“On the 1995-96 Kentucky team (34 wins and a National Title), the most anyone played was 26 minutes, the most shots anyone got a game was 13. I looked at those numbers and those guys had eight in the NBA, plus the ninth, Nazr Mohammed, who never played,” says Coach Cal. “I just want my guys to know that for what we’re trying to accomplish and what they’re trying to accomplish, it’s not how many minutes you play, it’s about being the last team standing, and I think I have a team that understands that, so I’m excited.”
When you are a title-contending team returning all five starters from a 33-win team, the ability to snare the likes of Rose and Robinson is borderline criminal. But Coach Cal’s embarrassment of riches doesn’t stop there: Iowa State transfer Shawn Taggart is eligible and ready to bolster the Tiger frontcourt. On a team with potentially six NBA Draft picks, the 6-10 Taggart is quite possibly the most intriguing. Capable of banging on the inside or fluidly maneuvering on the perimeter, Taggart will look to join a talented unit anchored by one of the nation’s most physically intimidating players, senior Joey Dorsey.
Last season’s C-USA’s Defensive POY, the 6-9, 265-pound Dorsey provides the team’s muscle and intensity and is often the fortunate recipient of tip dunks as he scours the offensive glass. The Baltimore native has long been known as a great source for off-the-court news, not to mention the distinction of being a great quote. Dorsey—who looks to break several career Tiger records including games played, rebounds and blocked shots—made headlines last spring for his “David and Goliath” quote before their Elite Eight game with Greg Oden and Ohio State. “It was a very humbling experience,” reflects the suddenly quiescent Dorsey. “I’ve grown from it.”
Despite being perceived as the team’s resident troublemaker (a recent curfew was implemented after a bar fight involving several players allegedly started when Dorsey mixed words with a club bouncer), Dorsey is also the team’s glue. Often seen joking or laughing in between his thunderous jams, Dorsey is both the yin and yang for Coach Cal.
“I love Coach Cal like a father figure and I hate to disappoint him,” Dorsey admits. “He helped me with my attitude and my game on the court and he has definitely helped prepare me for the next level.”
To make matters worse for Tiger opponents, the multi-talented junior Robert Dozier represents the third leg of what could be the longest and most athletic triumvirate in the nation. A wiry 6-9 Georgia product, Dozier is putting in extra work in hopes of building on his 10 and 6 season of a year ago.
“This year, I just came in and made myself work harder, not just for me, but for the team to get to the next level,” Dozier said. “Everyone did their part this summer; guys are just anxious to get out on the court and show it.”
While all of the national preseason rankings have Memphis in the top five, the Tigers continue to work toward that elusive No. 1 seed come March. In years past, outside factors have made that goal unattainable, with most of the resistance centered on the Tigers’ strength of schedule and specifically the quality of their conference play. This year, however, those hurdles should be lower. Not only is the level of play in C-USA on the rise, but with the likes of Gonzaga, Arizona, Southern California, Georgetown and in-state rival Tennessee on this year’s schedule, the Tigers will be more than battle tested by year’s end.
“What’s put on paper never really ends up being true,” says Dozier of the high rankings. “Guys want to go out and be able to show it on the court. That’s where you’re made, that’s where your team is made. But we do hear the hype.”
In what has long been just a one, maybe two-bid conference, C-USA now boasts a half-dozen teams that will be flirting with a springtime bid. Houston, UAB, SMU, Southern Miss and the rest know that their league’s credibility is still largely built upon the Tigers’ broad shoulders.
“The teams in this league are committed, but Memphis is the carrot for all of us,” says SMU (and former North Carolina) head coach Matt Doherty. “We are all chasing Memphis. We all want to beat them.”
Oddly enough, getting to face a top-five team twice a year has become a recruiting tool used by many, including Doherty. “We all do it,” he says. “We try to downplay the negatives and accentuate the positives. One of the positives in this league is Memphis.”