When Willie Kemp and Doneal Mack stroll to midcourt before tomorrow’s game against Tulsa, they’ll receive the kind of ovation Tiger players of the four-year variety have come to expect on Senior Day. But this is a unique tandem (reduced from a trio when Pierre Henderson-Niles was dismissed from the team last month). Kemp and Mack will likely end their careers with the most wins of any Tiger class save for the one that directly preceded them (Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, and Chance McGrady). In many respects, they will be the last faces of what will be known as the Calipari Era in these parts. (Come next season, Wesley Witherspoon and Roburt Sallie will have played more games for Josh Pastner than they did for John Calipari.) But neither player has coasted through his four years at the U of M. The wins seemed to have come rather easy until their senior season arrived, but both Kemp and Mack show bruises in the pictures with all those trophies.
Having starred at Bolivar Central High School, Kemp chose Memphis over Tennessee after one of the first recruiting battles between Calipari and UT’s Bruce Pearl. With Darius Washington leaving school after his sophomore year, the Tiger point-guard position was Kemp’s to win. He did so, and started all but a single game for a team that went 33-4 and reached the NCAA tournament’s Elite 8 for the second straight year. With Andre Allen backing him up, Kemp averaged 21 minutes and 6.4 points per game, adjusting his game to fit those of Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, Joey Dorsey, and Jeremy Hunt. He hit four of five three-point attempts against Ohio State in the regional finals, but on a day the Tigers were overmatched by Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and friends.
The next two seasons were trying for Kemp, as he found himself losing minutes first to Derrick Rose, then as a junior to Tyreke Evans. The fact that each of those “one-and-done” stars will likely have NBA Rookie of the Year hardware in their trophy cases is small consolation to a player whose confidence dove with his playing time. Kemp averaged but 13 minutes on the court as a sophomore and junior and saw his field-goal percentage plummet to 28 percent in the 2008-09 season. He started but two of 76 games over this two-year stretch.
Fast forward to last November, after the Tigers beat Tennessee Tech for their second win of the season. “I feel confident out there,” said Kemp. “Coach Pastner believes in me; lets me go out there and do what I do. If I make a mistake, he lets me play through it. And we all come together.” Kemp had just scored 11 points with six assists and four rebounds in 29 minutes. Challenges awaited his team unlike any he’d seen in college, but for Willie Kemp, there seemed to be a sense of salvation. Starting with the January 27th win over Marshall, Kemp has had a stretch of 11 games as efficient as any point-guard Memphis has seen, minus the scoring talents of Rose or Evans. Over those 11 games, Kemp has dished out 45 assists against only 13 turnovers.
Like Kemp, Doneal Mack has worked his way into Tiger history in spite of a role not always as defined as he’d like. His long-distance shooting was a valued addition for the 2006-07 team (Mack hit 47 treys that season and shot 40 percent from behind the arc). Inconsistency, though, kept Mack on the bench for long stretches (he averaged 14 minutes as a freshman, 12 as a sophomore). He actually transferred to New Orleans after the 2007-08 season, only to change his mind and return, determined to show those who doubted him — starting with John Calipari — that he was a difference-maker.
Mack started 32 games as a junior, averaging 25 minutes and 8.7 points per game. He drilled five three-pointers against Maryland in the second round of the NCAAs, only to go 0 for 7 in the Sweet 16 loss to Missouri. That inconsistency thing, again.
Playing in the shortest rotation of his career, Mack has started 26 games as a senior and averaged just under 30 minutes. He was brilliant in mid-December, hitting four treys in three consecutive games. But he recently went eight games without hitting as many as three, before draining four in the big win at UAB Wednesday night. The lefty's shot is gorgeous when it’s falling, but the twisting rotation he puts on the ball is hardly from the Larry Bird School of Shooting Technique. Mack is just the third Tiger to hit 200 three-pointers and will finish his career among the top 30 scorers in Memphis history.
Last Saturday, I asked Kemp to skip the “great teammate” chatter, and tell me something no one else might know about his teammate of four years. After a short pause, the point guard smiled in a way that hasn’t always been easy over his college basketball career. “If D-Mack borrows something from you,” he said, “you ain’t getting it back until you ask. He asked for my DVD player last week, so he could watch a movie. I still don’t have it back.” Standing at the next locker, Mack turned and scowled, only to break into a grin of his own. Teammates understand each other.
Kemp and Mack are on schedule to graduate in May.