Fess up, ye faithful followers of Memphis Tiger basketball. When he arrived in the spring of 2000, how many of you thought we'd be previewing year six of the John Calipari era in Memphis? (I, for one, figured the Pennsylvania native would be here three years before making a beeline for the first job opening in the Big East.) Whatever your opinion of the fourth-winningest coach in Tiger history -- and those opinions tend to run to extremes -- the carpetbagging label no longer applies. Perhaps more surprising than Calipari being on the U of M bench for a sixth season is the fact that he now seems to coach the Tigers as a Memphian.
In reviewing Calipari's first five years, there's a distinctive good news/bad news quality to almost every angle.
Good News: Calipari has led Memphis to the "final four" of a national postseason tournament three times, winning a championship in 2002.
Bad News: The tournament was the NIT.
Good News: Calipari has convinced mega-talents like Dajuan Wagner and Sean Banks to give it the old college try and forsake their northeast connections for scholarships at Memphis.
Bad News: Neither Wagner nor Banks made it through a second season as a Tiger. (At least one of this year's heralded freshmen may well follow this one-and-done pattern.)
Good News: Calipari has won at least 21 games in each of his five seasons, a streak matched only once in Tiger history (from 1981-82 to 1988-89).
Bad News: Among his 115 victories in Memphis, Calipari has won exactly one NCAA tournament game (a first-round win over South Carolina in 2004).
Good News: Since Calipari's arrival, the U of M has seen 10 players graduate, including such notables as Shyrone Chatman, Marcus Moody, and Earl Barron. (Antonio Burks and Anthony Rice are on the cusp of getting their degrees.) This is a standard not even approximated by coaches Dana Kirk or Larry Finch during their long tenures.
Bad News: Calipari has also suited up the likes of Billy Richmond, Banks, Jeremy Hunt, and current Tiger Andre Allen, players whose poor decisions away from the court made as many headlines as their achievements in uniform.
The good news heading into the 2005-06 campaign is that Calipari has what is likely his deepest pool of talent since he moved south. The Tigers are ranked 12th in the country in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today coaches preseason polls. The bad news, if it can be called such, is that he'd better make the most of the talent this season. With Rodney Carney graduating and two other stars eyeing the NBA, the shakeup for year seven could be significant.
Not since Cedric Henderson, Chris Garner, and Deuce Ford joined Finch's squad for the 1993-94 season have the Tigers seen the quality and quantity of impact freshmen this year's team will feature. No fewer than four members of last year's prep-school national champions -- Laurinberg Prep in North Carolina -- will be wearing blue and gray this winter. Shawne Williams, Kareem Cooper, and Robert Dozier (all forwards) and Antonio Anderson (a guard) led Laurinberg to a 40-0 record, and the squad was dubbed by many as the best prep team ever assembled. Add to this quartet, swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts (call him CDR) and the Tigers have the closest thing to the University of Michigan's legendary 1992 "Fab Five" we're likely to see in these parts.
A fancy prep resume doesn't guarantee instant success on the Division I hardwood, of course. (See London, Paris or Hunter, Jimmie.) Just how Calipari molds his five frosh into a supporting mix behind senior Rodney Carney and the indomitable personality and style of point guard Darius Washington will determine if these Tigers are capable of a March run in the big boys' tournament.
In 14 years as a college coach, Calipari has never had so many impact freshmen at his disposal. ("The year Lou Roe came to UMass [1991-92]," recalls Calipari, "we had four, but they didn't start.") Speaking after the Tigers' opening exhibition game on September 3rd (a 104-60 victory over LeMoyne Owen), Calipari acknowledged making his own adjustments as he shapes this team. "We're not running a whole lot of plays," he explains. "The whole point of it now is, you play hard. You sprint the floor. You dive on the floor. You play tough. You rebound and run. Running plays now takes away from what they have to learn first, which is mental and physical toughness and great team defense."
The cream of the rookie crop appears to be Williams, a dynamic inside-outside player who starred at Hamilton High School before spending last year in North Carolina, getting his academic house in order. It was only after lengthy speculation that Williams would enter last summer's NBA draft that he decided to enroll at the U of M. And whatever his pro ambitions may be, Williams' Bluff City roots have made a Tiger uniform feel comfortable.
"Mingo Johnson, that was my guy," Williams says through a cheek-stretching grin, recalling the sharp-shooting Tiger guard of the mid-'90s, a standout for the 1995 team that reached the NCAA tournament's sweet sixteen. "I've been wanting to come to Memphis since Tic Price was coaching. Now, with Coach Cal and his resume, it's even better."
Williams will follow in the line of Wagner, Banks, and Washington, a Tiger freshman who will cut his college teeth in the starting lineup. He understands, though, that his prep days are over. "The level of competition here ... you gotta play hard every game," Williams says. "In high school, you do a lot of stuff and you can get away with it. I've got to work on defense. Coach Cal says I need to bend my knees. I stand too erect. I can handle the ball well, from 19 feet in. And I'll show what I can do best."
How have the veterans taken to all the new faces? "They're going to fit in perfectly," says senior forward Rodney Carney. "Everybody brings a little something to our chemistry. They're listening to Cal. Now, all they need to do is play."
