Memphis is tearing through the weak Conference USA, but will it be battle-tested enough come tournament time?
BEFORE HIS team took the court at Central Florida on Jan. 31, Memphis coach John Calipari scanned the newspapers to see what the local media had to say about the game, a matchup of first- and second-place teams in Conference USA. To his chagrin, he found the story on page 5 of The Orlando Sentinel's sports section. "This is a huge game," Calipari would say later. "Why wasn't it on the front page?"
The Tigers ripped Central Florida that night 87--65, and they continued their dominance of the conference last Saturday with a 95--51 flyby of Tulane that improved their record to 11--0 in the league (21--3 overall). But both victories point up a problem for Memphis: None of its wins are truly "huge." When five marquee programs—including Cincinnati, Louisville and Marquette—bolted Conference USA to join the Big East two years ago, it left the Tigers without a challenging league rival. And worse, it may have left this talented but callow team unable to get the tempering it needs to harden itself for NCAA tournament play.
"People said the same thing about us last year"—before Memphis advanced to the Elite Eight, where it lost to UCLA 50--45—"and if we hadn't gone 1 for 30 against UCLA, we would have made the Final Four," Calipari says. "The top teams in our league may be down a bit, but the league as a whole is better than it was last year."
Even so, the Tigers may be in for a tougher haul this time around. A year ago they were a No. 1 seed and, by the luck of the draw, faced no team higher than a ninth seed on their way to the Elite Eight. Now, with so many other strong contenders, a lower seed—and tougher draw—appears to be in store for Memphis, which was 11th in the RPI at week's end. Improving that ranking is difficult because only one team on its conference schedule ( Houston, at No. 77) is in the RPI's top 100.
Still, the Tigers have shown signs that they could be dangerous. Though six of the Tigers' top nine scorers are underclassmen, they share the ball like veterans and through Sunday had beaten their opponents by an average of 18.1 points a game, the fourth-best mark in the nation. "I'm pleased with how unselfish this team is," Calipari says. "Last year we had talent, but the ball stopped a lot. Now we're creating better for each other and taking better shots."
Leading the Tigers' balanced attack is 6'6" sophomore guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, who was averaging 14.8 points a game despite playing through a high ankle sprain. Douglas-Roberts has made just 13 treys this season, but he has an uncanny knack for getting to the rim. Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy says of Douglas-Roberts, "He's the guy you really fear. They can just clear the side and let him get a basket."
Running the team at point guard is freshman Willie Kemp, a highly prized recruit from Bolivar Central High outside Memphis who had started all 24 games through Sunday. He signed his letter of intent after a recruiting battle between Memphis and Tennessee that was so acrimonious, Calipari has threatened to end the Tigers' annual home-and-home series with the Vols over it.
But that would leave Memphis's schedule even more bereft. Calipari recognized that his team needs more high-profile games, and he persuaded Gonzaga coach Mark Few to move their annual game from December to mid-February. (They meet in Spokane this Saturday.)