Commentary

Still hurting from title game, Memphis ready to rebound

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:19 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- John Calipari still isn't over the worst two minutes in his coaching career on only the largest stage in the sport.

[+] EnlargeMario Chalmers
Bob Donnan/US PresswireMario Chalmers' game-tying 3 with 2.1 seconds left is a shot that will forever haunt Memphis fans.
Calipari is a talker. He spins and spins and spins. But on this tale, he's not embellishing.

Losing a nine-point lead with 2:12 left in regulation in the national title game absolutely stinks.

"It's a killer, gut-wrenching," Calipari said as he sat down to reflect on the Tigers' NCAA record-breaking 38-win (and two-loss) season, which ended with the 75-68 overtime loss to Kansas on April 7. "I walked off the floor and I see the stuff falling and I'm saying, 'That should have been us. We should be putting on the hats.'"

The Tigers were in control of the title game -- until they simply unraveled, missing four of five free throws that would have put the game away. Instead, Kansas guard Mario Chalmers made a 3-pointer, after avoiding being fouled, to tie the game with 2.1 seconds left in regulation and force overtime.

"I've never looked at the tape, but I can tell you play by play what happened," Calipari said. "You're up nine with 2:12 to go in that enormous game, you should win the game."

But over and over again, Calipari said, he reviews how he handled the game, and no one gets the blame. It was a collective effort in which there were missed shots and coaching decisions, and ultimately, Kansas made every play.

"It just happened in a snap," Calipari said.

And it still stings everybody involved.

"Still ain't over it," Memphis senior guard Antonio Anderson said. Anderson said he still remembers the sadness in the locker room after the game. "Everybody was heartbroken. It felt like a boulder was on your chest and you couldn't breathe. We were crushed so much."

Calipari said he still thinks about the immediate postgame. As Kansas was pulling away in overtime, Calipari had to decide how he was going to handle the aftermath.

"I had to deal with 13 players who were devastated, and in each of them in their own right, they thought they were responsible," Calipari said. "I had a staff that felt devastated. I had a campus, a city. People cried in this city. If we had won, there is no city that would be impacted as much as we were.

"Lawrence wasn't as impacted. That's their fifth national title. Here in Memphis, we all needed this. We all needed that. We deserved to do it. So what we're at Memphis? So what we're not in the BCS? We had the best team."

[+] EnlargeRobert Dozier
AP Photo/Matt YorkRobert Dozier and the returning Tigers from last year's team are still trying to figure out how it all went wrong against Kansas.
Memphis senior forward Robert Dozier still answers questions about the collapse.

"It's hard to believe, to be up nine with two minutes left and us folding like that," Dozier said. "You can't go around the city without someone asking you, 'Man, how'd you let that go?' People are going to be talking about this the next five to 10 years around here. It's hard to erase that out of your mind."

It took days for Calipari to settle down.

"The next two days after, there was a humming in your head -- hmmmmmm -- of, 'What in the heck just happened?'" Calipari said.

Dozier said he can't forget the postgame silence in the locker room, a silence he said had a noise, if that makes sense.

"It's hard to explain," Dozier said. "Knowing you're nine seconds away and a shot like [Chalmers'] goes in and you lose in OT like that. It was just sickening."

Calipari, ever the defensive one, said he never fretted that he didn't win a national title. He said it was never about his legacy, his name on a trophy.

"It wasn't my national title game," he said. "Never felt my legacy was that I had to win a national championship. I don't feel that way. Now, I will tell you that we're chasing it. I want to go 40-0 before I retire. I want to be a part of a team that wins every game."

So what did Calipari do to ensure he is in the game again? What he always does -- and that's corral talent.

"You know Cal, he brings in recruits every year," Dozier said.

Dozier and Anderson withdrew from the NBA draft, which ensured the Tigers would have two anchors who played significant minutes -- one inside and one on the perimeter -- on last season's team. Of course, replacing the NBA's No. 1 overall pick and primary point guard (Derrick Rose), the slicing scorer who flourished in Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense (Chris Douglas-Roberts) and the enforcer (Joey Dorsey) is no small chore.

Still, the Tigers have talent, with one of the nation's top freshmen in wing Tyreke Evans, slender shot-blocker Shawn Taggart, wide-body man-child Pierre Henderson-Niles and probable point guard Willie Kemp. Reserve guards Doneal Mack and Jeff Robinson give the Tigers depth. And the hope is that one-time Nebraska signee Roburt Sallie is the shooter they need and that freshman guard Wesley Witherspoon can make an impact, too.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesMemphis was hit harder than most teams by the NBA draft, but John Calipari has reloaded this year's team with a talented freshmen class.
"We reloaded a team, rebuilt a team, to stay at the level that everyone expects us to be on," Calipari said. "We have three players as good as anybody else's [Evans, Dozier and Anderson]. Now, do the other five become as good? If they do, then we'll be back."

Anderson said he firmly believes the Tigers are close to being a title contender again. Memphis won't romp through Conference USA, though, with Tulsa, UAB and UTEP all expected to challenge for an NCAA berth. Road games at Gonzaga, Georgetown and Tennessee and a potential Puerto Rico Tip-Off semifinal against USC (it would be Nov. 21 in San Juan) make for a much tougher slate, too. The Tigers also have two solid nonconference home games against Big East members Syracuse and Cincinnati.

"This makes me a whole lot hungrier after being there with that atmosphere at the Final Four," Anderson said. "I'll never forget that for the rest of my life. I want to get there again."

Will Calipari ever get over the loss to Kansas, though?

"I guess I won't until we win it all," Calipari said.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com