Early-season growing pains pay dividends for Evans, Memphis

He came out of the locker room, head bowed and tilted into the shoulder of Antonio Anderson.

A horrific three-game trip to Puerto Rico had just ended with Tyreke Evans' shooting 11-of-36 from the floor, 1-of-11 from beyond the arc, capped off with a foolish 3-point hero's attempt in the title game when all Memphis needed was to drain some time on the clock and go for an easy bucket.

Evans shuffled down the hallway, wiping tears away from his eyes.

Five games into his collegiate career, the nation's best freshman was officially lost.

"When I look at those tapes now, that's not the Tyreke I know," Evans said this past week, referring to the November tournament. "I looked like a freshman in high school."

Actually, that's not true. As a freshman in high school, Evans was already into his third season on the varsity.

This was new. This was a challenge and, to a degree, a failure, things Evans had never met.

High school basketball has changed and players like Evans, for better or worse, are the byproducts of it. Gone is the grit and grime of old-school rivalries and down-and-dirty ball, replaced with programs and schedules designed around showcase games that serve more as college auditions than actual competitions.

Evans always was bigger, stronger and better than his teammates and the majority of his competition. He won a lot of games, scored a lot of points and rarely broke a sweat.

He wasn't soft, but he also wasn't accustomed to struggling.

"Most of these kids, they think they poop ice cream. But kids come here because they want to be coached and they want to be challenged," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "I get emotional. I'm hard. I say tough things and I tell the truth on the fly and they know that.

"With Tyreke, my job is to make sure he feels challenged, that he plays through his comfort zone. By the time practice is over you have to be uncomfortable or I haven't done my job."

Premiere players come into the game wrapped in the stereotype that they are uncoachable know-it-alls, kids who have been coddled and massaged for so long that they wouldn't take advice if John Wooden, James Naismith and Red Auerbach were serving together on a panel to offer it.

"When I look at those tapes now, that's not the Tyreke I know. I looked like a freshman in high school.

--Tyreke Evans

Evans comes with the entourage of a top-flight kid: His strength coach, Lamont Peterson, is currently sitting on the Memphis bench, hired this season (Calipari said Peterson was hired only after he lost five members of his staff to other jobs and after Evans already had signed with Memphis). And throughout the recruiting process, Evans and his family relied heavily on the advice of William "Wes" Wesley. Wesley, who grew up in Camden, N.J., just across the river from Evans' home in Chester, Pa., is widely considered one of the most influential power brokers in basketball, with strong ties to the Memphis program.

But what Evans doesn't have is an attitude. He didn't pout or whine through his struggles, didn't blame his coach (though his coach would later take the fall for playing Evans out of position). He just tucked himself in a film room to review the painful edit of his Puerto Rico performance, took whatever withering criticism harsh-tongued Calipari could offer and got better.

Now Evans is averaging a team-best 17.1 points per game and might be the leading contender for national freshman of the year honors. Since Puerto Rico, he is shooting 47 percent from the floor and 36 percent from the arc (compared to 38 percent and 12 percent through those first five games).

"High school came easy; I could score anytime I wanted, do whatever I wanted," Evans said. "This was hard but I kept telling myself that I was a better player than this. I came here to get better and that's what I did."

A year ago, Memphis clanked away its national championship hopes at the free throw line, losing to Kansas in an overtime heartbreaker. The Tigers then said goodbye to Derrick Rose, the NBA's No. 1 draft pick, Chris Douglas-Roberts, an All-American and 1,500-point scorer, and Joey Dorsey, who collected more than 1,200 rebounds in his career. Their departure signified what looked to be a rebuilding year for Memphis.

Instead the Tigers, the chronic party-crashers to the upper crust's annual March soiree, have ripped off a national-best 18 wins in a row and have gone from unranked in mid-January to once again nipping at the heels of the elite.

Memphis is currently ranked fourth, but with Pittsburgh and Oklahoma having already lost this week, could climb to at least No. 2 with a win at rival UAB on Thursday night.

"We're not BCS, we're not Fortune 500, we're Memphis," Calipari said. "It's not paranoia when it's true."

When the season dawned, the Tigers still had considerable talent on the roster -- Shawn Taggart, Robert Dozier, Doneal Mack and Antonio Anderson all logged significant minutes this past season. What they didn't have was a centerpiece.

Enter Evans.

Well, not exactly that smoothly.

First Calipari had to tinker, putting Anderson at the point despite the fact the senior had never -- as in never, ever since bitty ball -- played the position. When that crashed and burned, Calipari turned to rookie Wesley Witherspoon, more of a guard/forward than a point guard.

Meantime, Evans, who was a combo shooting/point guard at American Christian, tried to figure out how to play without the ball in his hands and the Tigers spiraled to 6-3 and obscurity.

"Should have fired the coach," Calipari joked.

Asked if he thought his coach had lost his marbles, Evans laughed, "No, not really. I mean, he's the coach."

But while Calipari dickered with his lineup, it was Evans who paid the price.

Along with being a top-5 rated player, Evans was the subject of a documentary, "Gunnin' for That #1 Spot," before he even finished high school. He was a kid who was never shy -- and still isn't -- about his desire to parlay a college career into an NBA job as quickly as possible, amending the requisite lip service of four years to school to as many years as he needed to get ready for the NBA.

In other words, Evans was a player everyone expected to soar and the vultures were waiting for him to fail.

Those early games only got the birds circling.

"He didn't show us or tell us it was bothering him, but I mean, he's human. It has to," said Reggie Evans, Tyreke's older brother. "He's been hearing stuff ever since he was a kid, so I know part of him is used to it, but when the hype comes, the criticism comes."

Surely the critics haven't got much to say these days.

In late December, Calipari called Evans out in practice and told the freshman he was now the point guard. The Tigers haven't lost since.

It is not just his numbers, it is his comfort and the comfort he brings to everyone else. Anderson is back where he belongs, while Taggart and Dozier are enjoying the fruits of a talented point guard once again. Evans is far from polished. He still turns the ball over -- averaging 3.3 turnovers to 3.7 assists -- and reverts to old habits that haunt Calipari. After Evans' 25-point, 8-rebound, 3-assist, 3-block effort against UTEP, the coach promised to bench him if he didn't get rid of the ball sooner.

But Evans is natural again. He is having fun again and he's at that poetic juncture players dream about, where they no longer have to think the game. They just play it.

"I'm much more comfortable now, it's like I've been here for a long time," Evans said. "I know where my teammates are going to be, what we need to do. I'm just calm."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.