying to make Memphis a powerhouse."
Though Calipari said none of the accomplishments of this team would be damaged by a loss today, the line between powerhouse and one-year wonder could be just that thin.
Even as Memphis has followed a 33-4 season with a 31-3 record to this point, it might take a trip to San Antonio next week for a South Regional semifinal game with Texas A&M to convince the nation that the Tigers belong.
"We'll always be knocked that we're in Conference USA, that we're not playing anybody," Dozier said. "We're not worried about that. That's not our focus. We just want to win game after game. It's not the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. It's just game after game."
On one hand, it's ridiculous to claim Memphis is not respected. Despite having just two standout wins this year -- over Kentucky and Gonzaga -- the Tigers earned a No. 2 seed when pundits pegged them as a No. 3 or No. 4.
On the other hand, as soon as the brackets were revealed last Sunday, ESPN and CBS commentators quickly pegged the Tigers as second-round upset victims.
Though the Tigers say they don't mind being nobody's darlings, the truth is, they've had no choice but to embrace it.
"Honestly, until we win the whole thing, it's always going to be somebody saying we're not that good," Douglas-Roberts said. "I don't know why it is with us, honestly.
"I don't know if it's the tattoos. I don't know if it's Coach. It's something, though, but it doesn't matter. We like it. We're the villains of college basketball, for some reason. People hate to like us. But we're good with that."
Regardless of how this season ends for Memphis, the idea of the Tigers as college basketball villains flies in the face of everything they have established, starting with the arrival of Douglas-Roberts, Anderson, Dozier and Kareem Cooper.
Indeed, it was that group which came to Memphis intent on correcting the on- and off-court problems that hindered Calipari's first five teams, especially the one in 2004-05, which missed the NCAA Tournament with a 22-16 record.
"We wanted to make the city look good, represent Memphis," Dozier said. "Coming in, we knew they were kind of down; not exactly down, but not where they were expected to be.
"So we took it upon ourselves to come in, do our best job and gel in with those older group of guys, and it all worked out."
For those close to the program, that part won't change anytime soon.
"We'll be judged by this year," Calipari said. "Forget about what you've done in the past, it doesn't matter. It's this year.
"But for me, the run this team has been on, with what we lost, with the expectation level, going undefeated (in C-USA) and doing all the things they did, come on. I'll be going nuts tomorrow, yelling and screaming, but at the end of the day, they've really performed at a high level."
And today, they can go even higher, bringing an entire city along for the ride.
-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365