As a redshirt sophomore two years ago playing his first season in Division I, Antonio Burks watched much-publicized freshman DaJuan Wagner lead Memphis to a 27-9 record that was highlighted by a run to the National Invitation Tournament championship.
"He put us on the surface of the map," Burks said earlier this week.
Wagner's departure to the NBA after that season left the Tigers without a big name aside from coach John Calipari, but Burks and underrated freshman Sean Banks are helping Memphis find its way back to the map, if not the spotlight.
After starting out 0-2 in Conference USA, Memphis (20-4) has won 11 straight games to shoot past slumping Louisville, inconsistent Cincinnati and disappointing Marquette as the league's premier team.
"I think we've even surprised ourselves," said Burks, a 6-foot point guard averaging 16.5 points and 5.3 assists a game. "We just came together as a team. We don't always shoot well, but we find a way to win."
Now in his fourth season at Memphis, Calipari has put together what has the makings of his most successful season since taking Massachusetts to the Final Four in 1996.
"I said from Day One that we could be a pretty good team if our big guys respond," Calipari said.
The biggest response has been Banks, a 6-8, 205-pound forward from New Jersey who has continued to fly under the radar when fans and media discuss the nation's top freshmen this season.
With the exception of Wake Forest's Chris Paul, and possibly Duke's Luol Deng, no first-year player has made as big an impact on a nationally ranked team as Banks, who leads the Tigers with 17.0 points and 7.5 rebounds.
"We'll go to places and people will ask, 'What year is he?'" Calipari said of Banks.
Burks thinks Memphis could make a much longer run in March than it did last year, when the Tigers were a seventh seed and lost to No. 10 seed Arizona State in the opening round.
"If we keep up our defense and shoot a little better, I think it will give us a chance to play with the bigger schools," Burks said. "At the beginning of the year, I think teams were shooting more at other teams in our league. Now they're shooting at us."
Up, up and away
Air Force coach Joe Scott spent 12 seasons at Princeton learning the ropes - and those nasty backdoor cuts - as a player and assistant coach. What Scott was taught by the legendary Pete Carril finally seems to be making a difference with the Falcons.
After winning a total of 34 games in Scott's first three years - only three each year in the Mountain West Conference - Air Force is 19-5 overall and, at 9-2 in the league, has already clinched a share of the school's first league title and its first winning season in 26 years.
"I knew we were going to be good, I knew we were going to have a winning season, which here at the academy would be an amazing accomplishment," Scott, 38, said yesterday from Colorado Springs, Colo. "Last year we probably lost five games that we should have won; that's why I knew we had a chance."
Scott had even more of an inkling when his team came from five points down in the last six minutes to beat California in Berkeley in December. Like his mentor, Scott sat back and watched his players call all but one play during a 10-0 run to close the game.
"They did things on their own, hit big shots and got backdoor layups," Scott recalled. "It was loud, it was tough. Anytime you beat anyone of that caliber on the road, it's a key game. For us, it meant more. I've been trying to do that since I've been here, but we maybe haven't been good enough."
Scott has done it much the way he learned in college from Carril, now an assistant for the Sacramento Kings.
"We sort of coach them in a way that we give them a lot of responsibility," Scott said. "We never call plays. It's just the first pass dictates things and sort of teaches them how to play. Our defense is the same way. I don't tell them who they're guarding; they've got to figure stuff out on their own."
For the second time in as many weeks, a European player has left a college team in the United States to play for a professional team back home.
Though the departure of Providence senior forward Maris Laksa to a pro team in Slovenia won't have the same impact on the Friars as Christian Drejer's leaving Florida might, it could be the start of a trend.
In the case of Drejer, who left for a team in Barcelona, Spain, it was about the lure of a reported $1 million contract. For Laksa, the impetus appears to be the same as with most players who transfer.
Laksa had played just 22 minutes in 13 games.
Each Friday through the regular season, The Sun predicts the top four seeds in each regional of the NCAA tournament.
East .............................. Midwest
1. Saint Joseph's .......... 1. Kentucky
2. Pittsburgh ................. 2. Okla. State
3. Wake Forest .............. 3. Providence
4. Ga. Tech .....................4. N.C. State
South ............................. West
1. Duke .......................... 1. Stanford
2. Miss. State................. 2. Gonzaga
3. Texas ......................... 3. Connecticut
4. Memphis .................... 4. N. Carolina