With visions of the Final Four dancing in their heads, the University of Memphis Tigers have what amounts to a dress rehearsal this week at FedExForum. The U of M will be the top seed in the 2006 Conference USA tournament, and the expectations of Tiger Nation may as well be designated as Seed Number Two. Superior in talent to their 11 conference brethren, what if the Tigers -- 27-3 entering their quarterfinal game Thursday -- stumble and fail to win their first conference tourney since 1987? Here are four keys to preventing such an upset, factors that will impact just how deep into March (dare we say April?) these Tigers roar.
FOCUS. The February 25th home tilt with Tulsa was a telling game for the 2005-06 Tigers. The Golden Hurricane limped into the Forum with a 10-14 record, having already lost to Memphis by 23 in Oklahoma four weeks earlier. Not until a run over the last six minutes did the Tigers pull away to win this one, 78-67. And there's but one stat line you need to see to understand why: the U of M missed 15 of 41 free throws. Shawne Williams missed three. Darius Washington missed five. And both players are among the top five free-throw shooters in C-USA. Mark this down: if the Tigers advance to the Final Four -- this team's expressed goal since November -- at least one tournament game will be decided at the foul line. Tulsa in late February is tough motivation. But a team's mindset -- just like its physical conditioning -- is built before the bright lights are turned on. As talented as this team is, they have but one player -- Rodney Carney -- with Big Dance experience. The kids have to keep their eyes on the prize.
KEEP JOEY DORSEY ON THE FLOOR. Whether it's foul trouble or erratic play, Dorsey has seen too much bench time over the the last month. The Tigers are a solid team with backups Kareem Cooper or Robert Dozier occupying the post. They become a certifiably great team when Dorsey is at his best: seizing rebounds, pouncing on loose balls, blocking shots (he's C-USA's top shot-blocker by a comfortable margin). The day may come when Dorsey will need to score, but on this team, he can win the game for Memphis without so much as shooting. Find me a team that has reached the Final Four without strong interior defense, and I'll find you an aberration. Cheer Carney's dunks and Washington's drives . . . but keep your eye on Dorsey. When he's on the floor, the Tigers are fully armed.
STAY HEALTHY. Aside from some nagging injuries to Washington and Williams, this team has remained healthy through a long regular season. And the depth this healthy roster provides coach John Calipari will be an intangible few college coaches will enjoy this month. Dozier, Cooper, Antonio Anderson, Andre Allen, and Waki Williams would be among the top five teams in Conference USA . . . and they represent the Memphis bench. The NCAA tournament will be played in fits and starts. Two games in three days, then as many as four days off. Repeat: Calipari must dance a fine line this week in pushing his team toward a much-prized tournament championship on home turf that will require winning three games in three days. The team's depth will be at a premium, allowing some necessary rest before the real madness starts.
IGNORE THE NEWSPAPERS. And the talk shows. And the blogs and web sites. (Well, maybe not all the web sites.) Destiny can be a cruel thing, if defined prematurely. The 2005-06 Memphis Tigers are a special team, and they've already achieved things that would be the envy of most programs in the country. But they will -- for good or ill -- be remembered for what they achieve this month. This is the perfect time for Calipari's "us vs. them" mentality to take hold, unite, and serve as the late-season charge for an already electric basketball squad. If the Tigers fall in love with their headlines and profiles, destiny may extend her wandering arms in another direction.