"We're still learning, but we're very, very skilled and deep."
Those 10 words from University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari summarize his team. Spoken after Memphis all but clinched the Conference USA regular-season title by beating UTEP in late February, the statement is classic "good Cal," in that it's to the point, brash, without spin. ("Bad Cal" is delivered with a message -- typically sharp -- aimed at anyone from an opposing coach, to the NCAA selection committee, to a sportswriter.) Having won C-USA's regular-season and tournament championship, the Tigers will face Oral Roberts as the top seed in the Oakland region (the first two rounds will be played in Dallas), the first time the U of M has ever entered the NCAA tournament as a number one.
But before we start speculating on just how grand March might be for the Tigers, let's do a quick inventory on what was the program's most fruitful regular season in over 20 years.
• Memphis has won 30 games for only the second time in the program's history. (The 1984-85 squad won 31.)
• The Tigers reeled off a 15-game winning streak, the third longest in the program's history.
• Memphis has been ranked in the top 10 since November 28th and in the top five since December 12th. This is the longest such run since the 1984-85 team spent the entire season in the top 10 (finishing at number 5).
• The Tigers won the Conference USA regular-season championship (its first such outright title since winning the 1995 Great Midwest crown) as well as its first conference tourney title since 1987.
• Senior Rodney Carney is C-USA's Player of the Year. He could finish as high as third on the school's all-time scoring list and is a likely second-team AP All-American.
All this is well and good. But what chance does this team have of reaching the Final Four? Whenever I deliberate over the Tigers' hopes, I keep coming back to the same name: Joey Dorsey. And I feel like a Civil War general assessing his troops' chances for the battle ahead: The flanks are powerful, but will the center hold?
The stars who should carry the U of M are Rodney Carney, Darius Washington, and Shawne Williams. As for supporting roles, Antonio Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts are a pair of versatile rookies with interchangeable virtues: defense, penetration, shooting, even rebounding. But Dorsey's role is the one most difficult to support from the bench and represents the single most critical variable to a championship season: interior defense. On a team filled with higher-profile stars, Dorsey can be the most valuable player on the floor without scoring a point. (In NBA terms, think Detroit's Ben Wallace.)
For a coach who preaches toughness, Dorsey is the barometer. "We've got to learn to play different ways against different teams," says Calipari. "If it's gonna be a physical game, you've gotta make the layups when you're getting bumped. Every team we play is going to get rougher and more desperate."
It's been a mercurial season for the muscle-bound sophomore from Baltimore. Dorsey's rejection of a dunk attempt by Duke's Josh McRoberts in the season's sixth game remains, in my eyes, the highlight of the season. It was a statement that Memphis -- at Madison Square Garden, no less -- was ready to play with the sport's mightiest powers. During the season, Dorsey's had six games with double figures in points and rebounds and blocked at least three shots in 12 games. He's also thrown up some ugly stat lines: two points and a single rebound at East Carolina; the same totals at Marshall; no points and three boards against Southern Miss at home. The Tigers won all three of those games, but what happens if Dorsey's a no-show against, say, UConn?
When the Tigers pulled away to win a home struggle with Tulsa February 25th, Calipari pointed to a player who had scored exactly two points as the difference-maker. "Joey was a monster at the end of the game," said the coach. "Joey's capable of that: blocking shots, coming up with loose balls. He made the three plays that won the game. Effort plays. That's what we've been lacking a little bit."
Dorsey acknowledges the work yet to be done in refining his game. "I've got to work on my footwork in the post," he says. "I've got to stop my man from beating me on the offensive end. I get so down on myself when I get scored on."
Dorsey missed most of the first half of the C-USA semifinals against Houston, after picking up a pair of fouls in the first five minutes. When he reentered the game with 17 minutes to play, the Tigers trailed the Cougars by five. When he returned to the bench seven minutes later, Memphis was up by four and would never trail again. "When he's that good," asked Calipari after the game, "how do you play us? We all see signs of Shaquille O'Neal, but the kid's a sophomore. He's still learning."
Williams and Robert Dozier have been adept shot-blockers, but they've gained an advantage by guarding smaller players because Dorsey clogs the middle with his massive frame. When Dorsey gets in early foul trouble or fails to make an impact on defense, Memphis becomes a small team. Bottom line: The Tigers know who their stars are heading into the Big Dance, but Joey Dorsey is driving the limo.
While Dorsey's role may be an off-the-radar factor as postseason play begins, the team's depth cannot be overvalued. Consider the February 22nd showdown with UTEP, a nationally televised game against C-USA's second best team. The Tigers' top three players combined for nine points in the first half, yet Memphis led by eight. The starting point guard had exactly one assist for the game; the starting center but two rebounds. The best three-point shooter in U of M history missed all four of his long-range attempts. And Memphis whipped the Miners, 66-56.
The Tigers won because Douglas-Roberts hit seven of 10 field-goal attempts. The four players Calipari brought off his bench combined for 15 points, 11 rebounds, and three steals. On one occasion, the coach substituted four players on the same whistle. It's the only time I've ever seen such a move in the college ranks where the players coming off the floor aren't being punished. This was against the biggest threat Memphis would face for league supremacy. Calipari essentially showed UTEP coach Doc Sadler that the home team had two units that could beat him.
"I've never played on a team like this before," says Carney. "If I don't perform, Darius doesn't perform, Shawne doesn't perform -- Chris steps up. And we pick it up on defense. That's the way it's been all season." The Tigers have no fewer than five players who have scored at least 23 points in a game this season. Such a quantity of scoring threats is rare in the NBA, let alone the college ranks.
For much of the 2005-06 campaign, the Tigers' toughest opponent has been themselves. If you know you need merely a B- to pass a course -- against the likes of Southern Miss or Tulane -- why bring your A game? Calipari knows his finest Memphis team will face its biggest test in the glare of the national spotlight over the next few weeks. He's been there before and seems up for the battle.
"You're coaching against human nature," he says, "which is to let up. We have to set a higher standard. Let's chase greatness. Will they be talking about this team 10, 15, 20 years from now? I know they still talk about the '73 team here, 33 years later. Can we be one of those teams? Let's chase that."