They are the two most confounding words in any sports debate: "Yeah, but ... " The 1972 Miami Dolphins are the greatest Super Bowl champion ever. Yeah, but they played a soft schedule. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are the best NBA team ever assembled. Yeah, but they didn't have a center. Babe Ruth was the greatest slugger baseball will ever know. Yeah, but he played before the game was integrated.
The 2006-07 University of Memphis basketball team has some legitimate reasons to harbor dreams of the school's first national championship. For every one of these factors, however, that ugly qualifier tarnishes the luster of hope Tiger fans have held throughout the winter. Can the expectations and potential of a special team -- the South Region's second seed -- be realized during the only month that really matters in college basketball? Or will reality consume a team still a few variables short of championship caliber? Questions like these are why they play the games.
Here's a look at the reasons to believe:
• The U of M ran roughshod over Conference USA, and, to a degree, the nation has to accept the Tigers as legitimate. If you look at the much-ballyhooed RPI rankings, C-USA isn't even among the country's 10 best conferences. As weak as the league appeared when the likes of Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, and DePaul jumped ship, it was that much weaker in 2006-07. C-USA will have but one representative in the NCAA tournament.
But what a torch-bearer.
Memphis went 16-0 in conference play this season, winning by an average margin of 18.5 points. They reeled off three more victories to win the league tournament and extend their nation-leading (and school-record) winning streak to 22 games. And their only three losses came against teams you'll see in the Big Dance.
Does the relative weakness of C-USA competition diminish the talents of Coach John Calipari's Tigers? It's sort of a tree-falling-in-the-forest question, isn't it? You can't fault a coaching staff for recruiting the best players it can, league rivals be damned. How exactly this group would fare in the ACC, SEC, or Big East is a hypothetical weight no team should have to bear. Until March, when the big boys become the competition.
• Yeah, but ... No team wins a national championship having nourished itself on B-league prey. Over the last quarter-century, only two teams have won titles outside the major conferences (UNLV in 1990 and Louisville in 1986). The fact is, if Memphis advances to the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Tigers will likely face a better team than any of their C-USA brethren. This means Memphis must win five consecutive games against competition superior to anything they've seen in order to be crowned champion.
• As talented as last season's team was, this year's squad is deeper and better. The 2005-06 Memphis team was one to remember, with a pair of first-round NBA draft picks (Rodney Carney and Shawne Williams) and a third player who made the all-conference team (Darius Washington). They won 33 games, reached the Elite Eight, and finished the season ranked among the country's top 10.
Three supporting players for that team -- Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, and Robert Dozier -- are now sophomores and form the leadership of the current squad. A fourth sophomore -- Kareem Cooper -- would have been the starting center for most C-USA teams but served as Joey Dorsey's backup for the Tigers. With junior Andre Allen helping freshman Willie Kemp cut his playmaking teeth and Jeremy Hunt returning to the program and starring in a sixth-man role, Memphis has a multi-pronged unit that is perfect for Calipari's quick hook and, when needed, message-delivering mass substitution.
During the 2006 C-USA tournament, Calipari smirked as he mentioned a common reply that comes when he delivers an admonishment to a player: "I'm trying."
"Then I've got to find someone who can try a little harder," said the coach. Depth is about options for a coach, and Calipari is dealing with more options than he's had in his seven years at the Memphis helm. From freshman sharpshooter Doneal Mack to the massive Pierre Niles (who lost considerable minutes upon Cooper's return in mid-December), Calipari doesn't tolerate sloppy or lazy play, because he doesn't have to.
• Yeah, but ... When March Madness arrives, the value of depth is an inflated factor. We need only look at the two Tiger squads that reached the Final Four to pull the wool off the mythic importance of depth. The 1973 Tigers had but two players who made any impact off the bench (Bill Cook and Wes Westfall). As for the 1985 team, it was so dominated by its magnificent starting five that Willie Becton and Dwight Boyd would not so much as break a sweat in some games. It's not the number of players. It's the players, stupid.
• It's time for Joey Dorsey to become a household name. Other than the man-child that is Ohio State's Greg Oden (a potential Tiger opponent in the South Region finals), it'll be hard to find a big man with the ability to impose himself on another team like the Tigers' muscle-bound junior center from Baltimore. From his climb up the U of M shot-blocking charts to his increased value on the offensive end, C-USA's 2007 Defensive Player of the Year brings a fury to his game that is a direct reflection of his coach's impassioned style on the sideline. He's a living, breathing double-double.
