Memphis' biggest problem? Two great guards
DALLAS -- The best point guard on the Memphis Tigers roster right now is not the player on the cover of the team media guide, not the McDonald's All-American, not the guy people suspect might try jumping to the NBA after this season.
Nope, it's not Darius Washington.
Memphis' best point guard is the walk-on sophomore who backs up Washington. The kid who didn't even practice with the team last year as an academic nonqualifier. The chubby, stubby guy whose basketball shorts nearly drag the ground.
That would be Andre Allen. All 5-foot-8 of him.
Little A has been the toast of Big D. In two games here at the American Airlines Center, Allen racked up 39 minutes, 19 points, eight assists, five steals and has been the Tigers' energizer.
He keyed the big surges that buried Oral Roberts Friday and Bucknell Sunday, and the Memphis offense undeniably has been more efficient when he's running it. Allen's pass-first mentality and feel for the game make him more of a pure point than Washington, who looks to score more often.
Which means John Calipari has some decisions to make as his No. 1 seed Tigers steamroll to Oakland for the Sweet 16.
The coach has done a tremendous job melding this amount of talent into a close and cohesive team. The last thing he needs now is a point guard controversy. He'll need all of his salesmanship to handle this.
Calipari needs to keep giving Allen minutes without losing Washington, the one guy on the Memphis roster who possesses a star mentality. When asked about the play of his understudy, Washington was notably restrained.
"He's coming on," was the sum total of Washington's response.
While Allen is coming on, Washington is backing up. He made just one field goal, scored eight points, had no assists and two turnovers in 21 minutes. Allen had eight points, five assists and three steals in 20 minutes.
"To me, he's struggling a little bit," Allen said of Washington. "He's uptight. He's got to get loose."
Allen said he'd be happy to give Washington a pep talk if he needs one. You also get the feeling that nobody in Memphis blue would be cheering harder for Washington to break out than Allen, even if it costs him playing time.
"I don't go out and complain about minutes," Allen said. "I just play."
"Andre would play eight minutes and be fine," Calipari said. "But he also knows, you come to me and he's bringing it. And his teammates know he's bringing it."
The question now is whether Allen should start bringing it 25 minutes every game. Asked whether Allen is his best point at the moment, Calipari gave the smart answer for a coach who knows this is no time to publicly play favorites.
"He's one of two very good point guards right now," Calipari said. "That's the best advantage I have. If Darius is not playing well, I can put Andre in, and if Andre isn't playing well, I can put Darius in.
"What an advantage I have. You're talking about two hard-nosed, tough-as-nails kids. I love coaching both of them."
One of the solutions for Calipari is to play both at the same time. That put fangs into the Memphis press Sunday against athletically overmatched Bucknell.
"When you put them in together, and they're both doing it right? Whooo," Calipari said. "& It's vicious. They're coming after you and trying to rip your arms off."
Whereas Washington was a glitzy national recruit from Orlando, Allen is straight Memphis streetball, no chaser.
His mother, Gertie, named him after former Tigers point guard Andre Turner -- a fact Allen didn't know until he read it in the Memphis Commercial Appeal Saturday. While Gertie was pregnant with her fourth and final child, she was watching quicksilver Turner lead Memphis to its last Final Four, in 1985. Turner hit the winning shot against UAB in the second round of that tournament, then hit the winner in the third round against Boston College. Hit that one right here in Dallas.
A month after that magical Memphis run, Andre Allen was born.
He grew up hard. Gertie worked two jobs, at Raleigh Cleaners and at a recreation center. His father was not a factor in his life. In the Memphis media guide, Andre lists his mom as the biggest inspiration in his life.
But she didn't pass on much in the way of height. Allen was named the No. 1 eighth-grader in the nation by one recruiting service -- then stopped growing.
"I wondered why everyone grew but me," he said.
He still went on to a terrific career at Booker T. Washington High School, leading the team to a state title. But there was no scholarship offer forthcoming from the only school he truly wanted to attend.
Allen said he was prepared to sign a national letter-of-intent with Houston. His benefactor, Ken Bennett, the founder of a group called Streets Ministries that reaches out to help kids from the toughest neighborhoods in South Memphis, put in a call to Calipari.
Next thing he knew, Allen had an invitation to join the team as a walk-on. The school could not pay his way or let him practice because he was an academic nonqualifier, so Streets Ministries paid his tuition. Bennett was in the stands in Dallas cheering on Andre.
"They do a lot for me," Allen said of Streets Ministries. "They helped me in high school, helped me in middle school. If it wasn't for Streets, I probably wouldn't be at Memphis."
Memphis is awfully happy to have him right now. The little man absolutely lacks fear, which is a key ingredient on the grand stage of March. This is a time when nerves can cripple a team.
"I never get nervous," Allen said. "I'm from the heart of Memphis, South Memphis. If you come from where I come from, you can't be nervous."
Allen wasn't nervous or intimidated last summer when he played pickup ball against Turner in Memphis. Now, the little man is making the shots that his namesake made 20 years ago in the same town, trying to ignite another run to the Final Four.
Pretty cool for a guy who says, "I wanted to be a Tiger all my life. This is a dream come true."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.