Monday, November 10, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Tiger Basketball 2008-09 -- Back for More

Posted By on Mon, Nov 10, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Well, it took me precisely one sentence in writing about the 2008-09 University of Memphis basketball team to consider the impact of losing three stars from last year's Final Four squad.

As I've pondered angles for John Calipari's ninth season in Memphis -- one where he will officially become the most decorated and successful coach in the program's history -- the losses of Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Joey Dorsey (a trio that played fully 40 percent of the team's minutes a year ago and scored virtually half the points) continue to whisper in my brainstorming ear.

Because however you choose to forecast the season ahead -- one with a better than decent chance of another march through the NCAA tournament - those three missing pieces play a part. Here are four factors to chew on before the Tigers open the new campaign Saturday night at FedExForum. (And once the ball is tipped, last year's stars are indeed history.)

• Willie Kemp revisited. There's not another junior point guard in the country who didn't start a single game last season but is expected to make the kind of impact Kemp should this winter. Having started all but one game as a freshman -- and those Tigers went 33-4, remember -- Kemp handed over playmaking duties to Rose last season, stomaching a drop in minutes from 21.4 per game to 13.8. (Let's not forget, though, that Kemp hit four of five three-pointers against Mississippi State in the second round of last spring's NCAA tournament, or there would have been no Final Four appearance.) With freshman Tyreke Evans -- the highly acclaimed McDonald's All-America -- sharing the backcourt, Kemp will be a supplementary scorer. But with the number of rookies on this year's squad, his presence as a ball-handler and court general will be invaluable to Calipari.

"I've got to go out there and try my best to run this team," says Kemp. "I've got to talk more, watch film more. I've got to know where all my teammates should be on the floor. Last year, as a two guard, I had to develop my shot, but this year, I spent all summer working on my ball handling."

• Two starters, six rings. In this year's media guide, each returning player has his photo above a certain number of rings earned during his career as a Tiger. Under the portraits of both Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier there are three shiny (if black-and-white) jewels: two with "Elite Eight" engraved on them and another with "Final Four."

No Tiger player has been a part of more wins than the 126 Dorsey enjoyed. But with 23 this season, both Anderson and Dozier would surpass that lofty standard. (And consider the number: an average of more than 30 victories per season.) But the roles of Calipari's most prominent supporting players must change this year to reach the heights to which they've grown accustomed. For three years, Dozier and Anderson have deferred on offense to the likes of Rodney Carney, CDR, and Rose. On the defensive end, Dozier has played a critical role as a rebounder and shot-blocker, but he's always had Dorsey behind him as a goalkeeper of sorts. Having tested the NBA draft waters last spring, Dozier has a handle on what it will take for him to join his former teammates in the pros, and becoming a difference-maker -- at both ends of the floor -- will be essential.

As for Anderson, he'll join Dozier as a 1,000-point scorer before his final season is complete. But it's the little things -- big, in the eyes of his coaches -- that make Anderson the rudder of the Tiger ship, or the "glue" in modern hoop parlance. Anderson will guard the opponent's top scorer (unless he happens to be a center), he'll handle point-guard duties in a pinch, and he'll knock down open jumpers when teams sag into a zone defense. The statistic that speaks volumes about Anderson's value over the last three years is his assists-to-turnovers figure, which is well over two-to-one (371 assists to 161 turnovers). Perhaps the most significant preseason variable for this team is Anderson's health. Shin splints can be murder on glue's adhesiveness.

• Another one-year wonder. The most unfair comparisons you'll hear about this year's Tigers will be between Evans and Rose. Like Rose, Evans comes to Memphis with plenty of time in the national spotlight, and from a metropolis (Philadelphia) well beyond the reach of garden-variety regional recruiting. Like Rose, Evans is likely "one and done" as a college player. But while Evans is a gifted scorer, he's not the otherworldly athletic specimen Rose embodies, and not being a natural point guard, he won't impose himself on a game in as visible a manner as Rose so often did. If parallels are to be drawn, it would be more appropriate to view Evans as CDR's successor for this year's Tigers: a midsize (6'6") wing player who can score inside or outside, with the quickness and versatility to force turnovers on the defensive end.

• New blood, new energy. If there is any quality in running his basketball program that Calipari truly loathes, it's complacency. Nothing will land a player more firmly on the Memphis bench than body language that says "neutral." The sheer number of rookies in uniform for the 2008-09 Tigers should play a significant part in eliminating complacency, even when dry periods on the schedule -- the Tigers still play in Conference USA -- might otherwise lead to coasting by veterans who've seen brighter lights. For all its success over the last three seasons, the Tiger program is new to Tyreke Evans. It's virgin territory for C.J. Henry and Wesley Witherspoon, for Matt Simpkins, Roburt Sallie, and Angel Garcia. That's virtually half of Calipari's roster that has never so much as practiced at an NCAA tournament site. With apologies to William Faulkner, the past -- however glorious for the Memphis Tigers -- is indeed past.

"We're still looking for chemistry," says junior guard Doneal Mack, another veteran Calipari will be counting on to guide the way for the rookies. "We have people out there who are willing to work, but we break down more [than we should] defensively. We have players who don't know certain positions on the court and, being a motion offense, they have to know all the positions."

Calipari understands the challenges ahead are different from those he's seen in recent years. "I can't be telling everybody everything," he said after the November 4th exhibition against Christian Brothers University. "It's got to be somebody on the court doing it. It might be Antonio, it could be Willie. We're not going to be a team that's up 30 on people this year. We're gonna have to grind it out a little better, and be smarter.

"We have a good, an athletic team," he added. "They should be a great defensive team. Now, can someone lead, and give us that organization on the floor? That's where we have to get before February."

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