While Kentucky Continues to Roll, Memphis Fans Wonder, "What If...?"

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IDecember 14, 2009

Just for the record, I want everyone to know—Memphis fans, especially—that this article is NOT going to bash John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats.

After all, I know that Tiger fans are not happy with Cal (and note that I am employing a literary device known as a “litote,” or intentional gross under-exaggeration, with that statement), and of course I can understand why.

For months, Memphis fans (present company included) had waited breathlessly for a recruiting class for the ages to set foot on campus.

DeMarcus Cousins, Xavier Henry, and John Wall were the trio of five-star crown jewels of the recruiting haul.

Each one of those three young men was known by at least one recruiting service as the top stud of the loaded Class of 2009, which isn’t as deep as some classes but is dripping with pro prospects at the front end.

Junior college standouts Will Coleman and Darnell Dodson were expected to add depth and firepower to a young but insanely talented basketball team.

Two things occurred that have changed my viewpoint of the entire situation.

I became a credentialed writer for Rivals.com, and signed a Covenant of Impartiality, that simply means that in public and in my writings, I am a fan of no college basketball team.

My job is to call it like I see it, whether I write an article for Rivals, Bleacher or anyone else. I even have to mind my manners on Internet message boards.

I was officially a member of the media.

And then, there was this little matter of John Calipari relocating to the University of Kentucky, and Memphis hiring the young Josh Pastner, that changed things a bit.

So at a very critical time in my life, upon embarking on a bold new path, I was unable to truly express how I felt about what was happening at the University of Memphis. My new charge was to observe and report the news objectively.

In fact, for the sake of my burgeoning career, not only was I unable to talk very much about how I felt; I also had to find a way to change how I was reacting to the upheaval at the University of Memphis.

And it was very difficult for me.

However, along the way, my vow of impartiality took hold, and the white-hot anger I felt for Calipari quickly subsided.

And you know what?

I now absolutely love watching the University of Kentucky play basketball. Not because of Calipari, and not necessarily because of the one-time Memphis recruits.

I love watching the Wildcats because they are so explosive, so talented, so dominant.

I wasn’t fooled by the team’s early struggles. The near-loss to Miami-Ohio was shocking, but it was still a victory. It had all the ear-marks of an early-season Calipari effort.

Great coaches have tendencies, just like great players do. And yes, I still consider John Calipari a great coach; it seems ridiculous to me to suggest otherwise.

But have you ever noticed that Mike Krzyzewski’s recent vintage of teams at Duke almost always start the season off with all guns blazing, then drop off around January, recover somewhat, but then get upset in the Big Dance?

I’ve never figured that one out.

Well, Calipari teams tend to start out very slowly, perhaps even absorbing a couple of unexpected losses early in the season. Even when they win, they “win ugly,” as the saying goes.

By mid-January at the latest, though, you don’t want to face Cal’s teams. You want to catch them in mid-February, when there’s a lull, but they recover and are generally primed and lethal by March.

Except for last year, which is a story I will probably never get around to writing.

Don’t ask.

With the incredible embarrassment of riches on the Kentucky roster this season, perhaps the most impressive thing about the play of the Wildcats is their defensive intensity.

Three things—defense, hustle and rebounding—are all about desire. A player has got to want to play good defense, he’s got to ache to grab that board or dive for a loose ball.

Calipari has his crew of high school All-Americans, five-star recruits, and returning star Patrick Patterson playing suffocating defense and hurtling their bodies all over the floor with no regard for their physical well-being or future NBA riches.

The team plays the game of basketball the way it should be played: hard.

But when all else fails, they can put the ball in the hands of their star freshman guard, John Wall, and know that he will create a play.

If Wall is unavailable for any reason, though, insert the name “Eric Bledsoe” into the previous statement, and the drop-off isn’t too great. He’s athletic, cerebral, and efficient.

Dodson has been doing what he was inked to do—sink three-pointers—and Cousins is developing into a monster down low. He is a sure rebounder, good shot-blocker, and has myriad ways to score, either in the paint or from the wing.

Xavier Henry, out in Lawrence, is the leading scorer for No. 1-ranked Kansas—not returning All-Americans Cole Aldrich or Sherron Collins.

The Memphis line-up would probably have consisted of Wall and Elliot Williams in the backcourt, with Xavier Henry, Wesley Witherspoon and Cousins in the frontcourt. That would have left Coleman to fight for minutes off the bench, along with returnees Pierre Henderson-Niles, Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, and Roburt Sallie.

That’s why Memphis fans were singing what they christened “The 40-0 Song.”

So I, for one, wish Calipari well with his ill-gotten recruiting haul. After all, most every kid in his class (except for Bledsoe and Daniel Orton) was wooed on the U of M’s dime.

But Memphis fans, instead of always crying over what might have been, have quickly learned to instead celebrate what they do have. Even with just nine scholarship players, it’s a very talented Memphis team which plays tenacious defense of its own.

Josh Pastner doesn’t coach like he’s 32, or as if this is his first head coaching post. He is methodical, organized, and highly composed.

What would happen if the two teams were to meet?

Kentucky is bigger, faster, stronger, and more talented. They have superior length at every position on the floor, while Memphis frequently starts four guards and Coleman.

The Wildcats score more points, grab more rebounds, block more shots, hit more treys. On paper, Kentucky would blow Memphis out...but then again, so would Kansas, right?

Head Coach Pastner and his Tigers nearly stole a victory from the Jayhawks before succumbing, 57-55.

That’s why they play the games.

Pastner would again find a way to give his team a chance to win if Memphis were to play Kentucky.

You didn’t really expect me to call the game, did you? I only hope the matchup somehow comes to pass. It would only occur during the NCAA Tournament, probably in an early round or perhaps the Sweet Sixteen.

It would be the final opportunity for Memphis fans to bury the memory of the past and embrace the future. One last chance to excise all thoughts of what might have been.


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