Tigers Taking Aim at Perfection
By John Hocter
The New England Patriots aren't the only team shooting for perfection.
In fact, there are several teams shooting, passing, and dunking their way to undefeated seasons in this year's installment of college basketball. But only one team has the perfect mix of veteran leadership, youthful energy, overall team athleticism, and the luxury of inferior competition to pull it all off. Say hello to the bullies of Conference USA: John Calipari and his precocious Memphis Tigers.
Now I know what your thinking. Aren't these the same Tigers who slice through their buttery Conference USA schedule every year with national championship hype before petering out in the Elite Eight? Yes. A year ago, Calipari's team went 30-3 on the year, with all three losses coming to non-conference opponents, and finished the season on a 22-game winning streak before being bested by the Buckeyes one game away from the final four. The Tigers had a similar disappointment in 2006, when their run through the tourney ended with a loss to UCLA in the Elite Eight.
But this season is different. Memphis sailed unscathed through the first wave of quality non-conference competition, not only surviving, but dominating good teams from big conferences. Before starting league play earlier this week, the Tigers defeated Oklahoma, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Arizona, and mighty Georgetown, with each victory coming by 10 points or more. Not many teams have those kinds of quality wins.
The Tigers do. They also have an experienced leader in junior Chris Douglas-Roberts (conveniently nicknamed "CDR"), an athletic 6'7" guard who dominates his smaller defenders. He leads the team in scoring and clutch performances, scoring 33 points at Connecticut and 24 versus Roy Hibbert and the Hoyas. His physical, athletic style pairs nicely with the lightning speed of standout freshman Derrick Rose, whose abilities as a playmaker are matched solely by his abilities as a distributor. Then there's forwards Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey, hyper-athletes with NBA futures that regularly throw down dunks on mediocre Conference USA scrubs.
In addition to a lethal starting five comprised of athletic, experienced upper-classmen and a fast, talented freshman, Memphis boasts a key characteristic of a team poised to make a run at the title — depth. The Tigers have 10 players that average 10 or more minutes a game. Those reserves aren't just getting minutes, they're scoring points, as well. Calipari's crew has seven players who average seven points or more a game.
Recipe for perfection: take one immensely talented team coached by a proven winner, and add 11 overmatched Conference USA teams. The Tigers take on Marshall, Rice, Southern Miss, and Tulsa before rejoining the real-world of college hoops for a showdown at home with Gonzaga on January 26. They must then run the Conference USA gauntlet consisting of such formidable foes as Houston, UTEP, Southern Methodist, UCF, UAB, and Tulane before facing their final hurdle in the race to perfection, a February 23 battle with the Tennessee Volunteers, also on the Tigers' home court.
Sure, other teams are still unbeaten. But they are either pretenders (sorry, Vanderbilt) or face brutal conference schedules (Kansas, Washington State, North Carolina). Memphis, with all the ingredients in place, looks like the best bet in years to finish perfect, resurrecting old memories of Jerry Tarkanian, Larry Johnson, and the 1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels — the last team to finish the regular season undefeated.
A late-season stumble isn’t out of the question for anyone, but there is a hunger in this Memphis team. If they make it to the Big Dance unblemished, Calipari and his Tigers could use their depth and athleticism to muscle their way to a perfect season, a national championship, and a claim to being one of the greatest teams in college hoops history. If not, Memphis could be bound for another late-round exit.