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December 16, 2007

Memphis still manages to impress

Box score

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - What would Memphis be like without freshman phenom Derrick Rose?

We already know the answer to that question. The Tigers went 33-4 and reached the Elite Eight last season while Rose was finishing up his senior season of high school in Chicago. The same five starters from that team are back.

What if you took away Rose and leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts?

We found out the answer Saturday night at the Sommet Center - home of the NHL's Nashville Predators - and teams with legitimate aspirations of capturing the national title should be concerned.

Rose and Douglas-Roberts combined for just nine points (they average 36 points a game together) in the first game of the Sun Belt Classic against Middle Tennessee State, but it made little difference as the No. 2-ranked Tigers still rolled to a 65-41 rout.

Middle Tennessee (3-5) doesn't pose much of a threat, but Memphis' performance was still impressive because it came on a neutral court in a somewhat-hostile environment. The Sommet Center (which holds 18,071) was nearly full, and most of the fans were pulling for MTSU, Tennessee or Western Kentucky. The Vols defeated the Hilltoppers 88-82 in the second game of the night.

"We are going to have nights like this ... but even without Rose we won 33 games," Coach John Calipari said. "We are a veteran team."

It was those veterans that carried the Tigers. Junior Robert Dozier played perhaps the best game of his career. The versatile forward scored 11 points, grabbed seven boards, tied a career high with five blocks and set a career-high with six steals.

"That is the best I have seen (Robert) play since he began playing for me," Calipari said.

The combination of junior center Joey Dorsey - who had 12 points, 11 boards and three blocks - and Dozier made life particularly difficult on the inside for the Blue Raiders. MTSU managed to shoot just 27 percent (15 of 37) from the field.

"Memphis is the most underrated defensive team in America," Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. "We were really intimidated around the goal. They blocked a lot of shots and altered a lot of our other shots."

Guard Antonio Anderson, another junior, created a number of open shots for the Tigers. Anderson dished out a game-high six assists while adding nine points and six boards.

"We are a different team when Antonio plays like that," Calipari said.

Memphis' depth - perhaps its biggest edge over the other elite teams - was also on display. Calipari constantly subbed in four players at a time, and nine players played at least 14 minutes.

Backups Shawn Taggart (11 points), Doneal Mack (eight points) and Willie Kemp (three steals) all contributed.

"Usually you get excited when the guy you are guarding goes out," Middle Tennessee guard Kevin Kanaskie said. "You want to see who is coming in. But, Memphis' (subs) are just as good as the starters."

The Blue Raiders kept the game close early. A layup from Kanaskie tied the score at 16 with 9:33 left in the first half, but the Tigers closed the half on a 19-6 run to open up a 35-22 lead. Memphis wasn't threatened again.

The Tigers dominated the second half. A meaningless jumper from Rose, one of only two of his field goals, gave the Tigers their biggest lead of the night at 61-34 with 8:23 to go.

"We were a little shaken at the beginning but we got it together," Dozier said.

Middle Tennessee guard Nigel Johnson was asked after the game whether Memphis or Tennessee (which crushed the Blue Raiders 109-40 in November) was the better team. While Johnson didn't give a definitive answer, his reply did provide some insight.

"Tennessee played like the No. 1 team in the nation," Johnson said. "Memphis didn't play up to their capability."

No, they didn't. And that's what is so scary.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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