FROM MY SEAT: Shall We Dance? 

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 two major 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 ten(!) 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 winter, 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-woods 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, when/if Memphis advances to the second round of the NCAA, 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 to be crowned champ.

  • 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 merely 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 when he delivers an admonishment to a player: I'm trying. "Then I've got to find someone who can try a little harder," stressed 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 tolerate such shortcomings.

  • 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 that 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.

    The Tigers' opening game will be Friday (11:30 am) in New Orleans, against North Texas.

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