Memphis had been as close to an NCAA tournament title as it ever was in 35 years last April, but still came agonizingly short of its goal.
The 13th-ranked Tigers begin the process of reloading for another title run Saturday when they open the season at home in the FedEx Forum against Fairfield as part of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Among the nation’s elite all of last season, Memphis failed to hit its free throws late and was unable to hold a nine-point lead in regulation of the NCAA tournament title game - its first since losing to UCLA in 1973 - as Kansas’ Mario Chalmers hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left before the Tigers eventually lost in overtime.
They return two starters from their national runner-up squad - Robert Dozier and Antonio Anderson - after both entered and then withdrew their names from the NBA draft.
Teammates Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts remained in the draft, and Joey Dorsey graduated. The Chicago Bulls took Rose with the No. 1 pick while Douglas-Roberts (New Jersey Nets) and Dorsey (Houston Rockets) were second-round selections.
Dozier, a senior forward, was the team’s third-leading scorer behind Rose and Douglas-Roberts with 9.3 points per game and second in rebounds (6.8). Anderson, a senior guard, was one of two players to start all 40 games. He tied for the team lead in steals (49), was tied for second in 3-pointers made (51) and was second in assists (136) while scoring 8.6 points per game.
Memphis also returns key reserves Doneal Mack, Willie Kemp and Shawn Taggart. Mack, who transferred to New Orleans in the summer but returned after one week, had a team-leading 66 3-pointers..
“I’m excited about the team we have coming back. We have size. We have length,” said Tigers coach John Calipari, who signed an extension through the 2012-13 season in April. “You know, obviously we are going to be missing three tremendous players. … We are losing a lot. That puts the responsibility on the players coming back.”
With a victory over the Stags, Calipari will tie Larry Finch atop the school’s all-time wins list with his 220nd victory. Calipari, last year’s Naismith coach of the year, is 219-65 in eight years with the Tigers and 412-136 overall.
In Tuesday’s exhibition win over Division II Christian Brothers, Dozier led the Tigers with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and Taggart also had a double-double with 10 and 10 off the bench. Mack added 18 points and highly touted freshman Wesley Witherspoon contributed 14.
Fairfield - picked to finish second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference - return all five starters after finishing 14-16 last season without any seniors.
“I think our position shows the amount of respect our program has earned among the conference coaches,” Fairfield coach Ed Cooley said.
Senior guard Jonathan Han led the way with 11.7 points per game and was the only player to average in double figures. He also topped the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with 6.2 assists and hit a team-leading 55 shots from 3-point range.
Anthony Johnson was second with 9.6 points per game, shot 50 percent from the field and averaged a team-high 7.3 rebounds. He had 13 points and 12 rebounds in the Stags’ exhibition victory over Division II Bridgeport on Nov. 6. Greg Nero added another 13 points, and Warren Edney and Yorel Hawkins each had 12.