'It wasn't in the cards'
Tigers turn attention to reloading lineup, retaining Calipari
By Dan Wolken
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
SAN ANTONIO -- One year and two weeks ago, University of Memphis coach John Calipari stood outside a locker room at the Alamodome -- the exact same locker room Memphis used at this year's Final Four -- and preempted speculation he would pursue other coaching vacancies.
"Truth be told, there are probably better jobs than Memphis," Calipari said after the Tigers' Elite Eight loss to Ohio State. "But there may not be a better team than the one I'm going to have for the next couple years."
Thirty-seven wins later, Calipari was right back in the very same place, calling those players a Dream Team at the start of the Final Four. On Monday night, however, that dream ended one victory short of its fulfillment.
Short, as in the free throws Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose missed inside the final minute. Short, as in the effort to foul before Mario Chalmers could launch a tying 3-pointer that went through with 2.1 seconds left. Short, as in the quest for Memphis' first national title.
Of all the ways Monday's NCAA championship game could have ended when the Tigers took a nine-point lead with 2:12 to go, nearly all of them favored Memphis celebrating one of the best college basketball seasons ever. Instead, it ended in a blur of mental lapses, missed free throws, coaching errors and clutch plays by Kansas. It ended with a 75-68 overtime loss, leaving Memphis as runner-up for the second time in school history.
"To be that close for these kids and our city, to be that close and have these kids suffer in there like they are right now you're just like, man, I wish I could have just done one thing to get them over the hump," Calipari said after the game. "Because they're suffering right now. They did everything they were supposed to do, really against the odds, and they did it. They were there, and it slips. It's devastating."
As the Jayhawks cut down nets and posed with the national championship trophy, it was a difficult moment to find perspective for Memphis, which was humiliated by scandal and running out of hope eight years ago when Calipari came down from New England and injected belief into skeptical Southern eyes.
One by one, he won them over, turning doubt into hunger for this grand stage. It was an appetite that grew from the unmet expectations of Dajuan Wagner through the missed free throws of Darius Washington in the 2005 Conference USA Tournament to the Alamodome a little more than one year ago when the Tigers had been overwhelmed by Ohio State in the final few minutes of an Elite Eight game.
All along, the goal had been getting back to San Antonio. The Tigers had taken that mission through a 30-1 regular season, through a C-USA Tournament title and to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA South Regional.
When the NCAA Tournament began, Calipari said that his team wanted this championship but didn't need it, and in a way, he was right. This group had taken its place alongside Larry Finch's Tigers of '73 and Keith Lee's Tigers of '85 long before.
But over three weekends, the team that did not need it played as though it could not live without it. Given a rugged road to the Final Four that privately caused concern, Memphis took down four straight difficult opponents. After surviving Mississippi State in Little Rock to get to the Sweet 16, the Tigers blitzed through the regional with a 50-20 halftime barrage against Michigan State and an Elite Eight breakthrough against No. 2-seed Texas after two years of disappointments.
Suddenly, the urban school with an alliterative slogan and compassionate mission was on the Alamodome's grand stage, the "Dreamers, Thinkers, Doers" among programs with a combined 17 national championships.
Understandably, there were doubters. But when Memphis beat UCLA in the national semifinals, 78-63, it was clear the Tigers were entering special territory.
And the Tigers were right on the brink of finishing off a championship before their stars went a combined 1-for-5 from the free-throw line over the final 1:15, before Antonio Anderson threw away an inbounds pass, allowing Kansas to cut a seven-point deficit to four on a Sherron Collins 3-pointer with 1:46 left and before Joey Dorsey fouled out with 1:23 remaining.
"It was a great season and a great game," sophomore forward Shawn Taggart said. "Up seven points with two to go, you think we are going to win, but they made the shots. They outhustled us the whole game and they won. This loss hurts. It really hurts, and we are going to have to use this for next year."
But perhaps the moment that will haunt Memphis most of all is the failure to foul Kansas after Rose's free throw gave the Tigers a 63-60 lead with 10 seconds left. By fouling, Memphis would have put Kansas on the foul line, forcing the Jayhawks to get an offensive rebound to tie the game.
Though Calipari said he instructed Rose to foul Sherron Collins -- it was inconclusive from replays how aggressively Rose tried to foul him -- Calipari probably should have called a timeout just to ensure everyone knew the plan.
"I think everything in life happens for a reason," Calipari said. "I sat there and I looked up and said, 'Lord, if he makes these two, we're supposed to be national champs. If that's Your will, I'm fine. If he misses them and we're not, I'm fine with that too.' We did everything we were supposed to do. It wasn't in the cards."
What's in the cards now? Though they didn't say explicitly, it appears Rose and Douglas-Roberts will both enter the NBA Draft and senior Andre Allen will leave too. Rose is assuredly a top-five pick while Douglas-Roberts might have lifted his stock into the first round. Douglas-Roberts' mother, Judy Roberts, said recently she was retiring from a civil service job after 27 years.
"It's his decision to make, but definitely his dream is to play in the NBA," she said before the Tigers' victory over Michigan State. He's been putting in a lot of work to develop his game to play at the next level. I can't say, one way or another, what he's going to do. I'll let him decide. I'm sure we'll sit down and evaluate his options and see what's best for him. All this work he's put in is definitely to play at the next level. I like his chances."
Losing Rose and Douglas-Roberts will hurt, but Calipari has been talking in recent weeks about re-loading, perhaps with players such as Philadelphia guard Tyreke Evans and New York forward Devin Ebanks, a pair of top-20 recruits who could commit to Memphis.
If they join Anderson and forward Robert Dozier, who would be ill-advised to turn pro a year early, the Tigers could once again be in the top 15 next season. Unless there's an unexpected departure, their core will also include guards Doneal Mack and Willie Kemp, who will be ready for increased roles, and freshman guard Jeff Robinson, who has star potential but got caught up in a numbers game this season.
The qualifier to all of that is whether Calipari will stay at Memphis. Though Calipari said last week he did not want to deal with a re-negotiation of his contract until the NCAA Tournament was over, it is believed he is seeking a deal in the $2.5 million per year range annually, up from the $1.8 million guaranteed he made this season. An athletic department source told The Commercial Appeal that the school would likely find a way to pay Calipari what he wants.
Still, there are other factors. One of the rumors circulating around the Final Four was that Calipari's name could come up as a candidate with the NBA's New York Knicks. And what if Bill Self leaves Kansas for Oklahoma State? Would Calipari be on the list in Lawrence, where he began his career as a graduate assistant?
All those questions would have been easier to take, if the Tigers were celebrating a national championship right now.
"Think about what they've done," Calipari said. "Thirty-eight wins. They took on all comers. They put themselves in position to win the national title. Right now, I'm a little numb. It will hit me how close we really were."
Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at thememphisedge.com.