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Monday, October 27, 2008

Seth Davis............Checking In With Memphis

Checking in with ... Memphis
Posted: Monday October 20, 2008 1:09PM

MEMPHIS -- Moments before a banner commemorating the University of Memphis' appearance in the 2008 Final Four was raised to the rafters of Fed Ex Forum last Friday night, the 14,000 blue-clad fans who had gathered for Midnight Madness were treated to a spine-tingling highlight video of the Tigers' march through the tournament bracket.

The montage was set to One Shining Moment, and the crowd rejoiced with every soaring dunk. When the video culminated with NBA commissioner David Stern's announcement that Derrick Rose had been selected with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, the fans stood and cheered some more.

From where I sat courtside, that ending struck me as more wistful than cheerful. After all, One Shining Moment is supposed to end with the winning team celebrating on the court, but since Kansas won the final game that wouldn't suffice in this setting. And the image of Stern's announcement was a bitter reminder that the biggest reason behind the Tigers' remarkable 38-2 season was not at Midnight Madness because he is a member of the Chicago Bulls (poor sap).

So while the university and its fans have every reason to be proud of what its team accomplished last season, the unfortunate reality is that the trio that formed the nucleus of the NCAA runner-up -- Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey -- are all gone. Tigers coach John Calipari started dealing with that reality as soon as the Kansas game was over. During lunch earlier that day, I asked Calipari how he handled the pain of the 75-68 overtime loss, in which the Tigers blew a nine-point lead in the last two minutes. "I never felt winning a championship was going to define who I am," he said with a shrug. "And I also felt, we'll be back. That was my thought in the locker room: We gotta get back."

Calipari talked about the game as we chowed down on ribs at Cozy Corner Restaurant, a low-key ribs joint on North Parkway. When you're in Memphis, you've gotta eat ribs, and I knew Calipari had juice in this town when he convinced the owner to serve us a fat plate even though the restaurant was closed. Al McGuire used to say, "If the waitress has dirt on her ankles, the chili is good." Well, the leather seats at Cozy Corner, were torn, which should tell you just how delicious those ribs were. (I definitely recommend the place, but if go, be careful not to mistake the mild barbecue sauce for the spicy. Trust me on that one.) Calipari told me he has never watched a tape of the title game, and he declined my request to watch it with me, even after I paid for lunch. But he recounted those fateful last few minutes with the vivid detail of someone who had replayed the sequence in his mind over and over again.

It's a little easier for Calipari to look ahead because he knows he's going to have a competitive team. The 2008-09 Tigers will certainly not be as dominating as last year's bunch, but if they're healthy, there's every reason to believe they will be well-positioned to make another run deep into the NCAA tournament. Though the Big Three are gone, two other key contributors from last year, 6-9 senior forward Robert Dozier and 6-6 senior guard Antonio Anderson, came back to school after withdrawing their names from the NBA Draft.

Anderson didn't go through workouts, but Dozier was put through the paces by five teams. Having learned that he needed to improve his strength and his outside shooting, Dozier spent the rest of his summer working strenuously on those deficiencies. Now Calipari says he has a chance to be one of the top 10 players in the country.

Whether Memphis is a good team (no doubt), a really good team (fairly likely) or a Final Four team (quite possibly) this season will depend mostly on how quickly the new players adapt to Calipari's frenetic, unconventional dribble-drive motion offense. And the new player who needs to adapt the quickest is heralded freshman guard Tyreke Evans. At 6-6, 219 pounds, Evans is bigger and stronger than Rose was at the start of his freshman year. He does not have the same explosive athleticism (who does?), but he is plenty quick and is incredibly adept at finishing around the basket. He has a funky shooting motion that takes a lot of time to get the shot off, but since he releases the ball well behind his head it should be pretty tough to block. And he is already demonstrating the ability to be a ridiculously good defensive player, which should lead to plenty of breakaway layups.

Evans is so good at getting to the rim that he presents Calipari with a conundrum: Should he play him at point guard to take advantage of his abilities to break down defenders, or should he keep him on the wing where he can focus more on scoring? Calipari also has two other players who are capable of playing the point -- Anderson and 6-2 junior Willie Kemp, a proficient shooter who started at the point as a freshman. Kemp will probably start at the point as the season begins, but you can be sure all three of those guys will be handling the ball a lot.

Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense might look fairly simple, what with all those repeated drive-and-kicks, but the patterns are more intricate than meets the eye. Because it is predicated on everything happening so fast, there is also very little margin for poor decision making. In the end, that will be the biggest challenge as Calipari integrates newbies like Evans, 6-8 forward Wesley Witherspoon, 6-11 forward Angel Garcia and 6-5 sophomore transfer Roburt Sallie.

All those guys are physically well-equipped to excel in the DDM, but mentally they have a lot to learn. At one point during last Friday's practice, Calipari circled his wrists in rapid fashion as if he was making a traveling call. "I need your feet to move like this," he said. Then he circled his wrists more slowly and said, "But I need your minds to move like this." Or as John Wooden used to say, "Be quick, but don't hurry."

If Derrick Rose wasn't in such a hurry to play professional basketball, the Tigers' prospects for getting back to the championship game would be a lot more, well, rosy. But I came away from my visit to Memphis surprisingly impressed with the Tigers' stable of talent. I also came away a few pounds heavier thanks to my visit to Cozy Corner. Even in down times this town never lacks for flavor, and I'm betting Memphis will show more spice this season than most people expect. Here's my breakdown of the Tigers:

Heart and soul: Anderson. Last year, Anderson was the consummate glue guy. He is a big, strong guard who loves to defend and is a surprisingly efficient passer. His 2.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio was best in Conference USA. Though he adeptly filled his complementary role last year, it was clear to me as I watched practice that he knows this is his team. He needs to improve on his shooting (he made just 40.8 percent of his field goals last year and 57 percent of his free throws), but the Tigers will need Anderson's varied skills. Most of all they will need his maturity and leadership.

Most improved: Shawn Taggart. Forget for the moment that Taggart, a junior forward, won the three-point contest at Midnight Madness. (Is it a good sign when a 6-10 guy wins your three-point contest?) He needs most to rebound and finish around the rim for Memphis to have a good season. He toned his body in the weight room over the summer and will be a starter this season, if only by necessity. He doesn't need to be as good as Dorsey, but if Taggart develops into a reliable post scorer and defender, it will enable a lot of other pieces to fall into place.

X factor: Evans. We know he was a sensational high school player, and his body is ready for the college game. (In truth, his body is ready for the NBA game.) The question is whether Evans will be able to handle the mental aspect of the game. That's not easy for any rookie, much less one that will be asked to do so much so soon, but make no mistake: he has the talent to do it.

Glue guy: Kemp. It couldn't have been easy for Kemp to be relegated to reserve duty after starting as a freshman, and at times it may not be easy for him to take a backseat to Anderson and Evans this season. But Kemp possesses considerable skills as both a knockdown shooter (he's a career 37.6 percent from three-point range) and a playmaker. He isn't generally considered a great defender, but now that this is his third year in the program he should have a handle on how hard he needs to play at that end of the floor. If Kemp shows a blue-collar attitude to match his white-collar skills, he'll get all the minutes he wants this season and then some.

Lost in the shuffle: Pierre Niles. I might have put freshman Wesley Witherspoon in this slot, but because he is so important to Memphis' future, my hunch is that Calipari will play more minutes than his abilities dictate to give him experience. That could leave Niles closer to the end of the bench, which would be a shame considering how hard he worked in the offseason to get into shape. Niles is 6-8, 300 pounds, but he lost 50 pounds in the offseason. I was amazed watching him run the floor and float to the rim during the intense two-hour practice. (He could make a fortune as an NFL defensive tackle if he didn't mind getting hit.) But Miles has shown immaturity and lack of dedication in the past, and if he lapses into that kind of behavior this season he'll disappear before our very eyes.

Bottom line: In Evans, Dozier and Anderson, Memphis has as good a three-man nucleus as you'll find anywhere. Because there are so many new guys in the fold, the team will take some lumps in the early going. (Maybe the Tigers will even lose a game in Conference USA this year; they've won 42 straight.) But by season's end I think the Tigers are going to better than people anticipate. Memphis should make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. If the Tigers stay healthy and the young guys can grow up fast, they may even raise another banner next October.

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