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Friday, October 12, 2007

Interview With Dan Wolken of the Memphis Commercial Appeal

Wednesday, October 10, 2007
STF Interview: Dan Wolken of the Memphis Commercial Appeal

Every other Wednesday, Storming the Floor will run a question and answer series with people who know much, much more about college basketball than we do. Look for insight and analysis from some of the top professionals in the world of college hoops.

Q&A With Dan Wolken, Memphis Commerical Appeal

STF: After back to back trips to the Elite Eight, many people are expecting this team to make the leap to Final Four this season. What can you tell us about the attitude of this team given the added pressure to advance?

DW: I don’t know if pressure is the right word, but there is a very different buzz around this team. In 2005-06, Memphis kind of came out of nowhere. A year ago, they were ranked anywhere between 12th and 16th in the preseason polls. To me, the question isn’t so much how they’ll handle the pressure but whether their personality is going to change.

For two straight years, Memphis has drawn a lot of inspiration from playing the “lack of respect” card, and rightly so. All these guys have heard is that they’re overrated, they didn’t deserve a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, their conference stinks, their schedule was weak and they’d flame out early in the NCAA Tournament. Now, all the sudden, everybody thinks they’re a juggernaut. Will they still play with that same chip on their shoulder? Time will tell. So far, I haven’t seen any signs of complacency. This group is pretty hungry to break through and make a Final Four.

STF: Compared to the last two seasons, what needs to improve with this team to advance to the Final Four?

DW: It’s hard to pinpoint one thing specifically. In last year’s Elite Eight, Memphis had the misfortune of running up against a team with the No. 1, No. 4 and No. 21 picks in the NBA Draft. Still, the Tigers had the lead deep into the second half and were kind of controlling the game until some foul issues caught up to them. But in general, you’d like to see Memphis shoot a little better from the 3-point line than last year, and they feel pretty good about guys like Doneal Mack, Willie Kemp, Jeff Robinson and Chris Douglas-Roberts being able to make jump shots. The other key will be the play of Shawn Taggart. Last year, Memphis didn’t have many answers in the post if Joey Dorsey got into foul trouble. Taggart is 6-11 and athletic, but he’s still unproven. His freshman year at Iowa State was a bust due to injuries and illness, so it’s hard to say exactly what to expect out of him. Memphis certainly needs one more big body to contribute, or else it’s very easy to see them being vulnerable inside against certain teams they might have to play in an Elite Eight or Final Four game.

STF: You are one of the few people that have been able to see Derrick Rose play with the Tigers.... Is he as good as advertised?

DW: This is a complicated question because Rose is a unique player. Here's what is obvious about Rose: He's a spectacular athlete. Memphis is perhaps the fastest, most athletic team in the country, and Rose is the fastest, most athletic guy out there. He looks like he's running at regular speed, and he's still twice as fast as everybody else. He's also spectacularly unselfish, sometimes to his detriment. You'll see him drive in, have a lane to the basket and make a sick no-look pass when he could have just dunked it. When it works, it looks genius. When it doesn't work, he gets yelled at. The biggest thing Rose will have to learn is how to always make the easier play, whatever that is. To steal a phrase from John Calipari, this isn't Showtime. You're trying to win. A lot of stuff Rose was able to do in high school won’t work in college, at least not right away. But he’ll figure it out.

I think for people that watch Memphis play, especially early in the season, it will be difficult to convince them that he's as good as advertised. The hype is so out of control, and usually that kind of hype is reserved for guys who can take over like an O.J. Mayo. Rose is a guy who just blends, and I'm not sure he really has the personality to take over, especially when you're playing with guys like Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, Joey Dorsey, etc. Rose will also be under the microscope for his outside shooting, which, honestly, isn't very good at this point. Having said all that, by the end of the season, I think Rose will be recognized as the premiere point guard in the country.

STF: Out of all of the high profile non-conference games on the Tigers schedule, which are you most excited for?

DW: Wow, that's like asking me which flavor of Ben & Jerry's I want before I've even had dinner. Obviously, the possibility of Memphis and Tennessee both being ranked in the top-5 when they play in February would make for an epic event around here. On the other hand, I'm very excited to see Georgetown play here; I think that's a great inter-sectional series. I'm rooting hard for a Memphis-UConn matchup in the Coaches vs. Cancer championship game. Any time John Calipari goes up against a coach he doesn't get along with -- and Jim Calhoun falls squarely into that category -- you never know what kind of great copy might fall into your lap.

STF: Is it a positive or negative that Memphis plays in Conference USA, given the fact that it allows the Tigers the ability to play such a high profile and challenging out--of-conference schedule?

DW: If you were to give everybody at Memphis a dose of truth serum, they would tell you the program -- viewed in macro -- would be better off in a BCS Conference, whether it's the Big East, SEC, Big 12 or whatever. On the other hand, being in C-USA has helped Memphis in a profound way. Why have they gone to the Elite Eight two years in a row? Of course, they've had very good teams. But also, they were a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed. If you're in the Big East, SEC, Big 12, Pac 10, Big 10 or ACC, you better win that league if you want a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. If you finish third or fourth in one of those leagues, you're probably looking at a No. 4 seed or No. 5 seed, and if that's where you are, the odds of making a deep NCAA Tournament run are stacked against you from the start. John Calipari says it all the time, and it's true: Be careful what you wish for.

STF: Can any CUSA teams give Memphis a challenge?

DW: On a given night, sure. Southern Miss is the one team in the league that isn't scared of Memphis, and they've got enough good athletes to really make Memphis work hard on every possession. If Houston goes crazy one night and makes 20-of- 34 from the 3-point line or something like that, they can beat Memphis. UAB will be a tough road game. Doug Wojcik at Tulsa always comes up with some interesting stuff defensively to give Memphis a few problems. If Memphis were to lose to anybody outside of those four teams, however, it would be a monumental upset.

STF: Best and worst case scenario for this team?

DW: Best case, obviously, is winning a national title. I would defy you to find any credible basketball person who doesn’t think Memphis has a good enough roster to do it. That doesn’t guarantee a thing, of course, but there’s no ceiling on this team. The worst-case scenario is probably a second-round NCAA Tournament exit if they have bad luck with injuries or one of their key players like Dorsey has an off-the-court issue.

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