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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Tigers put thoughts of NBA out of minds


Tigers put thoughts of NBA out of minds
By Dan Wolken (Contact)
Sunday, October 14, 2007

They have been the core of Memphis' basketball renaissance, known nothing but Elite Eights and Conference USA championships.

Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier came in together two years ago and delivered on their promise to turn the fortunes of a program struggling to break through.

Now, as they begin their junior years, it is only natural to wonder if this third swing at a national championship will be their last together.

"Well, you know, that's something we'll sit down and talk about together as the friends that we are and with coach and our families," Anderson said, laughing with surprise at the question. "If that's what it is, only time can tell."

When the Tigers bowed out last season after a 92-76 loss to eventual NCAA runner-up Ohio State in the Elite Eight, there was little doubt they would return intact for at least one more year.

Though Dozier came alive in the NCAA Tournament, the power forward's inconsistent regular season showed he needed at least one more year of college. Despite his maturation as a defensive stopper, Anderson shot just 39percent from the field and 24.5 percent from 3-point range.

And though Douglas-Roberts could have considered throwing his name into the NBA Draft after averaging a team-high 15.4 points, he quickly realized he could improve his stock considerably by showing better shooting range and developing his body.

Finally, by coming back, all three would ensure the opportunity to play with freshman point guard Derrick Rose and lead a consensus top-five team toward another deep postseason run.

Which is precisely what coach John Calipari wants them to focus on. During the summer, Calipari talked openly about his biggest concern being whether his players would let NBA agendas creep into their locker room and damage the chemistry that carried Memphis beyond expectations last season.

It's a path Calipari has been down before -- Darius Washington, anyone? -- and a path he knows won't lead to the Final Four.

"I don't think these guys are thinking of (leaving early)," Calipari said. "They're thinking of one thing right now, winning. You've got a team that is self motivated, on a mission, and they like each other. I don't mind that being their goal and what they're striving for for themselves personally, but the whole way of doing it is, do you know what they want to see? It's rebounds per minute, points per minute, where are you at physically? Are you able to make game-winning plays? Are you a good teammate?"

At the same time, everyone associated with the program has to acknowledge the possibility that Memphis' roster could change drastically next season. The Tigers have just one recruit committed for the class of 2008 -- power forward Angel Garcia -- and Memphis could lose as many as five players, including Rose, who almost everybody assumes would be a lottery pick in 2008.

Of the others, Douglas-Roberts seems the most likely candidate to jump, though various mock-draft Web sites don't rate him as a first-rounder, mainly due to questions about his outside shooting.

"It's a possibility, but I don't want to jinx myself or anything," Douglas-Roberts said. "I'm just going to play, and whatever happens, happens. I'm going to make the best decision for me. If it's not time for me to go, I won't go. Simple as that."

Dozier has always been the Tigers' "potential" guy, the one scouts have followed closely because of his long, lean physique and flashes of first-round skill.

"We're not worried about that right now," Dozier said. "We're just focused on the season and what we've got to do to get to that point to win a national championship. That's our main focus.

"You watch other teams that win national championships, they have three and four players go every year, so it's a possibility. If it comes to that at the end of the season, we'll sit down and think about it, but other than that, it's not on our minds."

Of course, if the Tigers were to win a national title, Anderson, Dozier and Douglas-Roberts might have to seize the opportunity to leave. To wit, of the 60 players who were drafted into the NBA last summer, nine came off the rosters of Ohio State and Florida, who played for the national title.

"You have to do what's best for yourself, but it all comes within the team," Douglas-Roberts said. "The further we go, the more success each individual will have."

There's one more scenario, however, that there isn't much precedent for, courtesy of Anderson.

"My whole goal for this year's team is to do the same thing Indiana did in '76 and go undefeated and win a national title," Anderson said. "If we can do that, what you asked me earlier (about leaving early) would be true."

In that case, Calipari and every other Memphis fan would be happy to send them on their way.

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on Tiger basketball at thememphisedge.com.

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