Consider the difference two months can make in the prospects of a college basketball team. When the Memphis Tigers beat Tulsa on January 13th -- thanks to a buzzer-beating layup from Antonio Anderson - they did so as an unranked team, having fallen out of the Top 25 with three losses in their first nine games. Fast forward to Sunday, the day after the Tigers beat that same Tulsa squad -- this time by 25 points -- to clinch their fourth straight Conference USA tournament championship. This time, the Tigers entered the game ranked fourth in the AP poll, having completed a third consecutive undefeated season in C-USA play. When the brackets were announced for the NCAA tournament, the Tigers were given the second seed in the West region. (Their opening game will be Thursday against Cal-State Northridge.) And you can bet they feel cheated out of a top seed. Funny what 25 straight wins will do for you.
The beauty now, of course, is that rankings don't mean a thing. Sixty-four games will be played over the next three weeks, and 64 teams will leave the court for the last time with a loss. The 31-3 Memphis Tigers hope to be the one team with a "shining moment" to celebrate. Here are four keys to the Tigers winning the four games necessary for a return trip to the Final Four:
Shawn Taggart. The Tigers' junior center has played the best basketball of his career over the last several weeks, peaking with three games that earned him an all-tournament selection by C-USA. He also had three double-doubles in the Tigers' last four regular-season contests. Ask recent NCAA champions like Connecticut, North Carolina, and Florida how valuable an inside presence can be to a championship run. If the seedings hold, and Memphis faces UConn for the regional championship, no one will be more valuable in battling the Huskies' All-America Hasheem Thabeet than Taggart. Tyreke Evans will score his points, Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier will be the steady hands Tiger Nation has come to love. But Shawn Taggart will be a difference-maker in this dance.
Sub surprise. Wesley Witherspoon was honored with C-USA's Sixth Player of the Year award, high praise considering it was Roburt Sallie who got the same nod from the team itself at the Tigers' annual banquet. Whether it's Witherspoon, Sallie, Willie Kemp, or Pierre Henderson-Niles, someone off the bench will have to contribute to winning at least a game or two for any deep run the Tigers make. Last year it was Kemp, with four three-pointers off the bench to help Memphis survive Mississippi State in the second round. A chief concern for Tiger coach John Calipari has to be any foul trouble that hits Taggart. Can Henderson-Niles hold the fort if Taggart is forced to the bench for an extended period?
Three-point accuracy. A key to stretching any zone defense -- and the Tigers are sure to face their share -- is long-distance shooting. And Memphis has been dreadful from beyond the arc of late, shooting no better than 30 percent in five of its last six games. (The U of M attempted 41 three-pointers in the C-USA tourney and made exactly 8.) This is where junior Doneal Mack will play a critical role, and Sallie off the bench. If Memphis can hit some treys early in a game, the gaps for drives by Evans and slashes through the paint by Dozier and Taggart grow larger. The Tiger defense never slumps, and it can carry the team over most opponents. But for a national title, shooters have to do their thing.
Motivation. Just listen to Calipari from his press conference after the Tigers finished off Tulane for the C-USA title last Saturday (before the brackets were announced.) "Is it paranoia if it's true?" he asked. "Is it paranoid if you say a guy's chasing you, and the guy's actually chasing you? But the good news with the NCAA is, you throw it up and we play. Either they're right, or we're right." Three teams that didn't even reach their conference-tournament finals were given number-one seeds, while the Tigers are a second seed. Calipari will open each practice -- and close each practice - with a reminder that his team has not been given the respect it's earned. Come Thursday, the Matadors will merely be the Tigers' opponent in uniform. As long as they're alive in the 2009 NCAA tournament, Memphis will be playing against the national perception that they are big cats in a small jungle. "There are 20 leagues below us," said Calipari last Saturday. "If it's so easy to do what we've done, why hasn't someone else done it?"