Sports » Sports Feature

Encore Performance?

The U of M basketball team has raised the bar of expectations. Is this a rebuilding year or merely one for reloading?



The number 16 has become rather sacred in the world of college basketball. If your team reaches the second week of the NCAA tournament in March -- the Sweet Sixteen -- you can count the season a success. With that spirit in mind, here are 16 questions to be answered in the months ahead by the 2006-07 University of Memphis basketball program.

• What kind of carryover can we expect from last season's 33-4 performance? How about zippo? Nada. The old goose-egg factor. The U of M enjoyed its finest season in more than a decade in 2005-06, but the style and flavor of this year's team could hardly be more different. With the departure of three stars, the team has lost 53 percent of last year's scoring. Rodney Carney (an All-American), Shawne Williams (C-USA's Freshman of the Year), and Darius Washington were John Calipari's first three options on offense a year ago, leaving Chris Douglas-Roberts as the top veteran scoring threat on this year's team. Add to all this a freshman point guard -- Bolivar's Willie Kemp -- establishing a tempo to his liking, and you have some growing pains certain to bite before conference play begins in January. So raise the C-USA championship banner from a year ago, toast the Elite Eight appearance one last time. And move on to a new season and new team.

Is the U of M a renegade program? Before you get hot and bothered over such a question even being raised, consider some variables: The national media loves a whipping boy in college basketball. The ingredients for such a program are the following: a highly paid, high-profile coach, plus consistent dominance in a mid-level conference, with a mixture of one-and-done -- or two-and-done -- stars leaving school early. (See UNLV in the 1980s, Cincinnati in the 1990s.) Now, the big difference between previous whipping boys and Calipari's program is that the U of M has kept itself off the NCAA sanctions list. With the return of Jeremy Hunt (by every definition to this point, a renegade player), the Tiger program needs to aim high -- on and off the court -- to avoid this label. The suspension of Kareem Cooper before the season's opening tip sure doesn't help matters.

• What does the return of Jeremy Hunt mean for the U of M program? To begin with, it means a new definition of the word "permanent" (as in "permanently dismissed"). It means the Tigers will suit up a player whose case involving the assault of his former girlfriend won't be dismissed -- permanently -- until just before the Conference USA tournament opens in Memphis. It also means the Tigers will have a graduate coming off their bench, Hunt having earned his degree in August. (More than former stars Antonio Burks or Rodney Carney can claim.) Yes, Hunt is a renegade seeking redemption, and he might receive his share of boos at FedExForum. Just how much he contributes to the success of this year's team will depend on how healthy he is -- a major variable for Hunt -- and just how forgiving his coach and teammates prove to be.

Sophomore guard Chris Douglas-Roberts - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

• Why isn't Darius Washington still a Memphis Tiger? Put your ear to the ground on this one and you'll get answers as varied as the dribble-drives Washington utilized over his two seasons at FedExForum: bad advice from his father; bad advice from Calipari; pro ambitions with more hubris than substance; the need -- as a new father -- for a source of income, any source of income. Washington is going to be a sad footnote to the Calipari era of Memphis basketball. Perhaps he was expendable with the arrival of Kemp. But what price will Washington (and his family) pay for this divorce?

• Who will be the leader of the 2006-07 team? Washington's departure will leave more of an intangible void than it will on the floor. Rodney Carney was a brilliant four-year star, but he was as quiet as a church mouse after the opening tip. Shawne Williams, alas, might have grown into a leader, but he'll have to do that now as an Indiana Pacer. Sophomore guard Antonio Anderson has the demeanor of a floor leader, if not the position for it. Look for Andre Allen to point the way for this year's squad, even if he's coming off the bench for the precocious Kemp. Emotion counts for a lot in college hoops. Washington, as all of Tiger Nation remembers so well, wore emotion like Superman's cape. When chests need punching this winter, the fist will likely be that of Andre Allen.

• What is John Calipari's agenda? All those North Carolina State rumors last spring certainly didn't hurt the sale tag for Conference USA's highest profile. Entering his seventh year in charge of the Memphis program, Calipari has six 20-win seasons, an NIT championship, an NCAA regional final, two conference players of the year, and four conference freshmen of the year under his belt. So what's left to prove? Calipari's been given everything he's asked for at the U of M, so it's easy to understand a comfort zone, even as far from his native Northeast as the 47-year-old coach may be. And with the Final Four within sniffing distance just last spring, Calipari's mission of making Memphis a "national program" is being realized. The U of M will not be John Calipari's last coaching job. But for now, if it ain't broke ...

• Who might surprise us on this year's team? Regardless of their prep credentials, freshmen are unknown variables, so we'll scratch Kemp, Hashim Bailey, and Pierre Niles off this list. But keep an eye on Robert Dozier. Among the five ballyhooed freshmen who arrived on campus a year ago, Dozier brought the least fanfare. But he developed into a major contributor off the bench with his rebounding skills and -- considering his size -- nice offensive touch. He's the kind of player who will never be your star of the game, but when you check the stat sheet, it's 12 points and eight rebounds, one night after another. It's not unreasonable to consider Dozier an all-conference candidate.

