Vanderbilt now plays the Memphis Tigers (21-15), a team that lately has been playing extremely well. The Tigers finished the regular season with four consecutive losses, but rebounded to win three games in the Conference USA tournament before losing to Louisville in a 75-74 thriller. In the NIT, they have defeated Northeastern 90-65 and Virginia Tech 83-62, in home games. Their best wins this season were over St. Mary's on a neutral floor (81-66), DePaul at home (68-55), Louisville on the road (86-68), and Charlotte in the conference tournament (83-69).
Memphis is coached by 46-year old John Calipari. In 12 years as Head Coach at Massachusetts and Memphis he has achieved a composite record of 307-125. After a 10-18 record at Massachusetts in his first year (1988-89), he had great success there, with two 30-win seasons, four 20-win seasons, and five trips to the NCAA including an appearance in the Final Four in 1996. His 1996 team, with Marcus Camby playing at center, finished 35-2. Calipari then spent two and a fraction years coaching the New Jersey Nets in the NBA, with dismal results (72-112). He came to Memphis in 2000 and has guided the Tigers to four consecutive 20-win seasons, his best record to date being 27-9 in 2001-02.
The energetic Calipari has done a remarkable job of "selling" Memphis basketball to the public. In 2003-04 the team played at home before well over a million fans. Not everyone admires his high-powered style, and he has plenty of detractors. He may be the only active coach to have had his life publicly threatened by another coach (the hot-tempered John Chaney of Temple). He shares one thing in common with Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings; both of them dismissed player Billy Richmond from their teams.
This season the Tigers have had some significant problems. High-scoring 6-8 sophomore forward Sean Banks had to be dismissed from the team after 16 games. 6-4 junior Jeremy Hunt missed 11 games because of injuries. Another player left the team early after several brushes with the law. Calipari is well short of having a full complement of scholarship players, and three of those have not been significant contributors. Even with Hunt back in the lineup, only eight players see much action.
The leading players are 6-7 junior Rodney Carney (right, AP Photo)and 6-2 freshman Darius Washington, Jr. Carney is an amazing athlete whose skills do not yet equal his athleticism. However, he made the second All-Conference USA team and led the team in scoring (15.6 ppg). He takes a lot of three-point shots but makes only 32.6% of them, and is third on the team in rebounding (5.1 per game). He tends to be careless with the ball but is a tough defender on the perimeter. Lately, Carney has not been starting, coming off the bench to play 23-30 minutes per game.
Washington (left, AP Photo) was the CUSA Freshman-of-the-Year. He is the point guard and an extremely promising player. His assist-to-turnover ratio is barely over 1:1 and could stand a lot of improvement, although he leads the team in assists (3.8 per game). He scores 15.2 ppg and makes 40% of his threes. Most of his points come from moves to the basket, many of them eye-popping. It is quite possible that he will enter the NBA draft and leave the Memphis program after only one season.
With Banks gone, the third-leading scorer is 6-4 senior shooting guard Anthony Rice. Taking almost as many threes per game as Carney, Rice makes 40% of them, while scoring 10.7 ppg. This year he has reduced his turnovers to less than two per game. Next to Washington, who plays 35 minutes per game, Rice sees the most action (31-32 minutes per outing).
The 6-4 junior Hunt (9.7 ppg) plays on the wing opposite Rice. He has had an injury-plagued career, but is a valuable player when on court and has been seeing a lot of action in recent games. He is not as good a shooter as Rice and Washington, but grabs 3.6 rebounds per game. He is versatile and can play point guard.
The two starting big men are both seniors, 6-9 Duane Erwin and 6-8 Arthur Barclay. At 250 and 255 pounds respectively, they pack a lot of weight. Erwin scores 7.0 ppg and grabs 6.1 rebounds. Barclay (2.1 ppg) averages only 14.3 minutes per game because 6-9 freshman Joey Dorsey (4.6 ppg, 6.1 rebounds per game) has been playing more. Dorsey is a tremendous leaper even though he weighs 260 pounds. He made the Conference USA all-freshman team.
Another big man is 6-9 junior Waki Williams, a JUCO from San Jacinto College. He plays 11-12 minutes per game and averages 3.3 ppg. 6-10 junior Simplice Njoya (1.1 ppg) is a transfer from Duquesne who gets into most of the games but doesn't play many minutes. 6-10 Almamy Thiero (0.5 ppg) has had serious medical problems and doesn't play much. 6-2 freshman Tank Beavers (0.6 ppg) also isn't on the court much.
Statistically, Memphis looks more formidable on defense than on offense. They are fifth nationally in field goal defense (shooting percentage of opponents), and 16th nationally in blocked shots. Within CUSA they are third in defense against three-pointers. In other areas, they show up less well. For instance, among Conference USA teams they are sixth in rebounding margin, 13th in assist/turnover margin and tenth in free throw shots made. They are sixth in steals, 12th in assists, and tenth in field goal shooting.
The Vanderbilt Commodores will be playing Memphis before a large and hostile audience. The Tigers have momentum and are playing in the NIT with enthusiasm. This looks like the end of the season for the Commodores, by a 7-to-12-point margin. They might be saved by a hot-shooting night and a relapse by Memphis into the erratic, error-prone play that has plagued them from time-to-time.