I'm still trying to figure out the 2006-07 Memphis Tigers. Having won nine straight games (through Saturday's victory over Southern Miss), the Tigers appear to be running away with a second consecutive Conference USA championship. But that's part of the catch, isn't it? They're running away with, well, the C-USA championship.
Sorry, but such title runs don't capture the attention of SportsCenter. What will this team have to offer come March? Who is the go-to player in crunch time? (What would you have said a year ago about the answer to that question being Jeremy Hunt? Hunt took over the Southern Miss game and essentially won it by himself.) Can Coach John Calipari toughen his young squad in ways C-USA competition cannot?
The answers to these questions await as winter winds gradually give way to spring's thaw. But with nine regular-season games left to play, here are a few lessons we have learned.
• Reclamation Rules! Among the new slogans I've heard Calipari preach this season is, "It's about the path, not the prize." If such is the case, the paths taken by Hunt and Kareem Cooper have been as winding -- and rocky -- as a backwoods ski trail. A season ago, Hunt was "permanently" suspended for a pair of assaults that had the sharp-shooting swingman appearing at 201 Poplar. As for Cooper, the sophomore center was suspended for the first eight games this season for transgressions away from the basketball court. Were it not for his teammates making a public appeal, Cooper may well have played his last game as a Tiger.
Cutting to the present, Hunt is the team's second-leading scorer (13.9 points per game) and one of the top sixth men in the country. Cooper has embraced the role of Joey Dorsey's backup and played so well that highly touted freshman Pierre Niles has been a casualty of limited minutes. Cooper's soft hands -- particularly evident on his lefty hook shot -- complement the fearsome play of Dorsey and create matchup problems for Memphis opponents that can't go as large off the bench.
• Rebounding Wins. Duh. There have been but four games this season in which the Tigers were out-rebounded -- against Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Arizona, and Southern Miss. Three losses and a game Memphis should have lost. The Tigers are easy to brand as "small," considering the number of guards (six) they have in their nine-man rotation. But Dorsey has averaged just under 10 boards a game, Robert Dozier is pulling down almost six per contest, and Chris Douglas-Roberts is one of the best rebounding guards ever to wear a Tiger uniform. Add Cooper to the mix (more than five rebounds a game off the bench), and you have a team that can clean glass with the best of them. Well, at least the best C-USA has to offer (that qualifier, once again).
• Guards, Guards, Guards. (Might be a nice rewrite for Mötley Crüe.) Douglas-Roberts, Hunt, Antonio Anderson, Andre Allen, Willie Kemp, and Doneal Mack: six push-it-up playmakers crammed into a total of 200 player minutes per game. While it may have fans checking the scoreboard to remember who's in and who's out, Calipari is enjoying the luxury of substituting immediately for any ball-handler who isn't getting the job done at either end of the floor. With their top scorer (Douglas-Roberts) forced to the bench with an ankle injury early in the January 16th UAB game, Calipari utilized Mack for 20 minutes and got seven points and three assists out of the exchange.
"I told Chris," said a smiling Calipari after the game, "you better be worried about your position right now, if that kid plays like that."
Through Saturday's win, Kemp, Allen, and Anderson have combined for 190 assists and only 100 turnovers. For some perspective, consider that last season, Darius Washington -- the team's starting point guard -- had 110 assists and 111 turnovers. It's the kind of efficiency that lets a coaching staff sleep well at night. And the kind of team play that helps a fan keep hope in his hip pocket, however many other questions remain to be answered.