If basketball championships are won with guard play, the Memphis Tigers' abundance of talent in the backcourt should have trophies already being engraved. The mercurial Jeremy Hunt has graduated, but returning are senior Andre Allen (the surprising spark plug of the Tigers' NCAA tournament run in 2006), junior Antonio Anderson (the free-throw-draining hero of last season's Sweet 16 victory over Texas A & M), and sophomores Willie Kemp (the incumbent starter at point guard) and Doneal Mack (with Hunt gone, probably the Tigers' top shooting threat from three-point range). And, oh yeah, one Derrick Rose -- late of Simeon Career Academy in Chicago and likely a few months shy of being a top-10 NBA draft pick -- will squeeze his multiple talents into the mix.
Among the reasons to be excited about Rose's arrival is how seamlessly he seems to fit into the backcourt rotation, even with the reputation for greatness he brings. Unlike Dajuan Wagner -- a similar high school phenom who arrived in 2001 with expectations of a "one-and-done" college career -- Rose doesn't need to score to impact a basketball game. As a senior last season at Simeon, Rose led his team to a 23-point victory in the Illinois Class AA state championship game . . . and scored exactly two points. The thought of a team with as many scorers as the Tigers appear to have adding a distributor will have a few C-USA coaches wrestling with their pillows. (Do yourself a favor this season when you watch a Tiger game: instead of following the ball, keep your eyes on Rose. His instincts for where the ball will be -- and where it needs to go -- are superhuman. And don't worry, the ball will find him. You won't miss a thing.)
Anderson, for one, seems to have adapted to Rose's game with ease, and actually emphasizes the inverse. "He's doing pretty good," says Anderson. "He just has to learn the offense."
Among the most compelling of coach John Calipari's lineup variables will be the way he manages minutes for Allen and Kemp, pure point guards who are going to have to support and supplement Rose's time on the floor. Allen has been invaluable the last two seasons, averaging 18 minutes off the bench and dishing out almost twice as many assists (220) as turnovers (118). And Kemp faces the possibility of playing a reserve role after starting as a freshman (he averaged 21 minutes per game) and being fully expected to start as a junior (when Rose will likely be in the NBA).
Add Mack and even Chris Douglas-Roberts (who can play shooting guard or small forward) to this group, and the Tigers have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ball-handling and perimeter defense. Count on the leadership of Anderson and CDR to defuse any internal conflict over playing time.
"Coach came to me and Chris," explains Anderson, "and told us, for us to be successful, we have to cut back on our minutes a little bit. Not major minutes, but five or six minutes a game to get the young guys in there. So when tournament time comes, if one of us gets in foul trouble, they won't be scared to get in the game. We don't mind that at all, because whatever it takes for us to win, that's what we're gonna do."
Calipari recognizes -- and celebrates -- Anderson's role in this backcourt troupe. "Antonio's the glue," says Calipari. "To be the glue, you have to be multidimensional. He leads us in minutes, he's our best perimeter defender and rebounder. He truly is a glue guy. Sometimes he's making shots, but when he's not, you can leave him on the floor."
Douglas-Roberts happens to be C-USA's preseason selection for Player of the Year, an honor bestowed upon two Tigers during the Calipari era (Antonio Burks in 2004 and Rodney Carney in '06). Standing 6'6", CDR's future as a pro may be on the wing, but he's proven to be a gifted inside scorer and led the Tigers in free-throw attempts last season. Look for him to man the small-forward position primarily, alleviating some of that logjam in the backcourt.
Before the tip-off that opened the Tigers' season November 5th at FedExForum, Rose and Kemp each took a gum ball from a package offered by one of the statisticians at the courtside scorer's table. You have to believe that point guards who can share a package of gum will be able to share the responsibility of running a basketball team. Something to chew on, at the very least.