Haven't we been here before? A John Calipari-coached Memphis Tiger basketball team has found its way to that hallowed section of your office bracket known as the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. With 30-plus wins and a top-five national ranking, winners of Conference USA's regular-season and tournament championships, star power that borders on excess, Memphis fans should be thrilled.
But it's not enough. Not this year.
Spoiled with success as Tiger Nation may be, this is the season — the weekend just ahead — that will stand out in bold on this program's long, proud history. Anything less than the school's first Final Four berth in 23 years will be seen as falling short of expectations. And when you factor in the precious single-season window the Tigers have with Derrick Rose at point guard, anything less than a national championship may leave a wound of regret.
Here are four keys — the final four, you might say — to the Tigers reaching the NCAA's third weekend.
A Shooter's Chance
The Tigers had their share of stars last week in Little Rock, but the difference-maker was reserve guard Willie Kemp. In drilling four of his five three-point attempts (the rest of the team was two for 11), Kemp's shooting against Mississippi State provided the necessary cushion that allowed the Tigers to survive their own free-throw ineptitude (eight misses in 16 shots over the final two minutes).
Whether it's Kemp again, or Doneal Mack, or more likely candidates like Rose or Chris Douglas-Roberts, the Tigers must find a shooter for each tournament contest, one who will stretch the opponent's zone defense and create the gaps for dribble-drives that have become the team's offensive weapon of choice.
In describing the struggles of the 2004 Olympic team, Calipari once said, "Shooting makes up for a multitude of sins on a basketball team." Tiger fans still grind their teeth over the sins of the 2006 NCAA regional finals, when Memphis took 54 shots against UCLA and made exactly 17 (31 percent). Another 40 minutes like that and a dream season ends in a cold sweat.
Tag Team Inside
Calipari's bench management against the Bulldogs was the most impressive in his eight years as Tiger coach. He essentially had 15 big-man fouls to give against MSU's formidable frontcourt, and he used 14 of them, with 25 seconds to spare (the time left when Joey Dorsey joined Robert Dozier on the bench with his fifth foul). Despite the foul difficulty, Dorsey picked up his first double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) in 10 NCAA tournament games. Dozier and Shawn Taggart combined for nine offensive rebounds, critical stats in a three-point victory.
"Shawn gives us what we haven't had since I've been here: that big guy off the bench," Calipari said after a win in mid-January. "We can tell [Joey] if you don't play well — you foul — you sit, and we win anyway. You need that to coach a team to the level we're trying to [reach]."
The enigmatic Dorsey was at his ferocious best Sunday, two days after a mediocre outing against Texas-Arlington. He needs to bottle the energy he displayed against the Bulldogs for the Tigers to beat the next MSU they face.
"[Joey's] going to be held to a standard he's capable of reaching," Calipari stresses. "When he comes and he's ready to play — an intense athlete like he is — there is no rage. He's beating [the opponent] to every spot, he's grabbing the ball with two hands. There's no need for rage. I challenge him, because I want him to be the best in the country at what he does."
Stars Must Shine
"Arrogance is what gets you in trouble," Calipari says. "Swagger is based on great preparation, being prepared to play anyone, anytime."
Rose and Douglas-Roberts will ultimately be remembered as the faces of the 2007-'08 Memphis Tigers. CDR is the program's first first-team All-American in 15 years. Rose is all but certain to be a top-five NBA draft selection in June. They are the tandem that must be at its best for Memphis to reel off four more wins in the NCAA tournament.
CDR averaged 20 points and Rose 17 in the two games in Little Rock. Rose added seven assists and nine rebounds to his line against Mississippi State. Perhaps most critically, these are the two Tigers capable of winning games at the free-throw line, so Rose will have to improve on his four-for-nine performance in the second round.
"Everybody has to be at their best," Rose says, as deferential as your garden-variety freshman sensation. "Coach has been saying every position, every player has to be on their game." For a national championship, this NBA All-Star-to-be needs to be on his game and bring his teammates along for the run.
Defense: First, Last, and Always
The loudest cheers heard all season long at FedExForum came not when the Tigers had possession of the ball — though a few Dorsey dunks did shake the rafters — but when they were seizing control of a game defensively — a relatively routine basket made by the likes of Douglas-Roberts, followed by the immediate transition into a full-court press that can exhaust an opponent before it's even able to establish a halfcourt offensive set.
This is the variable most under the Tigers' (and Calipari's) control. Utilizing his bench to its ninth and tenth man, Calipari can keep five fresh, quick players on the floor for an entire game. That quickness and energy are the chemical ingredients to a press that demands another team to be just as quick to break it. And no one on the Tiger roster takes a breather in the fullcourt press. In many respects, Dorsey plays the most valuable role, that of midcourt rover, quick enough to cover either side of the court and large enough to pick off passes made by opposing guards trapped in the backcourt.
"Our press is our bread and butter," Douglas-Roberts says. "We try to get at least three steals a game off the press. When it's effective, it opens up our transition game. We take great pride in it. We feel like a lot of teams can't press like us, because we're so deep. We can go 10 or 11 deep and still press. [Dorsey's] the intimidator back there. He's like the goaltender. If we happen to get beat on the press, he's back there to block it or muck it up."