Jump Ball 

With no stars returning and a tough schedule looming, the U of M Tigers have their work cut out for them this season.

On the basketball court, he's a somewhat diminutive figure, but Elad Hasin, the newest member of the 2002-'03 University of Memphis basketball team, manages to stand out, as he lofts jumper after jumper long after the rest of the team has left.

Another grueling practice has ended for the Tigers, the second session of the day, which has been the routine for this eclectic mix of players since October 12th. Among the Tigers' imposing physical presences are 7' senior center Earl Barron (who seems even taller this season), 255-pound senior power forward Chris Massie (who's locked in a spot on everyone's All-calf-muscle Team), and 6'10", 260-pound freshman center Almany Thiero (there's a reason this muscle-bound rookie is shirtless in the team's promotional ads).

Then there's Hasin, 22, who lists himself at 5'10" ("after a good stretch in the morning"). He won't ever get to display his shooting prowess for the U of M, but as much as any Tiger, Hasin embodies the toughness and maximum effort that Memphis head coach John Calipari demands.

Hasin, who has coached prep basketball team Hapoel Jerusalem for four years, will spend this season with the Tigers and Calipari, immersing himself in American college basketball. But even before arriving in Memphis and meeting Calipari, Hasin has played and coached basketball Calipari-style -- like his life depended on it. Hasin does everything with urgency. He has seen first-hand how quickly life can be snatched away.

"It was tough when my best friend died in a terrorist attack," says Hasin. Fellow prep coach David Eluz was killed during his mandatory service in the Israeli military. "He was one of eight soldiers in Tel Aviv who were run over by a bus that a terrorist had hijacked," says Hasin. "I said a few things at the funeral about us both dreaming of being professional coaches," Hasin adds. "That was our plan."

Hasin contacted Calipari through Simi Rigger, a mutual friend and Hasin's former Five-Star basketball camp coach, hoping to continue that plan in Eluz's memory. Having long admired Calipari, particularly his offensive style, he hopes to keep learning under the Memphis coach.

The opportunities to learn should be plentiful this season.

With a starting rotation that is still largely undecided, Calipari admits he has spent a majority of the preseason teaching fundamentals. "Offensively, we are going to have to be different [from last season]," Calipari says. "We are going to have to be an execution team as opposed to an isolation team like we were last year."

How long will it take for the Tigers to assimilate this new offensive style? That question is just one of several this enigmatic team will have to solve throughout a potential roller-coaster season. Last season, after being snubbed by the NCAA tournament despite winning 22 regular-season games, the Tigers won the National Invitational Tournament, knocking off South Carolina to finish 27-9 for the most school wins in 16 years.

"We won a national title -- not the one we wanted -- but we were playing our best basketball at the end of the year," Calipari says.

Now, Memphis wants that "other" championship, but the odds are against that happening this year. There will be no automatic 20 points from one-year wonder Dajuan Wagner, who captured the college basketball media's attention last season before taking his potential Rookie-of-the-Year skills to the NBA. The Tigers will also miss graduated forward Kelly Wise and his 10 rebounds and 11 points a game.

"Last year, we could isolate Dajuan, we could isolate Kelly Wise, and we could also isolate Chris Massie," says Calipari. "That's not happening with this group. Now, we've got to execute and create good shots for each other off screens and plays. And we've got to demand that they do it. There is no other option."

Navigating the early portion of the schedule, which includes nonconference games against Syracuse and Illinois, may be the biggest hurdle. And it could provide a foundation for optimism, if the Tigers succeed with two likely starters on the bench.

Sophomore guard Billy Richmond, a Vanderbilt transfer and Memphis Hamilton High graduate who averaged 8.8 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 2.2 assists in SEC play, has practiced with the team since January but won't be eligible until the Tigers' December 14th game at Missouri. "I'm just going to try to dominate the game on both ends of the floor, personally," Richmond says, adding, "I'm just glad to be back home, playing for Coach Cal. I've always wanted to play here."

