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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Never too early to talk Tigers

Never too early to talk Tigers
Sunday, May 4, 2008

At every stop on his recent nationwide media blitz, University of Memphis coach John Calipari has said he's been moving too fast to soak in the pain of losing in the national championship game.

"When I stop, I'll cry," Calipari said.

In truth, there may not even be much time for that. On May 26, the Tigers -- the ones who aren't in the NBA draft, anyway -- will be heading to China for three games against the Chinese national team. Calipari and his staff -- the few that are still around, anyway -- will stay an extra week after that for coaching clinics.

Then it's back on the road again for the crucial July evaluation period, where much of the work will be done on recruiting the class of 2009. Then it's scheduling, summer school, basketball camps and before Calipari can blink, October will be right in his lap.

For the rest of us, however, Memphis Madness may not come quite so quickly. To help soothe the offseason blues, we are resurrecting the Tiger basketball notebook each Sunday until the fall. It will be a hodgepodge of news, notes, commentary and analysis -- all Tigers, all the time. To kick off the 2008 edition, here are five issues that will be on the minds of most Memphis fans over the next six months.

1. Who emerges?

Despite the buzz over the recent signings of Tyreke Evans and Wesley Witherspoon, the truth is that Memphis' success in 2008-09 will be in the hands of its returning players.

Even if you assume that guard Antonio Anderson and forward Robert Dozier will come back for their senior seasons, the Tigers lose 53.3 percent of their points and 46.4 percent of their rebounds. Statistically, it's very comparable to 2007-08, when Memphis had to replace Shawne Williams, Rodney Carney and Darius Washington Jr. but still went 33-4 and made its second straight Elite Eight.

How did that happen? Given more responsibility, Chris Douglas-Roberts became a marquee scorer, Joey Dorsey produced career numbers and Jeremy Hunt shot the ball better than he ever had. Now, it's incumbent on a few current players to improve in much the same way.

Will Doneal Mack and Willie Kemp become all-around guards or continue to pigeonhole themselves as 3-point shooters? Will Shawn Taggart build on a solid first season at Memphis and fulfill his potential as one of the best mid-post scorers in the country? Will Pierre Niles finally lose the 50 pounds necessary for him to show the kind of talent Calipari believes he possesses?

Perhaps the most intriguing player next season, however, is 6-5 guard Jeff Robinson. There simply wasn't much room in the rotation to play Robinson regularly as a freshman, especially given his early struggles with the offense. But the former top-50 recruit has tons of physical ability and will be given every opportunity to become the player Memphis expects he can be.

2. What's the point?

Now that Derrick Rose is gone, Kemp slides back into the starting point guard role he held as a freshman, right? It may not be quite that simple. If Kemp wants to be the primary ball-handler next season, he'll have to show Calipari he can get Memphis into its offense quickly and can't fall victim to the mental mistakes that often kept him on the bench last season.

Though Kemp's supporters will point out that he started every game as a freshman for an Elite Eight team, he was often on the bench in difficult situations while Andre Allen ran the team. Is Kemp better suited to be a starting point guard or a shooting guard next season? Only his performance can answer that question. If Anderson comes back with his 2.6-to-1 assist-turnover ratio, he's more than capable of running the point, which is the position NBA scouts project for him anyway. Though Evans is more of a shooting guard, he'll have the ball in his hands a lot because of his ability to penetrate. Witherspoon is a good enough ball-handler to play the point if necessary at 6-foot-8.

3. Rebounding

It's reasonable to expect the Tigers to take a pretty big hit on the boards next season without Dorsey (9.5 per game) and especially Rose, who was a phenomenal rebounder for a point guard. How much of a concern it will be, however, depends on how the Tigers' big men develop physically this summer.

Calipari expects both Dozier and Taggart to gain 25 pounds each, but it's also mentality. The Tigers, for instance, out-sized Tennessee at every position last season but still got out-rebounded by 16. Taggart and Dozier both need to get meaner and go after rebounds more aggressively each game. Incoming forward Matt Simpkins can probably provide some help, along with Evans, who is a solid rebounder at guard.

The reality, however, is that Memphis will probably have to make due without an elite rebounder on its roster. There simply aren't many out there.

4. Recruiting

There is still a little bit of business to tie up with the 2008 class, as top-15 forward Devin Ebanks is scheduled to make his official visit next weekend. If Ebanks commits to Memphis, it could vault the Tigers' recruiting class to No. 1 in the country.

But plenty of interesting developments will occur throughout the summer regarding the 2009 class. Memphis is in good shape with nearly all of the top players in the country, and that's not an exaggeration. Oklahoma City guard Xavier Henry (ranked No. 2 by, New York guard Lance Stephenson (No. 4) and North Carolina point guard John Wall (No. 9) are just a few of the elite prospects who are seriously on the radar screen. Locally, the battle between Memphis, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgetown will heat up for Briarcrest guard Leslie McDonald.

This is a huge recruiting season for Memphis. If the Tigers get the kind of players they expect to get, it won't be a very long wait before the Final Four talk starts up again.

5. Scheduling

Though it won't be the monster home non-conference schedule fans enjoyed last year, the Tigers are currently set for three big home games against potential top-25 teams Ohio State, Syracuse and Cincinnati, plus the resumption of the Ole Miss series. Memphis will play at Georgetown, at Gonzaga and at Tennessee. That's pretty deep water for a team with so many question marks. (Home games with Texas and West Virginia will be added in 2009-2010, plus visits from Gonzaga and Tennessee. The Georgetown series takes a one-year hiatus, and the Tigers will return the games to Syracuse and Ohio State.)

Calipari doesn't want to over-schedule with this group, especially early in the season. But he wouldn't be opposed to another home or neutral site game against a top program. Though it doesn't appear Memphis will play in a preseason tournament, things could develop over the next several weeks. Memphis didn't get the Georgetown series done last year until June.

Reach reporter Dan Wolken at 529-2365 or Read his blogs on Tiger basketball at

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