Put up your dukes: Memphis and Mizzou are poised to make some noise come spring. Durham is forewarned – college basketball

Tom Kertes

YES, WE’VE HEARD OF DUKE. And we are well-aware of the fact that, according to pretty much everyone who’s anyone in college hoops, the road to championship paradise once again leads through the defending champs.

No argument there; the Blue Devils may very well be the best team in the country. But an awesome, near-unbeatable, overwhelming favorite? Nah. Not this year. Not with their lack of inside muscularity on both ends of the floor. Not while so severely lacking depth. And, most of all, not sans Shane Battier, their departed senior who was definitely the single most devastating defender–and probably the best all-around player as well–in all of college basketball last season.

This time around, Duke’s charms include brilliant backcourt play, Coach K.’s quirkily creative cerebrum that devises strategies and responds to game situations like no other college hoops mentor ever has and, in Jason Williams, Chris Duhon, and Mike Dunleavy, some very fine individual talents. Plus, of course, the Dukies do carry that customary aura of inevitability on their shoulders like some kind of an impenetrable armor.

Still, the last time we checked, aura doesn’t win you NCAA championships. And no team this short on big men–and one that also relies on the carry-you-or-kill-you trey as much as Duke does–can be viewed as a sure thing at “one-loss-and-you’re-out” time in March.

Truthfully, the single greatest thing Duke has going for it this season is the rest of the field. This year’s challengers, with the possible–but still unlikely–exception of Maryland, do not walk with the same swagger or carry as big a stick. As a matter of fact, the roundup of usual suspects–Kentucky, Illinois, Florida, Kansas, and UCLA–leaves us less than breathless, even when compared to these slightly dehydrated Devs.

Which brings us to a team with much more ultimate potential: Memphis.

Aphorisms-addicted Memphis mentor John Calipari’s favorite saying is “Championships are won in the offseason.” And this year he means more than just his minimum daily requirement of bloodcurdling commitment to conditioning and strength work.

A lot more, in fact.

“We have lots of other talented players on this team so, naturally, they were all a little bit wary about whether he could, or would, pass the ball,” smiles the coach. “But, after they had their first pickup game in July, the kids piled into my office and I could see the relief in their faces. They were real excited, yelling over each other stuff like `Coach, the dude can dish,’ and “Coach, this kid is as good a passer as we’ve ever seen.”

“This kid”–as well as “the dude”–is freshman phenom Dajuan Wagner who, in spite of his rookie status, could turn out to be the most immensely impactful player in college basketball this season. Simply, if Wagner lives up (or down) to his reputation as a no-shame gunslinger who’ll put it up from the parking lot while blissfully ignoring his teammates trip after trip down the floor, the terrifically talented Tigers could have a chemical spill on their hands the size of Chernobyl. But if the gifted Wagner conducts his basketball business like a team-oriented maestro, Memphis could play beautiful enough music to reach the Final Four.

Or, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, even win the NCAA title. Yes, it could all happen for Calipari’s crew–but only if the electrifying Mr. Wagner controls his own voltage.

Of course, the mere fact that this sizzling scoring machine–he averaged 42.5 ppg as a high school senior–did not jump straight into the pros must be seen as a good sign. It shows that this is a kid with some discrimination, the rare young supertalent who actually realizes that he still has much to learn.

“Absolutely,” Wagner says. “The main reason I came to Memphis is because I felt that Coach Cal, with his ability and background, could win us a national championship. Just look at what he did at UMass to turn that program around. And, at the same time, I also feel that he is the best person to know exactly what it’ll take for me to become an NBA player.”

Doesn’t sound much like the no-conscience aggressor who insisted on staying on the court with his team up a million or so last year so he could score 100 points against some intramural microbiology majors, does it?

“That’s because Dajuan is like two people,” Calipari says. “On the court, he’s every bit the relentless, ultra-competitive killer. But off the court, he’s such a quiet, shy person, such a humble kid, that really, after knowing him real well for quite a while now, I still have a hard time believing that I’m dealing with the same guy.”

While we’re on relentless on-court killerism, is Wagner–as many in the business already opine–another Allen Iverson, or is he not? “He is as far as aggression and `do-everything-to-win’ competitive spirit goes,” Calipari says. “But style-wise, in actuality, he and Allen are two very different players.

“Iverson, who’s only 6’0″ and barely weighs 160 pounds, uses his amazing speed and quickness to get around defenders. But my guy is a very solid 6’2 1/2″, 202 pounds of muscle who jumps much higher than Iverson does. Dajuan wants to create–indeed craves–physical contact when he scores. My guy is a guy who goes through players.”

Still, Calipari does plan to use Wagner in an intensely Iversonian fashion. “He’ll be a smallish shooting guard, not a point, for us, but he’ll still have the ball in his hands a whole lot,” says the coach. “We’ll put him on the baselines, run a lot of inside pick-and-rolls for him, `iso’ him against anyone and everyone. Heck, I’ll run Larry Brown’s offense if that’s what it takes for us to win.”

Wagner, however, will have a lot more topflight (college level) talent around him than Iverson does at Philly. And therein lies the rub: Will the team–with at least three other future pros on the roster–thrive chemically with one guy being so dominatingly Iverson-ish? Will one ball be enough to keep everyone excited and happy?

“That’s my job,” Calipari smiles. “Do I look worried?”

Actually, anything but. But who knows what lurks in the hearts of men as talented as Chris Massie, Kelly Wise, Earl Barton, and Scooter McFadgon? Not to mention some of the other far-from-clawless Tigers?

And so on–and on, and on, and on; the Tigers’ line of truly terrific talents is practically unending. Still, the road from the NIT semifinals–where 21-15 Memphis finished up last season–and the national championship is a long and hard one.

