FROM MY SEAT: Tiger Tip-off 

In reviewing John Calipari’s first half-decade at the helm of the University of Memphis basketball program, there’s a distinctive GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS quality to almost every angle.

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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.



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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 a scholarship 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.)

 

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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).

 

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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 Dana Kirk or Larry Finch during their long tenures at the helm.

BAD NEWS: Calipari has also suited up the likes of Banks, Billy Richmond, Jeremy Hunt, and current Tiger Andre Allen, players whose poor decisions away from the court made as many headlines as their achievements in uniform.

 

Here’s a look at four new angles. If they end up on the “good” side of the ledger, you’ll see the U of M back in the NCAA tournament come March.

 

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Darius the Distributor. Sophomore point guard Darius Washington is going to do his share of scoring. As a freshman, the Orlando native averaged 15.4 ppg (in Tiger history, only Dajuan Wagner scored more points as a frosh than the 584 Washington poured in last season). The key to Washington’s evolution as a player, though, is how well he involves fellow star Rodney Carney and the multitude of freshmen who will be salivating for touches. He averaged 3.8 assists last season and needs to get that figure between 5 and 6. And he has to cut down on the turnovers. Finishing a season with 144 assists and 134 turnovers is acceptable for a freshman. For a freshman.

 

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Best Supporting Player . . . . You guessed it: Rodney Carney. Has there ever been a four-year Tiger who has played so well, with such little acclaim? With his ability to jump through the FedExForum roof on one possession, then drain a rainmaking three-pointer on the next, Carney may well be the most dynamic player in Conference USA this winter. If he stays healthy, Carney will break Anthony Rice’s year-old school record for treys (he needs 58) and could move into the all-time top-five among Memphis scorers. Best of all, he hasn’t made a ripple in a program that has suffered with internal conflict. If Carney remains as quietly brilliant as a senior, the Tigers will have the perfect leadership complement to Washington’s ebullient way.

 

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Raising the kids. If you’re like me, you’ll need a program in the early stages this season, as five freshmen -- Shawne Williams, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, Kareem Cooper, and Robert Dozier -- try to squeeze into Calipari’s rotation. It may be Calipari’s toughest challenge this year: keeping these rookies happy as they surround veterans Washington, Carney, and Joey Dorsey. The dismissal of Jeremy Hunt is going to be a blessing in disguise, as the Tiger backcourt has another 20-25 minutes of playing time to distribute, and one less scowl on the bench as Calipari decides who plays and when.

 

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The comforts of home. Over their inaugural regular season at FedExForum, the Tigers went merely 10-6 (after having gone 15-0 in the last season at The Pyramid). Home losses to Ole Miss, Louisiana Tech, and TCU were deathblows to the U of M’s RPI rating and, thus, their chances at an NCAA tournament berth. This year’s home schedule includes non-conference tilts with, yes, Louisiana Tech, Gonzaga, Purdue, Texas, and Tennessee. With a minimum of 17 home games this season, Memphis needs to lose no more than four. A ticket to The Dance awaits.

 

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