SAN ANTONIO (AP) -A day before their official coronation, members of the best college team in the country stepped off a bus festooned with ``Refuse to Lose'' banners and made their way into the Alamodome to talk about what it all means to them. They walked the way they play, with a swagger reminiscent of a team that itself flirted with greatness a few years back.
Most of them did, anyway.
Derrick Rose had no trouble digesting UCLA the night before, but too many gummy bears gave him a stomachache and he ended up in the trainer's room, leaving the rest of his Memphis teammates to talk about just how good he really is.
Turns out the freshman is really good, though anyone who has watched the Memphis run through the NCAA tournament could tell you that. Rose has the instinctive ability and physical tools to break down any defense off the dribble, even if he's not even the best player in the mano-a-mano contests the Tigers hold among themselves before and after practice.
``I've never lost a one-on-one game in my life,'' said fellow guard Chris Douglas-Roberts.
CDR, as his teammates call him, doesn't plan to lose one Monday night when he's paired against Brandon Rush of Kansas with the national championship at stake. Neither do his teammates, who all had aspirations even greater than being crowned national champions.
``We always wanted to be undefeated,'' said forward Joey Dorsey. ``That's all we talked about is how we weren't going to lose a game. We were heartbroken when we lost to Tennessee.''
Memphis managed to turn adversity into opportunity, and players themselves will say the February loss to Tennessee lifted the burden of an undefeated season. A team of stars who play fast and loose like the high-flying UNLV teams of another time didn't have to go into the NCAA tournament with history on the line like the 1990-91 Runnin' Rebel team that was beaten by Duke.
Basketball purists of the day cheered that loss much the same way they cheered when Tennessee squeaked out a win over the Tigers. Much like the Rebels, these Tigers were supposed to be too dumb, too lacking in fundamentals and too out of control on and off the court to be historic role models.
And, of course, they have way too many tattoos.
``People judge us and don't really know us,'' Douglas-Roberts said. ``They tend to judge based on how we look, or many tattoos or whatever. They don't see the real people. They don't see how great of a teammate Joey is or Robert (Dozier) or any of us.''
Great teammates, maybe. Perfect citizens, not.
Nearly half the current team has been in trouble at one time or another since arriving on campus. The team seems to have particular problems at the Plush Club on Beale Street, where last year Dorsey's decision to ``make it rain'' at the strip club led to the arrests of Shawn Taggert and Jeff Robinson for inciting a riot.
All of that has added to a thug image that horrifies those who believe that Calipari, like Jerry Tarkanian before him, runs an outlaw program that draws players who would be rejected at schools such as Duke and UCLA.
``Don't get me wrong,'' Douglas-Roberts said. ``A couple of players on our team have done some really dumb things.''
The tattoos, at least in CDR's case, aren't what they might appear at first glance. People who don't know him wonder why he has one of his girlfriend on his neck, but actually it's his mother. On his arm is a lengthy verse from the Bible that he taps three times before he shoots a free throw.
``It is Psalm 37, verses 1-3,'' Douglas-Roberts says. ``It is a lot of words, but basically it says to trust in the Lord and everything will be all right.''
As for the dumb part, Dorsey looked like he had plenty of basketball smarts when he shut down UCLA's Kevin Love in the semifinal. He also has classroom smarts, going from getting kicked out of middle school to being within five credits of graduating with a degree in interdisciplinary studies.
And shooting free throws can be highly overrated when you have a team of superbly talented athletes who are encouraged to attack the basket from every imaginable angle in an offense so unpredictable that opponents keep sticking their fingers into one dike only to find another one has sprung a leak.
Memphis has now won more games in one season than any college team before it, 38 victories marred only by one loss. More recently, they blew out Michigan State with a 50-20 first half in the Sweet Sixteen that Kansas coach Bill Self said might have been the best half of college basketball he's ever seen anyone play.
Yet the Tigers were considered the weakest of the No. 1s in a Final Four filled with No. 1s and were the last to be filled in on the brackets of millions of Americans who listen to the talking heads on television who said they would be the first to go because of poor free throw shooting, the lack of big games, and those pesky fundamentals.
They weren't. And now they stand just one game from hoisting the trophy aloft in the Alamodome. Come Monday night, oddsmakers like their chances to win it all.
Without the loss to Tennessee, they might have won 40 games and become the first team since Indiana 32 years ago to go through a season undefeated. Image problems or not, they would go down as one of the top five teams ever.
Instead they'll have to settle for being remembered as awfully good.
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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org
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