But it’s not impossible. Not for these Tigers. Not as long as Calipari’s masterly motivational skills–and the kid’s own good sense and desire to win–prevent Memphis from turning into the tragic fairy tale of Dajuan Wagner and the Eleven Dwarves.

With all that going for it–and it’s plenty–Memphis may not be the premiere sleeper-threat to Duke. Heck, they may not even be the nation’s top Tigers. Missouri, on both counts, may be that team.

Look at these big cats, and think “Duke”: Missouri practically oozes Blue Devils lineage (third-year coach Quin Snyder is a longtime Krzyzewski disciple); Missouri plays Duke’s relentlessly pressurized, perilously three-pointed style; and, in scintillating 6’6″ swingman Kareem Rush, Missouri also has the nation’s go-to-est go-to-guy not named Jason Williams. Who, of course, plays for Duke.

Missouri also played Duke, quite fabulously in fact, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year. The young Tiger-cubs stayed even for a full 30 minutes with the champs before going down fighting in a 94-81 loss.

So Snyder’s task is, quite simply, to close that 10-minute gap. “We had an unbelievably hard offseason program,” says the coach. “Every one of our players is going to be in far better condition to play those last 10 minutes this time around. Against Duke–or against any other team.”

Missouri, though still on the young and inexperienced side, may have closed the gap in other ways as well. Duke lost Battier and, for once, has not managed to corral a premiere recruiting class. The Tigers have everyone of major import back and, after a stellar recruiting effort, have no less than four new players with the ability to contribute.

One of them, 6’6″ Canadian sensation Duane John, “could be another Latrell Sprewell one day,” Snyder says. “And I mean one day soon.” Another, 6’7″, 230-pound Najeeb Echols, is an extremely versatile big body who can “play anywhere on the floor and stand out.”

The left-handed Rush is an overwhelming talent; in fact, he’s close to walking on Air. “He’s got that style, that flexibility, that funky hang-time that Jordan has,” Snyder says. “Hell score on you the right way and he’ll score on you wrong way. Like Air, Kareem’s got total control of that mid-post area between the blocks and the three-point line. Michael will just catch it there and, whatever it takes, he’ll make the positive play. Kareem is very much like that.”

Missouri has its own Wagnerian tenor–hence its own potential chemistry problem–in unconscious stun-gunner Clarence Gilbert. “He’s one of the sweetest streak-shooters in the country,” assistant coach Lane Odom says. “But he’s so competitive that sometimes he becomes a legend in his own mind. If we are to improve as a team, Clarence certainly must begin to think more like a point guard.”

And Missou must think more like a well-balanced–read “more inside-oriented”–outfit. Last year, when opponents put a body on them and did not allow them to run wild, the 20-13 Tigers were not nearly as effective.

Still, there’s much upside in the paint area, including 6’9″, 245-pound Travon Bryant, a McDonald All-American off to an injury-induced slow start, has also shown signs of coming into his own in preseason practice. “Travon has been awesome,” Rush says. “I guarantee you, he’ll be our most improved player this season–and it won’t even be close.”

Still, the biggest factor in an improved inside defense–a must if the Tigers are to outduke Duke–could be 7’0″ rejecting machine Uche Okafor. “He’s long, he’s strong, and he’s got that true shot-blockers mentality of going after every ball,” Odom says of the towering juco transfer. “We don’t have anyone else quite like him, so his presence in the paint could be real huge.”

In this instance, just how huge is “real huge”?

It’s national championship-huge. It’s Duke-catching-huge.

Stampeding Into Mach madness?

IN COLLEGE HOOPS, MUCH LIKE IN LIFE, nothing is created equal. Not even sleepers, it seems. But the Buffs, a modest 15-15 last year, could very well have their best team ever. Which could actually mean a march on March for a program that’s had exactly one NCAA visit since the Nixon Administration. That would be the first Nixon Administration to be exact.

So, since Buff basketball possesses all the history of synchronized swimming in Swaziland. why all the optimism? “Quite simply, we’ve been able to assemble the most talented team we’ve ever had,” coach Ricardo Patton says.

That type of transformation has been coming to Buffland, albeit in painfully erratic fashion. “Two years ago we had a pretty good defensive team but we couldn’t score.” Patton says, “Then last year we scored, but couldn’t defend a lick.” Buff buffs however, are licking their chops as one over the arrival of 7’0″, 240-pound freshman David Harrison: Colorado’s greatest ever recruit’s very presence will assure oodles of scoring and defending.

“David hasn’t played a minute for us as yet but he’s already the strongest player we’ve ever had in the paint.” Patton says. This is a great kid with tremendous power. Now we’re working on his moves and finesse.” Another noted newcomer, 6’2″ juco transfer James Wright, is probably the quickest guy we’ve ever had in the program, a great distributor who’ll put constant pressure on the ball on both ends off the floor.”

A great point guard and a greater center is a solid foundation, indeed-but the rebuilding Buffs also own some fine returnees in small forward D.J. Harrison (who’s David’s bro) and 6’9″ 240-pound bruiser Stephane Pelle. Another rookie. 6’9″ Jason Carter, is projected as a “down-the-line paint monster second to none,” according to the coach.

Carter is a two-time Nevada Player of the Year and a McDonald’s All-American candidate who was wanted by pretty much every school out West and quite a few in the East. Wright, ditto. Harrison was desperately desired by both North Carolina and Vanderbilt.

“In order to beat the teams you have to play on the floor, you have to beat those teams in recruiting,” Patton says. “With this recruiting class, we have begun to do that.”

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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