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Monday, February 25, 2008

Fox Sports Jeff Goodman - Memphis loss shows how wide open title race is


Memphis loss shows how wide open title race is
by Jeff Goodman
Jeff Goodman is a senior college basketball writer for FOXSports.com. He can be reached at GoodmanonFOX@aol.com or check out his blog, Good 'N Plenty.

MEMPHIS - The top two teams in the nation went at it on Saturday night.

The result wasn't just that Memphis' bid for an undefeated season is history, or that the Tennessee Vols will move into the No. 1 spot when the next polls are released this week.

It also confirmed that the national championship race is wide open.

Tennessee is deep, athletic and talented. The Vols play hard and have proven they can get out on the road and win in hostile environments. They've now proven it at Xavier, in Seattle against Gonzaga and in the most hostile environment that anyone will face this season — in Memphis.

However, it's not as if it's Tennessee and everyone else.

The Vols have a pair of losses — an embarrassing early-season setback in New Jersey at the hands of Texas and a road loss in Lexington to what was a struggling Kentucky club.

North Carolina also has two setbacks — and one of them came without its starting point guard, Ty Lawson. The Tar Heels may not be as deep as a year ago, but Roy Williams still has more than enough firepower — when Lawson is healthy — to play with anyone in the country.

UCLA has had a trio of slip-ups, with the most recent one coming at Washington — the ninth-place team in the Pac-10. The Bruins have battled their share of injuries as well — their own starting floor leader, Darren Collison, missed the first six games, Mike Roll has been out for nearly the entire season and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hasn't been 100 percent in months.

Kansas lost at Oklahoma State on Saturday night, but the Jayhawks may have as much talent among their first seven players as anyone in the nation — and what was once regarded as a weakness in the middle, has become a strength with the emergence of Darnell Jackson.

Duke had a brutal two-game stretch recently, but the Blue Devils are certainly capable of making a legitimate Final Four run. They defend, can shoot and are obviously well-coached.

Don't discount Memphis from the equation, either.

Sure, the Tigers can't shoot free throws and are erratic from long distance as well. They play in a mid-major conference and they still don't have a true road win against an NCAA tournament-caliber club. In fact, Memphis' most impressive victory in a hostile environment came last week at UAB.

Big deal.

Even after a disappointing performance Saturday, John Calipari's club still has the toughness, experience and talent to advance to San Antonio.

However, Calipari needs to get his players to understand that when the game is on the line, the ball must be in the hands of either Chris Douglas-Roberts or freshman point guard Derrick Rose.

Rose didn't even touch the ball on the most critical possession — when junior leader Antonio Anderson jacked up an ill-advised shot with 10 seconds remaining that might have put a dent in the backboard.

The loss hurt the Tigers. All you had to do to get a true gauge of how much was look into their faces in the locker room afterwards. Douglas-Roberts wouldn't even show his face. Antonio Anderson, the team spokesman of sorts and leader, declined to speak. The only players who faced the music were Robert Dozier, Doneal Mack and Rose.

Calipari was a gentleman after the game, praising Tennessee's efforts and also taking a shot at his own team's lack of effort. However, prior to the contest he repeatedly referred to J.P. Prince, the Memphis native, as P.J.

But the season isn't over. OK, the Tigers lost to their in-state rivals and it sent a dagger into the hearts of everyone in Memphis.

Cal's group will get back on track. That's where the cupcake schedule in Conference USA comes in handy. They'll stomp on a few inferior teams, run the table in the conference tournament and enter the NCAA tourney with the same swagger that had gotten them to 26-0.

But for now, the Memphis Tigers are just like everyone else.

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