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Thursday, November 15, 2007

LA Times - Memphis may be the team to beat

Memphis may be the team to beat
The Tigers return all their starters from a 33-4 team that reached the Elite Eight. And they have a freshman good enough to push one of those starters to the bench.
November 14, 2007

Don't get too caught up in debating whether North Carolina or UCLA should be No. 1.

For one thing, the top spot is likely to be handed off like a baton -- five different teams were No. 1 last season.

North Carolina lost Brandan Wright and Reyshawn Terry, and UCLA lost Arron Afflalo but added Kevin Love.

Memphis? Five starters are back from the 33-4 team that lost to Ohio State a step shy of the Final Four, and freshman point guard Derrick Rose already has nudged one of them aside.

Jeff Capel, whose Oklahoma team plays third-ranked Memphis in the semifinals of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic for Coaches vs. Cancer on Thursday at Madison Square Garden, called the Tigers "arguably the most talented team in the country."

Amid all the talk about Rose -- one of the top freshmen in a class that is putting up stunning numbers -- some people have overlooked the start by junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, who is averaging 23.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. And senior Joey Dorsey, the Tigers' powerful big man who missed the first two regular-season games because of a shoulder injury, is ready to go on Thursday.

John Calipari, who took Massachusetts to the Final Four in 1996 -- an achievement later vacated because Marcus Camby admitted taking money from an agent -- sounds as if he's treading carefully to see that his players' individual goals don't interfere with a chance at a national title.

With much of the early focus in the media on Rose, Calipari said he called the team to his house for a meeting.

"My whole point was, 'How do you feel about six of you winning 66 games the last two years and the story's about Derrick? I asked Willie Kemp, 'How do you feel not starting?' How about Jeff Robinson, a top 25 high school player, not being talked about?

"If we do this right, there's going to be enough light and press for everybody. . . . My team thought I was crazy. They said, 'What are you worried about? We're all fine.' I said, 'You're human beings, and I want it to be out front.' "

One of the obstacles for Memphis last season was seen as the lack of competition in Conference USA. Calipari has tried to counter that with a nonconference schedule that includes Oklahoma -- and potentially Connecticut -- in New York this week, as well as USC, Georgetown, Arizona and Gonzaga.

He doesn't have to convince Capel, whose Sooners lost to Memphis by 12 points early last season, that the Tigers are good.

"Look, Memphis is incredibly talented," Capel said. "Obviously they are very athletic, very versatile. They have depth, and they're very well coached. You can tell by how unselfish they are.

"A lot of people sometimes look at Memphis and look at the makeup of their team, and they'll unfairly assume they're a selfish group that doesn't play well together and guys are just trying to get their stats. If you watch them with unbiased eyes, you see how selfless they are. How they share the ball, how their spacing is so good. You see a team, and that's the reason they've been so successful."

Gardner-Webb goes to the Garden

The little school from Boiling Springs, N.C., that upset Kentucky in Rupp Arena last week heads to New York to face Connecticut on Thursday in Madison Square Garden in the other 2K Sports College Hoops Classic semifinal.

"I've never been to the Garden," Coach Rick Scruggs said. "I've been by it, but I've never been able to get into it. Maybe Thursday night, they'll let me in.

"I was trying to sneak in one time, just to get a look, and they wouldn't let me in."

Gardner-Webb will get two shots at Connecticut -- one on Thursday and the other on Tuesday in a previously scheduled game in Storrs, Conn.

Four days later, Gardner-Webb plays at Clemson.

Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun praised Gardner-Webb's performance against Kentucky as "exquisite" and "cerebral."

He also offered some theories about smaller programs being able to pull off upsets, focusing partly on early departures to the NBA at the power schools but also on the familiarity of players at small schools with big-name players from more glamorous programs because of summer travel teams and tournaments.

"I think the fear factor is gone," Calhoun said.

Mercer, the team that pulled the Atlantic Sun Conference's other big upset by beating USC on Saturday, had another chance to make waves on Tuesday when it played host to Alabama, but the Bears lost to the Crimson Tide, 90-83.

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