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A season on the brink
by Adam Montgomery

Fans can barely contain their excitement; an entire campus itches with anticipation. A whole city waits with eagerness and hope. Expectations continue to rise as the Final Four draws nearer and nearer. It is the time of year to lay the expectations aside in hopes that they will become a reality. It is college basketball time and it could not have come sooner for Tiger fans.

Never before have the expectations been so high. After two back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, fans are wanting more. After returning every starter from a team that went 33-4, the University expects more. After adding Derrick Rose, one of the country’s top recruits, the city needs more. All the pieces are in place for the Memphis basketball team to make its first Final Four appearance since 1985. However, it is not just the city that has high hopes.

Five of the most well-known college basketball preseason publications ranked the Tigers in the top five, and one, CBS Sports, ranked the team No. 1. Most college basketball experts and analysts agree that anything less than a Final Four appearance would be considered a disappointment for the Tigers. Such exposure has thrust the team and the University into the nation’s limelight.

With mounting expectations from across the nation, players can’t disregard the added pressures that come with more attention.

”There definitely is pressure to do well and perform,” says junior Antonio Anderson, ”but it’s a good type of pressure. I came to Memphis because I wanted high expectations and the pressure that comes along with that.” Anderson concedes that this year feels different than past years in one way.

”I have always believed that we could win a national championship, but this year it seems like everyone in the country believes it,” says Anderson. ”That to me is the only difference. We can’t worry about what everyone else believes though. We just have to go out there and play our game.”

Tigers
(Left to right) Robert Dozier, Derrick Rose and Antonio Anderson give the Tigers their best chance at a Final Four
in more than a decade. Memphis features one of the deepest teams in Division I basketball.

The majority of the other Tigers feel that this year is different, but they are having a hard time putting a finger on what the difference is — it is not just the extra national press, the special buzz around the city or the lofty preseason ranking. They realize these differences and have come to grips with them. It is something more unique than that, something they have not yet experienced.

”It is kind of strange, but the biggest difference this year is how normal and calm everything is for us,” says Robert Dozier. ”I mean, you would think everyone would be acting different or that practice would change with all the high expectations, but the preseason was exactly the same as previous ones. Right now, everyone is just working hard and focusing. That is all we are worried about.”

Certainly though, the Tigers must feel the differences with all the extra media attention and exposure. Pictures of Memphis players are popping up in media outlets all over the city and nation. It is hard not to read about the Tigers in local newspapers and magazines.

Adds Dozier, ”Everyone wants to know how we are dealing with the added exposure and if we are feeling the weight from the high expectations. Everyone expects us to be feeling extra pressure. That is the thing though. We don’t feel any different about this year. I have believed we could win the national championship every year, and I feel no different about this year.”

A national championship is definitely a possibility for this year’s Tigers, but the road to one is filled with many obstacles. With an increasingly tougher Conference USA schedule, from the always tough UAB Blazers and Houston Cougars to up and coming Southern Miss and Tulsa, making it through conference play unscathed is going to be difficult. It doesn’t help when the Tigers have a huge target on their back from being picked as the preseason favorite.

The true test, however, lies within the non-conference schedule with games against Tennessee, USC, Georgetown and Arizona. The past two years have been very successful for the Tigers, but they have benefited by playing under the radar. Now the Tigers have become the team to beat and every opponent will bring their best. While a tough road ensues for the Tigers, one thing is for certain: No matter what happens during the regular season, they will be battle-tested and prepared come March. For the Tigers and the fans, this is what really counts.

Although the schedule presents no easy challenge and is filled with many talented teams, the Tigers toughest opponent could in fact be the Memphis Tigers. With so much talent on the team, will certain players be able to handle sitting on the bench? Will the infusion of Derrick Rose and Jeff Robinson help or hurt the established chemistry?

These are all valid questions that will be answered by the end of the season. For now, the Tigers understand that agonizing about these types of questions will only make the road to the national championship more difficult. The road will only become easier if they come together as a team and stay focused on playing.

”If we want to win,” says Andre Allen, ”we need everyone. It is going to be a tough season, and we have to play as a team to get through it.”

Every team in the country is feeling optimistic and has high hopes for the season. Every team has a chance to win the national championship, and most teams will still have this chance, even when March rolls around — that is the beauty of college basketball.

Everything is set up for the Tigers to win this year. Now it is just up to them. A whole city sits back and waits.

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