Tigers burning bright as March arrives
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Memphis Tigers are humming along, ranked sixth in the nation and enjoying the nation's longest winning streak at 17 games.
Imagine where they might be if Shawne Williams and Darius Washington hadn't gone to the NBA.
"Who knows how the scoring would've been?" senior guard Jeremy Hunt said. "We don't know. We think about it. But we don't ever get negative thoughts. We're just wondering."
It would be difficult for Memphis to improve much on this season.
The Tigers (25-3), who play Thursday night at UTEP, clinched a second straight Conference USA title outright last week for the first time in school history and have won three of the past four. Only Winthrop of the Big South Conference has gone undefeated in league play this season.
And defending national champion Florida is the only other team that has won as many as the Tigers' 58 wins during the past two seasons.
Not bad for a team that lost top scorer and senior Rodney Carney, also an NBA first-round pick, with Williams. Washington was not drafted but could not return because he had signed with an agent.
Coach John Calipari, who has guided his Tigers to at least 20 wins in each of his seven seasons in Memphis, found himself without 56 percent of the offense and 50 percent of the defense with the loss of the three starters.
His starting lineup this year? A freshman point guard in Willie Kemp, three sophomores led by Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson and junior Joey Dorsey.
"I know we're young. I also know we're pretty good," Calipari said.
The Tigers are in step with the squad that earned the first No. 1 seed in school history last year and reached the Oakland Regional final before losing to UCLA 50-45.
They rank ninth in scoring offense (80.4 points), fifth in scoring margin (17.9 ppg), sixth in steals (10.2) and eighth in field goal percentage defense (38.3 percent). As hosts of the league tournament next week, with its automatic bid to the winner, they'll play at home where they have won 29 straight.
"We're like a runaway train because we score a lot of points," Calipari said. "We put 'em up in bunches. We can make 3s. We're athletic and long. We really guard."
Calipari calls this his best passing team. And the players love his system.
"It's a run and gun offense," Hunt said. "If you can play, you're going to be on the court."
That includes Hunt, who was dismissed in October 2005 following a fight on Memphis' famous Beale Street and was charged with assaulting an ex-girlfriend. He met the terms a judge set in the assault case, and his criminal record was cleared of the charge Tuesday.
He returned the team on what Calipari calls "triple-secret probation," limiting what Hunt can do. He now is the first player off the bench, averaging 13.8 points.
Calipari credits Hunt's mother with backing the school's punishment. Hunt responded by never missing a game last season, sitting in the student section, watching practices in which couldn't play and finishing his degree in sports education last August.
"He has been humble, he's grown, he's matured. ... I think it's a great statement that this university has given him another chance," Calipari said.
Hunt, the lone senior who isn't a walk-on, said he grew up when he couldn't play. He has been a big key for a team that has moved up the rankings even though the Tigers' last ranked opponent was then-No. 9 Arizona on Dec. 20.
They haven't lost since. Their other two losses: to then-No. 19 Georgia Tech in Maui and at Tennessee in December, which went undefeated at home this season.
"When you schedule that kind of schedule, you're risking the program because we lost all that we lost," Calipari said. "And we survived it."
Conference USA's RPI is up from last season, but the Tigers' toughest game in league play was Jan. 11 at Houston in a 79-69 victory. They went to Gonzaga on Feb. 17 and won 78-77 in overtime in a game designed to toughen up the schedule late.
Calipari's teams traditionally play well in March, and he is a combined 30-13 in the NIT and NCAA tournament at Massachusetts and Memphis. These Tigers didn't celebrate their latest league title last week. Only a national title -- which would be the first for a school that has been to the Final Four twice and not since 1985 -- will do.
"We have big goals," Hunt said. "We're trying to fulfill them."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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