• Which player can the Tigers not win without? Joey Dorsey. A true center is the rarest commodity in college basketball today: a player with size and strength, a shot blocker on defense, more comfortable with his back to the basket on offense. That's Joey Dorsey, folks, and there's no reason he shouldn't aspire for all-conference honors this season. Late last season, after a win over a game UTEP team at home, Calipari said the following: "You've got to learn to play when guys are bumping and grinding, if you really want to do something unique. Every team we play is going to get rougher and more desperate." If there is such a thing as a Calipari mantra, "Play Tough" is it. No one will provide more toughness for the 2006-07 squad than their 6'9", 260-pound junior from Baltimore.

Sophomore guard Antonio Anderson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

• Does Memphis own the C-USA Freshman of the Year trophy? You might say that, just don't be looking for any Four-Year Player of the Year hardware. Dajuan Wagner in 2002. Sean Banks in '04. Darius Washington in '05. Shawne Williams last season. (We hardly knew ye!) Kemp will be among the leading contenders for the league's rookie-of-the-year honors, but here's hoping he becomes the first such honoree under Calipari to enjoy a Senior Night.

• Will immaturity catch up with this year's team? Some would say it has already. Incidents involving Dorsey and Bailey have already made headlines and raised eyebrows. When Anderson and Douglas-Roberts stepped forward and defied convention by pointing fingers at the transgressors -- and away from the "good guys" on the team -- you had to wonder about the cohesion of this young squad. When sophomores are the vocal leaders before the season's first tip-off, how much maturity can be expected?

• Do the Grizzlies help or hurt the Tiger program? Having shared an arena (two, actually) for five years now, this is a matter still worthy of debate. It goes without saying that good basketball -- on any level, including the local prep hotbeds -- benefits any group that sells basketball tickets. So the Grizzlies bringing the finest pro players to town has only heightened Memphis' reputation as a basketball-crazed city. On the other hand, when you're budgeting your discretionary income and it comes down to the Grizzlies and Spurs on a Tuesday night or the Tigers and UTEP on a Thursday, unless your loyalty to the city's flagship university runs out your ears, you're heading for the NBA game. All of which places a premium on, yes, the coach of the U of M program. If you doubt Calipari sells tickets, you're probably still convinced the Mighty Miss flows north. And it's why the U of M has met each and every one of Coach Cal's salary demands ... so far.

• Why is Tony Barbee laughing? Only 36 years old, the new head coach at UTEP suddenly has a springboard to what should be a long and successful coaching career. Having played for Calipari at UMass and served as an assistant at the U of M for six years, Barbee has a grasp on the Cal way of doing things and in some respects is ahead of where Calipari was at this stage of his career. (UTEP has a higher historical profile than UMass did upon Calipari's arrival in 1988.) One of the most heartfelt handshakes of the season will come on March 1st, when the Tigers visit El Paso.

• Which home games should not be missed? Ole Miss (December 9th) and Cincinnati (January 4th) are sure to draw big crowds to FedExForum, but if I'm buying the tickets, it's a pair of late-February conference showdowns that get my attention: February 22nd vs. Rice and February 25th vs. Houston. Within a four-day period, you'll be able to see all five preseason all-conference players in action: Dorsey and Douglas-Roberts for the home team, the Cougars' Oliver Lafayette and Lanny Smith, and the preseason player of the year, Rice's Morris Almond. Along with UAB, these are also two of three teams in C-USA that might challenge Memphis for the league title.

What do Zach Curlin and Dana Kirk have to do with this season? With 25 wins, Calipari will move past Kirk (158) and Curlin (172) for second in Tiger basketball history. Over his six seasons in Memphis, Calipari has averaged just under 25 wins a year. (Larry Finch remains at the top of the list with 220 wins.)

Who's next in the 1,000-point club? In each of the last four seasons, at least one Tiger scored his 1,000th career point. Entering the 2006-07 campaign, the closest active Tiger is Jeremy Hunt with 625 points. Unless Hunt averages more than 12 points a game, look for this streak to come to an end.

How deep into March will this team play? With the number of variables introduced each and every season, forecasting the NCAA basketball tournament in November is a Herculean gambit. But here's where I see this year's Tiger team coming up short: fight or flight. We tend to forget that the magical run Memphis made last year actually began with the team's unlikely run to the C-USA tournament championship game in 2005 (the epic loss to Final Four-bound Louisville, when Washington missed his free throws at game's end). Players like Washington, Carney, and Dorsey entered last season with a competitive edge toughened by heartbreak. Add the best freshman class Calipari has recruited and you had a concoction for greatness, at least on the scale measured by C-USA. With the defections of Washington and Williams and off-court distractions already part of the story for 2006-07, the Tigers are playing uphill before Thanksgiving. Veteran leadership is a must for a lengthy dance in March. Don't expect this year's club to reach that fabled second weekend.

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