John Calipari is preaching progress. Improvement each year. Another step each March. In Calipari's first four seasons at Memphis, the Tigers have gotten better in every department, from ticket sales to talent level to, most important, wins and accomplishments.
Nobody's expecting that trend to change now.
"We've taken another step every year," Calipari said. "We're moving in the right direction and really building a program."
Calipari enters his fifth season at Memphis with probably the most talent he's ever assembled. Four starters return from a team that went 22-8 and earned a share of the Conference USA title before losing to Oklahoma State in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"We've got a chance to be pretty good," Calipari said. "I like the players I have, and I like my team."
FRONTCOURTWith the lack of a true center on its roster, Memphis will again rely mostly on a three-forward lineup that runs -- and runs well.
On the wings will be Rodney Carney and Sean Banks, two NBA-caliber athletes who will handle much of the scoring. Both can create for themselves and knock down jumpers. As a freshman last season, Banks led the Tigers in scoring (17.4) and rebounding (6.5). "The great thing about Sean is he's smart enough to understand he still needs to improve on some things and get stronger," Calipari said.
In the middle, Memphis will rotate a seemingly endless cast of characters. Duane Erwin, Arthur Barclay and Almamy Thiero are all veterans capable of solid minutes, though none has shown the ability to consistently produce.
Duquesne transfer Simplice Njoya will add another body, and junior college transfer Waki Williams is a versatile big man who will be expected to contribute immediately.
Freshman Kareem Cooper is more of a project, who is trying to develop and take advantage of his 6-foot-11, 285-pound frame.
From the potential department comes fellow freshman Richard Dorsey, a prep school standout, who has the Memphis staff excited. "Dorsey is a monster," Calipari said. "He'll go get balls, and that's what we need."
BACKCOURTAntonio Burks will be missed. How much so will determine whether the Tigers compete for a C-USA championship or struggle to find their identity. Burks was phenomenal as a senior, earning C-USA Player of the Year honors and single-handedly winning games. Now, the point guard duties will be handed to McDonald's All-America freshman Darius Washington Jr., who will be asked to score and distribute in a manner similar to his predecessor.
At the other guard will be the ever-steady Anthony Rice, a senior from Atlanta, who has developed into a dependable shooter and defensive stopper. Rice can guard either backcourt position and doesn't mind taking a secondary role on the offensive end. Junior Jeremy Hunt will add depth at both guard spots. And he will run the point at times to allow Washington to be more of the scorer he was in high school.
FINAL ANALYSISMemphis proved last season it is capable of outshooting opponents and winning without a significant inside presence.
The key will be the emergence of Washington and whether he can defer to Banks and Carney while picking his spots to score and beat defenders off the dribble. Assuming Washington adjusts well and fits in with the parts the Tigers already have in place, there's reason to believe Memphis could take another step forward this season.
"Each year I do something, I always want to do better than the year before," said Washington, well aware of the Tigers' history. "So I want to go to at least the Sweet 16. That's my goal this year. And if the individual stuff comes along with that, I'll take it. But my focus is to win."