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South Region

Memphis, Texas know how it feels to get oh-so-close

HOUSTON — For Memphis and Texas, today's South Region championship game can't be fully understood, can't be truly appreciated, without considering their yesterdays.

Memphis was at the precipice of the Final Four in 2006 and 2007, only to fall both times.

Texas also had a shot in 2006 and missed.

"The vision you have for your program is you're competing every year for a national title," Memphis coach John Calipari said Saturday at Reliant Stadium, "which means you have to be in this game to even be considered for that."

And then you must take the next step.

"Like every team left, we want to win the whole thing," echoed Longhorns coach Rick Barnes. "Obviously, if you can do that, it puts you in elite company and that's something that we are all chasing."

Some come tantalizingly close but end the day as Wile E. Coyote, still hungry for their quarry.

Junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, the leading scorer for the top seed Tigers (36-1), hasn't forgotten the disappointing ends to his past two NCAA runs.

In '06, Memphis played No. 2 seed UCLA in the West final and although the Tigers were a No. 1, they had to play the Bruins in Oakland. The Tigers forced 3-pointers (they were 2-of-17) and lost 50-45.

Last year, the No. 2 seed Tigers led No. 1 Ohio State but didn't handle a controversial technical foul with enough poise and were beaten by center Greg Oden and guard Mike Conley, 92-76.

"We weren't ready," Douglas-Roberts said of those losses. "We didn't know what an NCAA game was like, the intensity level, everything."

Joining Douglas-Roberts on the current Tigers team as those who gained experience from those losses: senior center Joey Dorsey, senior guard Andre Allen, junior guard Antonio Anderson and junior forward Robert Dozier.

"Last year, we didn't get over the hump and that bothered me the whole summer, so I had to get better," said Dorsey, who didn't score against Ohio State after essentially calling Oden overrated on the eve of the game.

Calipari pointed out that in 2006, Douglas-Roberts was so green — he had four turnovers in seven minutes — he had to get him off the court. Now, he is one of the game's best. Also, Calipari has added freshman point guard Derrick Rose, one of the game's best already.

The guy who was supposed to elevate Texas to the Final Four came in after the 2006 run ended with a 70-60 overtime loss to No. 4 seed LSU.

Unfortunately for the Longhorns, Kevin Durant, the consensus player of the year as a freshman, bolted to the NBA as the No. 2 pick overall for Seattle.

"We all appreciated and understood how good a player that he was and he is, but there were other things, too, that made that team successful, and it's right here," Barnes said, pointing to his five starters sitting next to him.

That included junior guard A.J. Abrams and junior center Connor Atchley. Both are links to that '06 Elite Eight team.

"It was a great opportunity," Abrams said. "Me and Connor got a lot of experience in those game. I just hope to pass (that) down; just try to relax everybody."

The No. 2 seed Longhorns (31-6) have won 15 of their last 17 thanks to the firepower of sophomore point guard D.J. Augustin and Abrams, and an aggressive team defense. Including Friday's win against Stanford, they have 19 wins against teams that made the NCAA field. One jumps out for this game:

They whipped Tennessee 97-78 on Nov. 24.

A few months later, Tennessee beat then-No. 1 Memphis 66-62.

"I had been asked a question all year about where would we be with (Durant). We would be a better team because he would have gotten better, too," Barnes said. "But the fact is this team is so much better and so different than that team a year ago because these guys here made up their mind last spring that they were going to work hard, improve.

"They set a great standard for the younger guys … to understand, hey, this is what's expected here."

Especially today.

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

Memphis, Texas know how it feels to get oh-so-close 03/30/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2008 12:43am]

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