A recent trend in college basketball has seen a rebirth of the big man as the (literal) centerpiece for championship teams. While it wasn't that long ago we saw guards like Arizona's Mike Bibby and Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves lead the way for their teams' one shining moment, the last three years have been big man's parties: Emeka Okafor with Connecticut in 2004, Sean May with North Carolina in 2005, then Joakim Noah with Florida last year. Guards remain integral to the tournament mix, and the six in Calipari's rotation will have much to say about how many games the Tigers get to play in the dance. But Dorsey is the difference-maker, the one player opposing teams will sweat over in their matchup plans.
• Yeah, but ... Dorsey gets in foul trouble, and he can't shoot free throws. If the Tigers are fortunate enough to have their big man on the floor for the last five minutes of a tight game, they better keep the ball away from him. It's in the hands of 46 percent free-throw shooters where title dreams go to die.
• Jeremy Hunt is the storybook hero we've all been waiting for. He missed 10 games his freshman season due to a foot injury and infection. He tore the ACL in his left knee to end his sophomore season prematurely. He tore his right ACL during the NIT to end his junior season and endured months of rehab. He was permanently suspended before his senior season after his involvement in a domestic assault and a Beale Street brawl.
But back he came. Having earned his bachelor's degree despite all the distractions, Hunt returned for a fifth year in the U of M program and has been among the two or three best sixth men in the country. In a narrow victory over Southern Miss at FedExForum on January 27th, there was a five-minute stretch in the second half when Hunt took over the contest. A steal, a blocked shot, a three-pointer, and a charge taken for an offensive foul. Hunt did everything that afternoon and willed his team to victory in a game they shouldn't have won. It's the kind of grit his coach preaches, his fans adore, and teams require to win six straight games in March.
• Yeah, but ... This is Jeremy Hunt. Keep rooting for him, but it's hard to see a happy ending based on his track record.
• John Calipari is a championship coach, just minus the hardware. He's aiming to take his fourth team to the Elite Eight (he did it twice with UMass). He's won at least 20 games seven straight seasons in Memphis. He's made 10-game winning streaks a habit in a sport where they're terribly hard to come by. He's recruited stars from well beyond the Mid-South, making the U of M a national destination for players and media. He's weathered personnel storms, from the lost (Sean Banks) to the found (Hunt). And he's made an NBA arena feel like a natural fit for a college basketball program. The only thing John Calipari is missing seems to be a national-championship ring. Why not this year?
After clinching the C-USA regular-season championship on February 22nd, Calipari brought up a subtle -- for Calipari -- adjustment he's made in coaching this year's squad.
"This is going to be one of those years when I'm not putting my head in the sand," he said. "Normally, you go on a run of games and you don't want to screw it up, so you put your head in the sand; just get to the next game. But the problem with that is you're a train wreck waiting to happen. If you want to get things you've never [gotten], you've got to do things you've never done. For me, that means I'm not sticking my head in the sand. There's too much at stake for everyone."
• Yeah, but ... Calipari will never make the Hall of Fame based on his credentials with X's and O's. It's hardly noticeable when you're winning one blowout after another, but what happens when there are two minutes to play on a neutral court, Tigers down by three, and no one in a blue-and-white uniform can make a free throw? The Tigers survived at Gonzaga when Calipari put Hunt back on the floor for overtime and his senior shooter got hot. An offensive rebound -- after a missed free throw, folks -- saved the day at SMU. How the Tiger players will respond to the crucible of a late-round nail-biter in the NCAAs is a roll of the dice.
• It's good to be the hunted. There has been exactly one game this season when the Tigers took the floor as the underdog: December 20th at Arizona. (Minus one of their two top scorers and not ranked in the Top 20, Gonzaga -- even playing at home -- didn't qualify as a favorite in its narrow loss to Memphis on February 17th.) Being the team everyone else circles on their schedule is a prime motivator, and it's kept the Tigers sharp when they might otherwise have taken a night off. Tight, hostile environments such as East Carolina, Southern Miss, Central Florida, and UAB can be deadly to winning streaks, and the Tigers won handily in each of those venues. Memphis may play in a weak conference, but no team in the country wears a target on its back like the U of M.
"[Coach Cal] is real big on intensity," says Douglas-Roberts. "His favorite saying is, 'Carry a swagger, not an arrogance.'"
• Yeah, but ... It's better to be the hunter. This is the one qualifier Calipari himself would embrace. If the Tigers can get through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament -- and overlook Nevada at your own risk -- they'll be the underdog. Once in the Sweet Sixteen, every expert from Billy Packer to Dick Vitale will question the integrity of the Tigers' record and whether or not they truly belong among the sport's elite. As this happens, you'll be able to see (and hear) the chip on Calipari's shoulder. And it will be the topic of every pre- and post-practice speech the Memphis coach delivers -- until the Tigers lose or are crowned national champions.