Team Personality: Depth and athleticism. Memphis will run teams to death and make less-talented squads look like boys among men. Coach John Calipari often fields ridiculously athletic teams, and this year’s version of the Tigers is no different. Their athleticism leads to more rebounds than one would anticipate looking at the size of the team, plenty of steals and blocked shots, and easy baskets on the offensive end of the floor.
The Tigers are also more than capable of sustaining this high-flying, fast-paced style of play for a full forty minutes. Why? Because of their depth. The Tigers go nine deep with no problem, and Calipari will not hesitate to use 11 guys on any given night when necessary. Because of their depth and athleticism, Memphis can wear opponents down in a major way late in the game.
November 20 vs. Oklahoma W (77-65)
November 21 vs. Georgia Tech at Maui Invitational L (92-85)
November 22 vs. Kentucky at Maui W (80-63)
December 6 at Tennessee L (76-58)
January 4 vs. Cincinnati W (88-55)
January 11 at Houston W (79-69)
February 3 vs. Southern Methodist (88-52)
February 8 at UAB W (70-56)
February 18 at Gonzaga W (78-77)
February 22 vs. Rice (ESPN)
February 25 vs. Houston (CBS)
March 1 at UTEP (ESPN2)
Biggest Games: Most teams don’t get the opportunity to post a big non-conference win this late in the season, but the Memphis Tigers had one such opportunity and they took advantage. Memphis needed it, too. After dropping their three toughest out-of-conference tests earlier in the year to Georgia Tech, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the Tigers embarked on a lackluster Conference USA schedule in which they were—and are—favored to win every game.
So when coach John Calipari traveled to Spokane, Washington for a date with the Gonzaga Bulldogs, the team was still in search of a signature victory. The ‘Zags are not what they used to be; they’re not even what they were earlier this season when Josh Heytvelt was part of the squad. But going into Gonzaga’s gym is an extremely difficult challenge anyway you cut it.
This time Memphis responded. The Tigers built an eight point lead at the half, but the hosts chipped away in the second half and extended the game to overtime with some late clutch shots. Gonzaga clearly had the momentum, but Memphis did not fold. Down one with time running down, sophomore guard Chris Douglas-Roberts hit an off-balanced runner with six seconds left to give the Tigers a 78-77 victory.
There’s not another daunting game left on the schedule, and Memphis (23-3, 12-0 C-USA) seems poised to bulldoze its way through the conference tournament. Obviously the CUSA Championship is a big game regardless, but in all likelihood it won’t get interesting for the Tigers until the NCAA Tournament.
Has to be on the Floor: Antonio Anderson. The 6-6, 200-pound guard logs more minutes (28.2 per game) than anyone else on the team, and for good reason. He’s only fifth on the squad in scoring at 7.2 points a contest, but Anderson gets it done in a lot of other ways.
His assist-to-turnover ratio is an outstanding 2.7:1. Anderson’s size and athleticism make him a better than average rebounding guard, and he’s hauling in 4.0 rebounds per game. On the defensive end of floor, Anderson leads the Tigers in steals with 49 on the season. What it all boils down to is that Anderson does whatever it takes to make this Memphis team better, and in the process, he makes everyone else around him that much better.
Last Shot: Jeremy Hunt. Against Gonzaga, Douglas-Roberts was the guy and that turned out quite well for the Tigers. Opponents, however, will try to make sure Douglas-Roberts does not burn them in the way he devastated the ‘Zags. That might lead to open looks for Hunt.
And when Hunt his open, he delivers more often than not. He has launched 154 three-balls this season (55 more than the next Tiger) and has connected on 64 of those attempts. That’s good for a 41.6 percentage and he’s shooting 45.2% overall from the field. While he’s not afraid to drive to the basket, Hunt would rather spot up and drain a jumper. Part of the reason for that is most likely his mediocre free-throw stroke. If the Tigers ever need another last-second shot, look for PG Antonio Anderson to penetrate and kick out to Hunt.
Alternative: Chris Douglas-Roberts. See the Gonzaga game (discussed above).
In addition to that, the sophomore guard is leading the team in scoring and is by far the best free-throw shooter on the team. In fact, nobody else on the team is any better than decent from the charity stripe. In other words, for a number of reasons Douglas-Roberts in whose hands coach Calipari wants the ball late in the game.
Straw That Stirs the Drink: Joey Dorsey. He is arguably the nastiest athlete of all on a very athletic team. When you also consider the fact that Dorsey is 6-9, 260 pounds, that’s just scary.
The Tigers like to run and Dorsey often gets fast breaks started with his play on the defensive end. He is an absolute beast in the paint, rejecting 2.5 shots per game, most of which are jaw-droppingly authoritative. Dorsey is also second on the team in steals and is by far the leading rebounder, averaging just under ten boards a contest. His knack for the ball—and also for understanding that it needs to get out of his hands and into guards’ hands quickly—is what gets the Memphis attack off on the right foot.
On the offensive end, Dorsey is not responsible for as much of the work, but he is still an efficient producer. He is by no means a good shooter (43% from the line), but he uses his physical superiority to overpower defenders and get easy looks at the basket. Heck, he is leading the team in field goal percentage going away, making 63% of his shots. It’s because of Dorsey that the Tiger offense works not only in transition, but also in the half-court set.
Impact Newcomer: Willie Kemp. Memphis lost a ton from last year’s squad that received a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams, and Darius Washington all took their skills to the next level, and nobody (not even Calipari) can replace that kind of talent just like that. Instead of relying on freshmen to offset the mass departure, the Tigers are using the emergence of Joey Dorsey, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and the return of Jeremy Hunt, who sat out last season while recovering from an ACL injury.
Freshman Willie Kemp, however, is providing some valuable minutes. He can spell guards Douglas-Roberts and Hunt which is important, but more importantly he is productive when on the floor. Kemp is averaging 6.3 points in 22.5 minutes per game, has a solid 1.8:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and gets after it on both defense and the boards. He will be a complete player once he adds and outside shot and improves at the free throw line.
Potential Pitfall: Shooting woes. If opponents hang around with the Tigers, they will be in good shape at the end of games. Memphis shoots just 62.4% from the free throw line and only Douglas-Roberts makes more than 70% of his freebies.
The outside shot is also prone to plague the Tigers. Usually Memphis can overcome poor shooting nights with their ability to create easy opportunities. Yes, athleticism is the great equalizer for this team. Still, when they reach the point in the NCAA Tournament where they’re facing the nation’s elite teams, the Tigers will have to do more than just out-jump and outrun people. Outside shots will have to fall, and free throws will have to as well.
How to reach the Sweet 16: Keep doing what they’re doing. Don’t change a thing. Memphis has won 16 in-a-row and the streak should be alive and well going into the NCAA Tournament. Assuming the Tigers run the table the rest of the way in C-USA and in the conference tournament, they should be a 3 seed and therefore heavily favored to win to games and advance to a regional semi-final.