A suddenly resurgent Massie, who has dominated in preseason play with strong post moves, a smooth short jumper, and tenacious rebounding, must pass 21 hours in the fall semester to become eligible and then must sit out the next two games -- against Missouri and Ole Miss -- for participating in the June NBA predraft camp.

"[Massie] has absolutely been humbled," Calipari says. "I wish he was like this last year -- for him and for us -- because he would probably be in the NBA right now. He has cleared his mind and he's not listening to people who tell him how to play," he adds. "He's just playing ball and looking good."

The team's other two seniors, Barron and back-from-the-dead forward John Grice, are both integral. Those early games should provide Grice with the opportunity to prove that last year's abysmal, eight-game campaign was an aberration. He shot 21 percent from the field and made only 10 percent of his three-pointers -- this from a player who was supposed to provide the Tigers with outside scoring.

But it's Barron and his now-you-see-me-now-you-don't performance history that may be the key to the Tigers' season. Barron is the team's most experienced player, having played in 102 games, including 47 starts. And barring injury, he should have at least 29 more.

But how long will he play once the ball is tipped?

That hinges on which Barron shows up -- the one who scored a career-high 25 points against South Carolina in the NIT championship or the Barron who had no points and one rebound in the previous game, a 78-77 semifinal win over Temple.

"I have to go out every game and leave it out on the floor," Barron says. With a professional basketball career hanging in the balance, Barron understands what's at stake. "I know what it takes to get to the next level," he says. "It's up to me whether I want to play or not. I know what I've got to do."

Among the other returnees, junior point guard Antonio Burks is the unsung leader-by-example (and increasingly by words). Calipari has often referred to Burks, who averaged five assists and 8.4 points last season, as the "quickest and toughest on-the-ball guard defender in the country."

Last season, Burks took a secondary role in the backcourt to Wagner. This year, he'll be asked to do more, including running the offense with precision, negating defensive presses, creating open shots for his teammates, and making his own open shots from inside the arc. So far, so good this preseason.

Burks' backup, freshman Clyde Wade, doesn't figure to play prominently while learning Calipari's system, but the other three Tiger freshmen may all eventually start.

The most electrifying of these is Rodney Carney, the Midnight Madness sensation who introduced himself to Tigers fans with a smooth, sliding, and gyrating dance in pregame introductions. The 6'7" wing forward later left a lasting impression with an emphatic, Jordanesque dunk from the free-throw line.

"Everybody wanted me to do that Indiana dance," Carney says. "That was what me and my friends used to do at my high school in Indiana. It looks so weird, but I was hyped."

Carney doesn't plan on letting the hype die down either. "I want to be Conference USA Freshman Player of the Year," he says. "I want to be known throughout the nation."

Freshman center Thiero should also provide a considerable presence down low, if not with pure basketball skills then at least with his hulking size. But he has been hampered by a stress fracture in his right shin. Both Thiero and Richmond (who is also suffering from a leg injury) have worked through a gauntlet of exercises designed by "Rock" Oliver, the Tigers' director of performance enhancement.

The local freshman product, 6'4" guard Jeremy Hunt of Craigmont (who's been dubbed "Skinny Penny"), has shown a propensity for doing something the original "Penny" Hardaway rarely did -- hustle on defense and dive all over the court. He has also shown a nice outside shot, connecting on four straight three-pointers at one point in the Tigers' open scrimmage.

And it's that kind of floor-burn-inducing effort that the Tigers have to bring to every game and practice in order to be successful. "We just want to get better as the season goes on," Calipari says. "We have a really tough schedule. We still have the Conference USA schedule the way it is [Memphis does not play Marquette or UNC-Charlotte], which means that we could still win 22 games and not make the tournament again. So all I am going to say is that we are going to play a great out-of-conference schedule, win as many as we can, win as many in the league as we can, advance as far as we can, and hopefully be in the NCAA tournament."

Hasin, who traveled thousands of miles to see Memphis succeed firsthand, expects nothing less. "I think this team will make the NCAA tournament," he says.

Note to Tigers football fans: Those interested in reading about the U of M's loss to Cincinnati, 48-10, should check our Web site at MemphisFlyer.com.

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