TIME TO ROAR The University of Memphis basketball squad tips off the third year of the John Calipari Era Thursday night when it takes on Syracuse in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The U of M will hardly be awed by the world’s most famous arena, as their last game played was in the same building, an NIT championship win over South Carolina March 28th. But wow . . . what a difference an offseason makes. Which leads to some compelling questions at the dawn of the 2002-03 campaign.
  • Can Earl Barron be THE MAN? Simply put, he’ll have to be for this team to harbor any thoughts of the NCAA tournament. No more Dajuan Wagner to take the big shots. No more Kelly Wise to pull down the big rebounds. No more Scooter McFadgon spotting up behind the arc for a kick-out. This can -- and should -- be Barron’s team. The seven footer has 102 games (including 47 starts) under his belt. He’s played a total of 10 NIT games and earned a bronze medal at the 2001 World University Games. He’s that rarity in modern college basketball: a senior go-to guy. Will we see the Barron who nailed 11 of 14 field goals in the NIT final against South Carolina . . . or the Earl who scored nary a point and grabbed but a single rebound in the semis against Temple? Considering the makeup of this team, Barron should push his scoring average from 9.2 to 15, rebounds from 5.4 to at least 9. If he does that, this Tiger squad has its backbone.
  • How good can Antonio Burks be? Big men are real nice, but be certain of this: point guards are behind the wheel for successful college basketball teams. Burks was electric at times in his debut season as a sophomore. Pushing the ball at a pace not seen in these parts since Elliot Perry did his thing, Burks was the perfect gas pedal for an offense fueled by Wagner’s scoring and Wise’s inside play. This year, Burks will have to take more shots (he averaged just over 7 per game last season), all the while involving his less-experienced teammates. Burks led Conference USA with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.33 last year, the kind of efficiency that will be critical for a team that won’t win many blowouts. Look for the Booker T. Washington alum to be as critical on defense as he is with the ball in his hands. (You’ll see just how valuable Burks is to this squad when he sits out the opener Thursday night. He’s serving a one-game suspension for improprieties involving a rental car.)
  • Will new faces bring new smiles to Tiger Nation? Almamy Thiero -- he of the body-by-granite physique -- may not play till late December. Vanderbilt transfer Billy Richmond won’t be eligible until mid-December. Jeremy “Skinny Penny” Hunt has fought Anthony Rice for minutes at shooting guard. And 6’7” forward Rodney Carney has been called the best athlete on the team by coach John Calipari. So what to expect from this group? Tiger Nation has to hope the young blood is able to complement the squad’s veteran core until conference play begins, at which time the kids will be counted on for about 20 points and 10 rebounds per contest. There’s no “phenom” in this group, but Hunt looks like he’ll be a contributing swingman in the McFadgon mold, and Carney is a leaper to help clean the boards. Until Richmond and Thiero suit up, the Tigers will have a thin bench. If molded properly by Coach Cal, it can still be productive.
  • Who will surprise us? Rice and Grice . . . Grice or Rice . . . there has to be a promotional campaign there, somewhere. John Grice seems to have found a Tiger’s eighth or ninth life, and may actually start at power forward. Anthony Rice now faces a season where he won’t surprise opponents out of Dajuan Wagner’s considerable shadow. Each of these players can shoot the ball, and Rice can wreak havoc in the transition game. Just as important as Barron seizing the Pyramid spotlight, these two will have to be consistent scorers for Memphis to reach the “big boys” tournament come March.
  • Coach Cal: moving up, or moving out? This will be the most interesting year, by far, for John Calipari in Memphis. He got all he could out of an over-achieving bunch in 2000-01, pushing them all the way to the NIT semis. He’d be the first to tell you 2001-02 was a disappointment, missing the big dance even with Wagner’s star power as his club’s driving force. Now, he begins his third year at the Tiger helm as, once again, the featured attraction. These are not Tic Price recruits he’s coaching anymore. The skills (or baggage) the players bring can be attributed to Calipari’s recruiting values. This is the year that should provide an indication of whether Calipari is building for something long-term, or starting the search for exit gates. Playing in the weak National Division of C-USA, the Tigers will have to do better -- earlier -- than last year’s club. And this is where Calipari will need his magic wand. Memphis went 2-4 last season against major non-conference opponents. An early win over Iowa, Alabama, or Arkansas more than likely would have landed the Tigers in the NCAAs. They’ll have their chances this season against Syracuse, Missouri, Ole Miss, Illinois, Arkansas, and Villanova. Memphis needs to win three of those games. PREDICTION (regular season): 17-10 (10-6 in C-USA) Postseason? The U of M will have to defend its 2002 “national title.”
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