NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP)—Memphis lost one measly game, spent five weeks at No. 1 and had the longest winning streak in the entire country this season.
And yet, if there’s a No. 1 seed that’s going to fall early, most people are picking Memphis.
“It doesn’t bother us because we’ve been through it. We’ve been through it already,” Chris Douglas-Roberts said. “We’ve always been `the first No. 1 seed to lose,’ so we don’t look at that at all.”
It’s not that the Tigers (33-1) aren’t a likable bunch. Far from it.
They have one of the most dynamic guards in the country in freshman Derrick Rose, and Douglas-Roberts isn’t too shabby, either. They have depth and unbelievable balance, with ten Tigers averaging 9.7 points or better and six different players leading the team in scoring.
They can score in bunches and have won their games by an average of almost 19 points. But they’re downright nasty on defense, too, holding opponents to 38 percent shooting.
“I don’t see any weaknesses,” admitted Scott Cross, the coach for 16th-seeded Texas-Arlington, whose reward for making its first trip to the NCAA tournament is a first-round game against Memphis on Friday.
“A lot of people say, `Oh, they just go out there and play. They just hoop.’ They don’t,” Cross said. “They have a lot of players that can go one-on-one that can score, but there’s a definite method to everything they do.”
The best part about the Tigers? Despite their dazzling array of talent, they’re unselfish—so much so that a player will sometimes ask coach John Calipari not to put him back in because his replacement is playing so well.
“This is an interesting group because I really believe they’re friends first and teammates second,” Calipari said. “When you’re that way, you really support each other. They all root for each other.”
Good thing there’s all that love, because the Tigers aren’t feeling it so much outside Memphis.
The Tigers’ fatal flaw is that they play in Conference USA. There are several nice teams in C-USA but, top to bottom, it doesn’t pack the power of the ACC or the Big East or the SEC or the Big Ten or the Big 12. So when Memphis piles up wins during the conference season, it’s often greeted with a yawn of indifference, as if nothing less was expected.
Never mind that the Tigers romped to wins over Georgetown, Connecticut, Arizona, and Gonzaga early in the season, and their only loss was to Tennessee, another team that spent time at No. 1. It’s how Memphis does in the tournament that’s the ultimate judge.
And so far, well, the Tigers have been good, but not great in March. This is their fifth trip to the NCAA tournament in six years, and second time in three years they’ve been a No. 1 seed. But they lost in the regional finals the last two years, and haven’t been to a Final Four since 1985.
Until they’re one of the last teams playing, some people are always going to doubt the Tigers.
“Hopefully we can just feed off of it and just take it all the way,” Rose said. “If we keep playing hard, we’ll be in good shape.”
Though the Mavericks—that’s Texas-Arlington’s nickname, for those not up to speed yet on the newcomers—are saying all the right things, they realize just how big a challenge Memphis will be.
While Memphis plays to huge crowds and is all over national TV, the Mavericks’ largest home crowd this year was 1,342 and the usual draw is more like 725. While Memphis won 30-plus games for a third-straight season, Texas-Arlington won 21, and that was a school record. And while three of Memphis’ starters stand 6-foot-7 or better, Texas-Arlington has one.
Asked if they could find any weaknesses with Memphis, the best the Mavericks could come up with was free throw shooting.
“They haven’t lost any games but one,” guard Rog’er Guinard said, “so that really hasn’t been working.”
That doesn’t mean the Mavericks are about to give Memphis a pass into the second round, though. It took 49 years of Division-I play for Texas-Arlington to earn its first trip to the NCAA tournament, Cross said, and the Mavericks plan to make the most of it.
“We know they’re extremely talented, one of the best teams in the country if not the best team in the country,” Cross said. “But we’re not going to give them the game before it even starts.”
And, really, there’s nothing more for the Mavericks to prove. For Memphis, it’s a totally different story.
Calipari knows all too well that some people still think of his team as little more than a regular-season heavyweight. He and his assistants don’t use that as motivation, but Calipari said he does want his players to realize exactly what they’ve done this season and appreciate how special it is.
No matter how far they go in the tournament.
“This season will be talked about in Memphis for a long, long time,” Calipari said. “The icing on the cake would be something special now, but either way, you’re not going to take it away. We want to do well but we don’t have to do well.
“It’s not like, `If you don’t, it’s a disaster.’ No,” he added. “I don’t want them to feel that way. I certainly don’t feel that way.”