HOUSTON (AP)—This is it, Memphis. Your big chance.
To prove you’re not an upset waiting to happen. To make up for losses in the regional final the last two years.
To declare Derrick Rose the best point guard in the land. To show that free throws are for getting into pickup games at the YMCA, not winning NCAA tournament games.
All the top-seeded Tigers have to do is beat second-seeded Texas in the South Regional final Sunday and they’ll be off to the Final Four, forcing everyone to acknowledge that John Calipari’s one-loss team is as good as they keep saying they are.
And if they don’t?
“There’s nothing that would lead me to tell them I’m disappointed,” Calipari said Saturday. “Not even a bad game.”
History won’t be as compassionate.
Memphis has a whopping 102 wins over the last three years. The only team to do better was Kentucky, circa 1996-98—and those Wildcats had two titles and a runner-up finish to show for it.
In a tournament famous for Cinderellas, the Tigers are hoping to wind up more like the Little Engine that Could—going and going, then finally making perseverance pay off.
“The previous two years, we weren’t ready,” said Chris Douglas-Roberts, the team’s leading scorer. “We didn’t know what the NCAA the game was like, the intensity level, everything. But now we’re more experienced. We know how you have to start a game and we know how you need to start a half. … Any team with experience is always a better team.”
Memphis’ experiences include missing 14 straight 3-pointers in a regional final against UCLA two years ago and blowing a five-point lead late in the second half against Ohio State last year.
If Memphis wins this game, it gets a rematch with UCLA. The Bruins routed Xavier 76-57 Saturday to reach the Final Four.
No wonder when legacy talk comes up, Calipari changes the conversation, bragging about having graduated 15 of 17 seniors and telling stories about the collection of “For Sale” signs plucked from his front yard after rough losses in his early days of building this program.
Still, even he knows the importance of getting over the hump now, with the guys who’ve gotten them to the brink, such as big man Joey Dorsey, a senior, and Douglas-Roberts, who is likely to offer his services to the NBA.
Rose arrived only this season, but no one expects him back for another season; the only question about his future is whether he’ll be drafted first, second or third.
“What I’m saying to them now is, `Let’s keep playing just so we can stay around each other for another two weeks,”’ Calipari said. “The experience of going one more step, they will talk about it the rest of their lives.”
Calipari has dropped the us-against-the-world schtick he used the last two years and gone to more of a Phil Jackson-ish Zen mode. Guys frequently use the phrase “We create our own happiness” and the coach recently gave everyone a poem detailing why they are a “dream team.”
“It’s about 20 lines long and each line means something about a player or a coach,” junior guard Antonio Anderson said. “It’s just something about what we all had to overcome to get here, what we did over the summer just to get better. Everything has been falling into place for us. That’s just how we look at it.”
An overlooked part of Memphis’ sustained success is that Calipari has reinvented his club, going to an offense that emphasizes dribbling over passing and a defense that encourages the risk-reward of going for steals. They’ve done it with an enviable collection of talent, lots of guys who are long, strong and athletic, embodied by Rose, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound point guard.
If this was the NFL combine, Texas wouldn’t have a chance. But on the court, the Longhorns can hold their own.
With a three-guard starting lineup of its own, this group has set a school record with 31 wins, despite having lost national player of the year Kevin Durant to the NBA.
Sensational sophomore D.J. Augustin makes the offense go, with A.J. Abrams the outside threat. Damion James is the slasher and Justin Mason the guy who does a little bit of everything. A collection of role players off the bench will keep things cranked up.
Put it this way: Told that Calipari threw out a score of 106-102, Texas coach Rick Barnes didn’t see anything outrageous about it. He just wanted to know which team would have 106.
“We are not the biggest guards in the country so we are going to have our hands full,” said Abrams, who at 5-foot-11 is four inches shorter than any of Memphis’ starters. “At the same time, we know what we have to do, how to read the screens. We’ll be fine.”
This could be a legacy game for Texas, too.
A win would make it two Final Fours in five years, with Durant’s one-and-done “era” in between. Not bad for a football school.
The Longhorns broke through in 2003, when they were led by another speedy guard who played high school ball in Houston, T.J. Ford. They also won that regional final in Texas. In fact, Barnes is 7-0 in NCAA tournament games in the Lone Star State.