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Contender Report: Memphis

Coming into the 2008 NCAA Tournament, the Memphis Tigers were a solidly built, well-oiled machine, and one of the favorites to win it all in San Antonio.

Memphis did make it to the National Championship game, but fell at the hands of a gritty Kansas Jayhawks team in a thrilling overtime loss.

With Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey taking their considerable talents to the NBA, not much was expected of the 2009 version of the Tigers.

But no one told John Calipari. After losing three of their first nine games, the veteran coach inserted true freshman Tyreke Evans into the point guard position, and Memphis has rolled ever since, winning 22 straight games entering Championship Week.

The Tigers are college basketball’s hottest team, and return several players who played significant roles in the school’s Final Four run a year ago. But do they have enough to quiet the ghosts of 2008, and win it all this year?

Why They Will A National Championship:

Everyone wants to claim this group is in-experienced, but that simply is not true.

Seniors Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier lead this team, while juniors Doneal Mack and Shawn Taggart add experience off of last year’s Final Four squad.

Memphis’ strongest suit is its defense, which is literally second to none. The Tigers have the stingiest field goal percentage defense in the country, allowing opponents to shoot just under 37 percent from the field.

The strong defense starts down low with Dozier and Taggart, two athletic bigs that block and alter a ton of shots, protecting the rim from the opposition’s penetration.

Of course this allows for Memphis’ guards to take more chances on the perimeter, and force turnovers that lead to a ton of easy baskets (Evans leads the team with 2.1 steals per game).

But as good as the defense has been, this team didn’t go from “good,” to “elite,” until Evans made the switch to the point. Calipari was hesitant early to put the offense in the hands of the teams best scorer, but the dividends have paid off, as Memphis hasn’t lost a game since before Christmas.

Finally, one of last year’s biggest shortfalls – free throw shooting – has turned into this year’s biggest strength.

As a team, the Tigers shoot right under 70 percent, with their two best ball-handlers Evans (69 percent) and Anderson (75 percent), comfortable from the line.

Why They Won’t:

Taking out a February 7 beat down of Gonzaga, what is this teams best win?

Conference USA has never been a great barometer to measure this team by, but usually they challenge themselves much more stringently out of the league.

However, this year the Tigers can really only claim just a two point win at an average Tennessee team, as a sure fire victory over an NCAA Tournament opponent.

Also, as good as Evans has been at distributing the ball, this team still lacks a strong outside shooting presence. Of all of Memphis’ regular perimeter players, only sophomore Roburt Sallie is shooting over 40 percent.

Finally, as good as Evans is, a coach is always tentative with a freshman point guard, and rightfully so.

This team is clearly better with the ball in Evans’ hands, but come crunch time in a tight game, will he be the composed floor leader he’s been all year, or will the nerves kick in?

How Evans handles himself with the game on the line will say a lot about how far this team goes in March.

Final Analysis:

Regardless of the soft Conference USA affiliation, Calipari always has this team ready to play (I’d say going to the Elite Eight in 2006 and 2007, and the championship game in 2008 would qualify for that).

And few teams entering the tournament do so with more experience than these Tigers.

All of the upperclassmen on this team have done a lot of winning in their careers, and expect deep runs in March.

But with the light out of conference schedule, how battle-tested will this team be? Remember a year ago the Tigers played, and beat several top 25 teams in the early season. This year only the previously mentioned Tennessee win really stands out.

And what about Evans at the point?

Yes, he is one of college basketball’s best players, regardless of class. But there’s a reason teams with freshman point guards don’t traditionally do well in this tournament (yes, yes I know Derrick Rose was phenomenal in 2008, but Rose was also a once-in-a-generation talent).

The pressure is a lot for anyone to handle. Will Evans be ready?

Memphis is one of college basketball’s most talented teams, but also one of the biggest enigmas.

But in a year in which the field is as wide open as it is, why can’t the Tigers get back to the Final Four, and take care of some unfinished business from 2008?

Ryan McNeill
Ryan McNeill has appeared on ESPN Radio, MTV Canada, SiriusXM, The Fan 590 and other radio programs and TV shows. He has covered the NBA with media credentials since the 2007-08 season.
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