Tigers on short list of title contenders
KANSAS CITY -- Memphis knew in December during rigorous practices that it could win the national title, and then cemented it with wins at Tennessee and Gonzaga midway through the season.
Now we know.
If you watched Memphis struggle to win its first-round game against Cal State Northridge here Thursday, you never would have guessed that this No. 2 seed would have a shot. If it weren't for seldom-producing reserve Roburt Sallie, who bailed out Memphis with a remarkable 10 3-pointers and a school NCAA tournament single-game record 35 points, the Tigers might have been a historical footnote.
But check out the Tigers' total dismantling of No. 10 Maryland on Saturday to see the full potential for this squad. If the Tigers can mimic this performance next weekend at the West Regional in Glendale, Ariz., they have to be included on the short list of teams that can win the title in Detroit.
Memphis pounded Maryland 89-70, and it wasn't even that close. The Tigers made 10 3s, but they came from four different shooters instead of just two. The Tigers were back to their dribble-drive-motion offense, penetrating through the sieve-like Maryland defense, with 21 assists on 31 field goals.
"I knew, I knew and I know now," always-confident Memphis coach John Calipari said. "I didn't know that we'd be a little skittish [Thursday] because none of my teams have done that."
Calipari caught himself because the favored Tigers did "struggle" with Texas-Arlington in a 24-point first-round win a year ago. The nerves continued with a three-point win over Mississippi State before the Tigers awoke to crush Michigan State, Texas and UCLA en route to their overtime loss to Kansas in the title game.
"This team is talented, deep and skilled enough," Calipari said of the Tigers' chances to win the title. "For us, free throw shooting and 3-point shooting are the deciding factors for us."
The Tigers made 17 of 22 free throws against the Terps and 10 of 19 3s. Having Sallie (three 3s), Doneal Mack (5-of-7 on 3s), Tyreke Evans (1-of-5) and Willie Kemp (1-of-1) sharing the load on 3-pointers makes a significant difference.
"If Tyreke isn't pushing the ball, we struggle," Memphis senior forward Robert Dozier said. "That's how guys get open looks, lobs and shots. When [Maryland] decided to pressure us, it opened up the court."
Dozier said if he were an outside observer, he wouldn't have been convinced the Tigers could win the title after seeing their first-round game.
"If we had played like that in this game, we'd be home. But we picked it up defensively," said Memphis junior forward Shawn Taggart, whose team limited the Terps to 1-of-11 3s in building a 20-point halftime lead. "We were the aggressor."
Calipari made sure the Tigers caught wind of how Siena (a double-overtime win over Ohio State) and Cleveland State (over Wake Forest) pulled off their respective upsets and how No. 16 East Tennessee State put a nightmarish scare into top-seeded Pitt during Friday's first-round games.
"You have to be the aggressor, that's how they did it," Calipari said.
"We have to throw the first punch and be active on both ends," Dozier said. "We pushed the ball and knocked down shots."
The players all agreed that this team is light years better since its tournament in Puerto Rico in November, which ended with a loss to Xavier in the title game. The Tigers are not the same squad that lost nonconference games at Georgetown or at home to Syracuse. They haven't lost since Evans moved to the point, but there is more to the story. They also have a different mindset that was rekindled Saturday at the Sprint Center.
Evans said the way the Tigers played at the start, jumping on the Terps, reminded him of Memphis' win over Gonzaga in Spokane. Evans said that was also the last time, that he can remember, when everyone played so well.
The Tigers, at least publicly, didn't make a fuss about Maryland's Greivis Vasquez' off-day comments that they would have finished below .500 in the ACC, a slap at Conference USA.
"Well, we never even thought about those comments," said Memphis senior Antonio Anderson, who had 11 assists and two turnovers on Saturday. "We're not in the ACC, so we don't know. We're in Conference USA and love it. That's our conference, and we represent for the rest of the teams who didn't make the tournament."
After Saturday's game, Vasquez said: "No, I don't regret anything. They proved me wrong. That's what the sport is about. I don't regret anything. They have good players and a good coach and they won. There is nothing else. We came out here to play basketball and there was some trash talking involved, but it's basketball. It's about playing basketball. I thought they were better than us for those 40 minutes."
Calipari said the question of where the Tigers would finish in the ACC or Big East, something that has been tossed about throughout Memphis' current run to possibly its fourth straight Elite Eight, is moot.
"We're not in those leagues," Calipari said. "We're in a good league and we finish first in that league. If you want us to join their league, [then] call, if you want us in your league, just call us and we'll join."
Calipari said he hopes teams like Tulsa or UTEP can break through with one or two more wins to give the Tigers a sparring partner like he had at UMass with Temple. He said the league is close to breaking through with one. Yet, the Tigers haven't needed it as much with the selection committee of late, with two No. 1s and a pair of No. 2 seeds and three straight Elite Eights and a national title game appearance.
Calipari said he might not have been coaching the same way he normally does Thursday, and the Tigers saw the difference.
"I want the swagger but without the arrogance," Calipari said. "I want them to think about blasting people but we can't be arrogant. In the last game that might have been my fault thinking about who we play next. They might have been thinking the same thing."
That won't be an issue next week with either Missouri or Marquette in the Sweet 16. The Tigers showed Saturday that they need to be taken seriously now as a title contender. The seed might have said they already were, but their play on Thursday didn't. Their performance on Saturday certainly did.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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