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Sunday, November 04, 2007

AP Top 25 voters may push Tigers atop poll

AP Top 25 voters may push Tigers atop poll
Some think guard Rose is key piece for Memphis

By Jim Masilak (Contact)
Thursday, November 1, 2007

Encouraged by unofficial preseason rankings from and CBS, University of Memphis basketball fans have been hailing the Tigers as the No. 1-ranked team in the country for months.

When Memphis checked in at No. 3 in the ESPN/USA Today preseason coaches' poll, it did little to dampen their enthusiasm. Not only was it the highest preseason ranking in school history, but a mere eight points separated the top three teams -- North Carolina (739 points), UCLA (734) and Memphis (731) -- in the poll.

On Friday, when the Associated Press releases its preseason Top 25, there seems to be a decent chance the Tigers could grab the top spot -- thus justifying all the No. 1 talk about town ahead of Monday's season opener with UT-Martin.

In advance of the AP poll's release, The Commercial Appeal contacted several voters to see what sort of support Memphis is -- or isn't -- getting atop the rankings. The CA contacted 10 of the 72 voters and found that six of them had given Memphis the nod at No. 1.

Perhaps the strongest endorsement came from Mike Jensen, The Philadelphia Inquirer's national college basketball writer. Like several others, he cited the addition of highly touted freshman point guard Derrick Rose as a determining factor in his decision.

"I voted Memphis first, and I didn't need a lot of time to think about it," Jensen wrote in an e-mail. "Of the top six teams from last season, nobody lost less and added such an important piece to the puzzle with Rose. I know UCLA also is adding a top freshman in Kevin Love, but that team lost its best player (Aaron Afflalo)."

Dick "Hoops" Weiss of the New York Daily News, who took in a recent Memphis practice at the Finch Center, was sufficiently impressed to choose coach John Calipari's club No. 1 ahead of North Carolina, UCLA and Georgetown.

Referring to the (apparently minor) injuries suffered by Rose and senior forward Joey Dorsey during the Tigers' recent scrimmage against St. Louis, Weiss wrote in an e-mail that they'd better "decide to stay healthy, or it could be a short reign."

If the Tigers are ranked No. 1, it certainly won't be unanimous.

Esteemed sportswriter, author and commentator John Feinstein, of National Public Radio and the Washington Post, said he placed Memphis second behind UCLA in his ballot. But, Feinstein added, he wouldn't be surprised to see the Tigers No. 1 before it's all over.

"I think John is a heck of a coach," Feinstein said. "The job he did at UMass was one of the best coaching jobs anyone's done anywhere in the last 30 years."

Bob Holt of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette also had UCLA and Memphis at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

"The Bruins return a lot of talent, and I think a point guard like Darren Collison is the difference-maker who makes everybody better," Holt said via e-mail. "After making the Final Four the past two years, the Bruins should be ready to win it all."

Dan Phillips of WZTV in Nashville said he gave North Carolina the nod over Memphis because of what he considers to be the Tar Heels' superior talent.

"The bottom line for me is I think Carolina has more pros," said Phillips, who voted UNC No. 1, Memphis No. 2 and UCLA No. 3. "They've got three or four pros on that team, and I can't really say the same thing about Memphis. There's a little bit of a difference there."

The only respondent who had Memphis outside the top three was Seth Emerson of The (Columbia, S.C.) State. He had the Tigers fourth behind UNC, UCLA and Kansas.

While Emerson thinks UNC, which brings back forward Tyler Hansbrough, among others, "has to be the national No. 1," he said he could have put Nos. 2-4 "in any order." He gave Kansas the benefit of the doubt because he saw the Jayhawks' returning talent in person last season.

"It's no knock on Memphis," Emerson added.

Michael Murphy, who covers the University of Houston and Conference USA for the Houston Chronicle, has seen Memphis quite a bit in recent seasons. That familiarity is one reason he voted the Tigers No. 1 in his preseason poll. Rose is another.

"I've always felt that Memphis was a true point guard away from being a great team," Murphy wrote via e-mail. "They now have one."

Dustin Dow, who covers Xavier and the Atlantic 10 Conference for The Cincinnati Enquirer, concurs.

"This looks like Calipari's best team since he and Marcus Camby were at UMass," Dow wrote in an e-mail. "It's a good time to be a basketball fan in the state of Tennessee."

Other No. 1 votes for the Tigers came from The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger's Mississippi State beat writer, Kyle Veazey, and The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal's Louisville beat writer, Brian Bennett.

"I love their returning talent," Bennett wrote, "and I think Derrick Rose puts them over the top."

Of course, as Feinstein says, trying to predict in October which teams will end up in San Antonio next spring is nigh on impossible. That's why he refuses to offer preseason Final Four picks.

"Who the heck knows who's gonna be good in March?" Feinstein said. "It's a pointless exercise."

But, as Memphis fans will no doubt agree in this season of high expectations, it's an entertaining one.

-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311

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