"They're all good," adds Washington, "and they're eager to learn, which is great. They're ready to take on the challenge ahead of them. They've asked me about atmosphere, the arena, college teams -- the pros and cons of the college game. I just try and give them a heads-up on what to expect. I try and make everyone more comfortable."
Consider that Calipari handed the leadership of his program to Washington a year ago, when the freshman point guard might have been expected to defer to seniors like Anthony Rice or returning stars like Banks. The precocious playmaker from Orlando inherited the role former Tiger (and current Grizzlies reserve) Antonio Burks carried so well in the 2003-04 march to the NCAA tournament. Washington, though, brought offensive skills -- and a willingness to showcase them -- that made some, most notably Banks, bristle. End result? Banks was dismissed from the team in January, and Washington went on to average 15.4 points per game (his 584 total points were more than Keith Lee or Lorenzen Wright scored as freshmen). On that fateful Saturday last March, when a pair of missed free throws by Washington cost the Tigers a Cinderella-worthy entry into the NCAAs, Washington became the face most identified with Memphis basketball. And it will remain so as long as he stays on campus. Sports Illustrated ran a feature on Washington in October -- before its college hoops preview -- extolling how Washington survived the trauma of those missed shots and the community's embrace of him in defeat.
"Darius hasn't changed," says Calipari. "He's very self-disciplined, self-motivated."
At the dawn of his second season in Memphis, last year's Conference USA Freshman of the Year seems to have, somehow, added confidence. While the consensus seems to be that Washington will enter a rather thin 2006 NBA draft, his focus remains on life as a college basketball player and making sure his sophomore season doesn't end like his freshman campaign. "It's maturity," he says. "I know what to expect now, so it makes it easier to prepare. I know what to prepare for -- mental toughness, physical toughness, everything."
Did all the offseason attention interfere with Washington's evolution as a player? "It wasn't a distraction," he stresses. "It's only a distraction if you make it one. I took everything in stride, didn't take anything to my head."
Washington's chief competition for C-USA Player of the Year may well be his teammate, Carney. If he stays healthy, the Indianapolis native could break Anthony Rice's year-old Tiger record for three-pointers (he needs 58) and move into the top five in career scoring. Still the best athlete on the team, Carney recognizes that his game needs more than his ability to leap over unsuspecting defenders.
"I've been working on my ball-handling," he says. "I needed to get that down and I can feel it out there on the floor. There are some drills we do, with two balls, one ball. I went to Chicago and worked with some pros. Now, we'll see the benefit."
As the only senior who will get significant playing time, Carney is taking his role as leader rather seriously. It's his style of leadership that may be new to Tiger fans. "I lead by example," he says. "Other leaders I've played with -- Antonio Burks or Earl Barron -- they would lead vocally. I lead by example."
"If you're disciplined off the court," Calipari says, "you're going to be disciplined on the court. If you're responsible off the court, you're going to be responsible on the court. Rodney's done all the things to show me he wants this to be a special year -- off the court. It's being professional. It means you understand that you're responsible to yourself and your teammates. This is going to carry over into his self-confidence. I expect him to have one of those breakout years."
The Tigers' team picture will be new and different this year, and so will the league they play in. Conference USA opens its 11th season with six new members. Gone are C-USA stalwarts Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, Saint Louis, DePaul, Charlotte, South Florida, and TCU, while joining the Tigers in conference play this season are Marshall, SMU, Rice, Tulsa, UTEP, and Central Florida (UCF).
Considering the hallowed history the Tigers have with the likes of Louisville and Cincinnati (the Bearcats have been scheduled as a non-conference opponent for December 3rd), the new league could be a tough sell to the casual fan. But Calipari spent eight years in the Atlantic 10, beating up on the likes of St. Bonaventure, Fordham, Dayton, and Duquesne. Those UMass teams made three trips to the NCAA's sweet sixteen, reaching the Final Four in 1996. His standard pitch (for fans and recruits): Would you rather fight for third or fourth place in a "power conference" and be on the NCAA bubble or have a shot at a league championship -- and with it a higher NCAA seed -- every year?
The 2005-06 Memphis Tigers face as big a challenge in expectations as they will with any opponent, regardless of conference affiliation. "Everyone knows we're talented," says Carney, "but we're very deep. Cal can put in a starting five and then put in a new five. That's going to surprise some teams. The style of game we play, we're going to need [that depth]."
"For us to be special," says Calipari, "every guy has to buy into how they have to play. I'm going to play the guys who can play this [aggressive, attacking] way. We've got a bunch of good guys, who want to do right, who want to play right, who want to be coached. If you accept mediocrity, you're getting it, every single time. So the bar has been raised for everyone on the team."
With so much good on a team so young and stocked with talent, is there a place where "bad" might creep in and play its sinister role? Ask Washington about any lingering tension from last year's locker room and he all but slings his answer back, with a tip of his head and a shrug of the shoulders. "Everybody plays hard [on this team]," he emphasizes. "Everybody's unselfish. There's none of that [tension] this year. Everybody's just ready to play."
Carney offers the most blunt, most ambitious summary of his team's goals for the season ahead. "I want to win everything we can," he says. "The sky's the limit."