Tigers coming out hungry in '08 (cont.)
If Derrick Rose wasn't in such a hurry to play professional basketball, the Tigers' prospects for getting back to the championship game would be a lot more, well, rosy. But I came away from my visit to Memphis surprisingly impressed with the Tigers' stable of talent. I also came away a few pounds heavier thanks to my visit to Cozy Corner. Even in down times this town never lacks for flavor, and I'm betting Memphis will show more spice this season than most people expect. Here's my breakdown of the Tigers:
Heart and soul: Anderson. Last year, Anderson was the consummate glue guy. He is a big, strong guard who loves to defend and is a surprisingly efficient passer. His 2.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio was best in Conference USA. Though he adeptly filled his complementary role last year, it was clear to me as I watched practice that he knows this is his team. He needs to improve on his shooting (he made just 40.8 percent of his field goals last year and 57 percent of his free throws), but the Tigers will need Anderson's varied skills. Most of all they will need his maturity and leadership.
Most improved: Shawn Taggart. Forget for the moment that Taggart, a junior forward, won the three-point contest at Midnight Madness. (Is it a good sign when a 6-10 guy wins your three-point contest?) He needs most to rebound and finish around the rim for Memphis to have a good season. He toned his body in the weight room over the summer and will be a starter this season, if only by necessity. He doesn't need to be as good as Dorsey, but if Taggart develops into a reliable post scorer and defender, it will enable a lot of other pieces to fall into place.
X factor: Evans. We know he was a sensational high school player, and his body is ready for the college game. (In truth, his body is ready for the NBA game.) The question is whether Evans will be able to handle the mental aspect of the game. That's not easy for any rookie, much less one that will be asked to do so much so soon, but make no mistake: he has the talent to do it.
Glue guy: Kemp. It couldn't have been easy for Kemp to be relegated to reserve duty after starting as a freshman, and at times it may not be easy for him to take a backseat to Anderson and Evans this season. But Kemp possesses considerable skills as both a knockdown shooter (he's a career 37.6 percent from three-point range) and a playmaker. He isn't generally considered a great defender, but now that this is his third year in the program he should have a handle on how hard he needs to play at that end of the floor. If Kemp shows a blue-collar attitude to match his white-collar skills, he'll get all the minutes he wants this season and then some.
Lost in the shuffle: Pierre Niles. I might have put freshman Wesley Witherspoon in this slot, but because he is so important to Memphis' future, my hunch is that Calipari will play more minutes than his abilities dictate to give him experience. That could leave Niles closer to the end of the bench, which would be a shame considering how hard he worked in the offseason to get into shape. Niles is 6-8, 300 pounds, but he lost 50 pounds in the offseason. I was amazed watching him run the floor and float to the rim during the intense two-hour practice. (He could make a fortune as an NFL defensive tackle if he didn't mind getting hit.) But Miles has shown immaturity and lack of dedication in the past, and if he lapses into that kind of behavior this season he'll disappear before our very eyes.
Bottom line: In Evans, Dozier and Anderson, Memphis has as good a three-man nucleus as you'll find anywhere. Because there are so many new guys in the fold, the team will take some lumps in the early going. (Maybe the Tigers will even lose a game in Conference USA this year; they've won 42 straight.) But by season's end I think the Tigers are going to better than people anticipate. Memphis should make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. If the Tigers stay healthy and the young guys can grow up fast, they may even raise another banner next October.