JOHN CALIPARI'S dribble-drive motion offense is designed to exploit matchups against inferior defenders—or as his players like to call them, babies. "We'll say to each other, 'I got a baby on me, man. Give me the ball,'" explains Shawn Taggart, a junior center. Of course, the player who did most of the exploiting last season was practically a baby himself, freshman point guard Derrick Rose. Now that Rose is a member of the Chicago Bulls, the Tigers are once again putting their Final Four hopes in the hands of a freshman, Tyreke Evans.
The 6'6" guard from Chester, Pa., is already inviting comparisons with Rose. "Derrick was more of an explosive athlete than Tyreke, but he wasn't as big and long and physical," Calipari says. "The main question is whether Tyreke has as big a desire to win as Derrick had." The early signs are promising. Since arriving in Memphis over the summer, Evans has put himself through nightly workouts with Lamont Peterson, who has trained Evans since he was 14 and whom Calipari hired as an administrative assistant in August.
Evans is not a pure point guard like Rose, but his 7'3" wingspan enables him to make difficult layups in traffic, and as the team's best ball handler he'll often be called upon to initiate the offense. He also has the tools to be a top on-the-ball defender, which Calipari has challenged him to be from Day One.
Evans's adjustment to the college game will be made easier by playing alongside two veteran running mates: senior Antonio Anderson, who had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in Conference USA last season (2.6 to 1), and junior Willie Kemp, who started at point guard as a freshman before taking a backseat to Rose last year. The task of replacing center Joey Dorsey's imposing inside presence will fall to Taggart and senior Robert Dozier, who entered the NBA draft last spring but returned to college after general managers told him he needed to get stronger and improve his shooting. Calipari also wants Dozier to step up his rebounding and shot blocking, pointing to the offensive rebound he got with 16 seconds left in regulation in the national championship game as proof of the impact he can have. "That play should have won us the game," Calipari says. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Dozier's rebound led to two free throws—the Tigers' Achilles' heel—and Rose missed 1 of 2 as Memphis went on to lose to Kansas in overtime.
The Tigers could very well get back to the Final Four if Evans grows up fast enough. As Rose proved, if you take enough baby steps, you can go a long, long way.
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*HIGH SCHOOL STATS