Checking in with ... Memphis
Memphis won't be as dominant, but it could make it to another Final Four
Hyped freshman Tyreke Evans needs to work on his quick decision making
Relegated to a bench role last season, watch for Willie Kemp to break out
MEMPHIS -- Moments before a banner commemorating the University of Memphis' appearance in the 2008 Final Four was raised to the rafters of Fed Ex Forum last Friday night, the 14,000 blue-clad fans who had gathered for Midnight Madness were treated to a spine-tingling highlight video of the Tigers' march through the tournament bracket.
The montage was set to One Shining Moment, and the crowd rejoiced with every soaring dunk. When the video culminated with NBA commissioner David Stern's announcement that Derrick Rose had been selected with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, the fans stood and cheered some more.
From where I sat courtside, that ending struck me as more wistful than cheerful. After all, One Shining Moment is supposed to end with the winning team celebrating on the court, but since Kansas won the final game that wouldn't suffice in this setting. And the image of Stern's announcement was a bitter reminder that the biggest reason behind the Tigers' remarkable 38-2 season was not at Midnight Madness because he is a member of the Chicago Bulls (poor sap).
So while the university and its fans have every reason to be proud of what its team accomplished last season, the unfortunate reality is that the trio that formed the nucleus of the NCAA runner-up -- Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey -- are all gone. Tigers coach John Calipari started dealing with that reality as soon as the Kansas game was over. During lunch earlier that day, I asked Calipari how he handled the pain of the 75-68 overtime loss, in which the Tigers blew a nine-point lead in the last two minutes. "I never felt winning a championship was going to define who I am," he said with a shrug. "And I also felt, we'll be back. That was my thought in the locker room: We gotta get back."
Calipari talked about the game as we chowed down on ribs at Cozy Corner Restaurant, a low-key ribs joint on North Parkway. When you're in Memphis, you've gotta eat ribs, and I knew Calipari had juice in this town when he convinced the owner to serve us a fat plate even though the restaurant was closed. Al McGuire used to say, "If the waitress has dirt on her ankles, the chili is good." Well, the leather seats at Cozy Corner, were torn, which should tell you just how delicious those ribs were. (I definitely recommend the place, but if go, be careful not to mistake the mild barbecue sauce for the spicy. Trust me on that one.) Calipari told me he has never watched a tape of the title game, and he declined my request to watch it with me, even after I paid for lunch. But he recounted those fateful last few minutes with the vivid detail of someone who had replayed the sequence in his mind over and over again.
It's a little easier for Calipari to look ahead because he knows he's going to have a competitive team. The 2008-09 Tigers will certainly not be as dominating as last year's bunch, but if they're healthy, there's every reason to believe they will be well-positioned to make another run deep into the NCAA tournament. Though the Big Three are gone, two other key contributors from last year, 6-9 senior forward Robert Dozier and 6-6 senior guard Antonio Anderson, came back to school after withdrawing their names from the NBA Draft.
Anderson didn't go through workouts, but Dozier was put through the paces by five teams. Having learned that he needed to improve his strength and his outside shooting, Dozier spent the rest of his summer working strenuously on those deficiencies. Now Calipari says he has a chance to be one of the top 10 players in the country.
Whether Memphis is a good team (no doubt), a really good team (fairly likely) or a Final Four team (quite possibly) this season will depend mostly on how quickly the new players adapt to Calipari's frenetic, unconventional dribble-drive motion offense. And the new player who needs to adapt the quickest is heralded freshman guard Tyreke Evans. At 6-6, 219 pounds, Evans is bigger and stronger than Rose was at the start of his freshman year. He does not have the same explosive athleticism (who does?), but he is plenty quick and is incredibly adept at finishing around the basket. He has a funky shooting motion that takes a lot of time to get the shot off, but since he releases the ball well behind his head it should be pretty tough to block. And he is already demonstrating the ability to be a ridiculously good defensive player, which should lead to plenty of breakaway layups.
Evans is so good at getting to the rim that he presents Calipari with a conundrum: Should he play him at point guard to take advantage of his abilities to break down defenders, or should he keep him on the wing where he can focus more on scoring? Calipari also has two other players who are capable of playing the point -- Anderson and 6-2 junior Willie Kemp, a proficient shooter who started at the point as a freshman. Kemp will probably start at the point as the season begins, but you can be sure all three of those guys will be handling the ball a lot.
Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense might look fairly simple, what with all those repeated drive-and-kicks, but the patterns are more intricate than meets the eye. Because it is predicated on everything happening so fast, there is also very little margin for poor decision making. In the end, that will be the biggest challenge as Calipari integrates newbies like Evans, 6-8 forward Wesley Witherspoon, 6-11 forward Angel Garcia and 6-5 sophomore transfer Roburt Sallie.
All those guys are physically well-equipped to excel in the DDM, but mentally they have a lot to learn. At one point during last Friday's practice, Calipari circled his wrists in rapid fashion as if he was making a traveling call. "I need your feet to move like this," he said. Then he circled his wrists more slowly and said, "But I need your minds to move like this." Or as John Wooden used to say, "Be quick, but don't hurry."