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Memphis' fab freshmen run well together

WP: Top-seeded Tigers are sparked by our players from same high school
NCAA  BUCKNELL MEMPHIS BASKETBALL
Shawne Williams is generally considered the best of Memphis' heralded class of freshmen.Eric Gay / AP
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Members of the Memphis basketball team's highly ranked freshman class came to the school from six states and the District. Despite their varied backgrounds, Coach John Calipari has worked them into his regular rotation without causing friction among his returning players, partly because four of the newcomers knew each other so well.

Tigers freshmen Antonio Anderson, Kareem Cooper, Robert Dozier and Shawne Williams all played last season at Laurinburg Institute, a college preparatory school located about 90 miles southeast of Charlotte. Memphis sophomore Joey Dorsey also attended and played basketball at the North Carolina school during the 2003-04 school year.

"It has helped us a lot," Williams said. "It was good that we could all go to the same school so we could become acquainted with each other. It seemed like everybody on that team was at Laurinburg to be together. We learned what to say to each other and how to act around each other."

The freshmen have played well together this season. The Tigers, the No. 1 seed in the Oakland Region, blew past No. 16 seed Oral Roberts and No. 9 seed Bucknell in their first two NCAA tournament games last weekend at American Airlines Center in Dallas. Memphis, which will play No. 13 seed Bradley at Oakland Arena on Thursday night, has a school-record 32 victories and won both the Conference USA regular season and tournament titles.

"They think they're supposed to win," Calipari said. "But the things that make them so good are that every one of them is so unselfish and they're all so competitive. When you're insecure about yourself, other people's success can affect you. But these guys are all secure in themselves and they'll sacrifice whatever it takes to win."

Not since Michigan's "Fab Five" class of Ray Jackson, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose and Jimmy King led the Wolverines to the Final Four in each of their two seasons together, in 1992 and 1993, has a successful program relied so heavily on freshmen as Memphis.

The Tigers have seven freshman players, including the quartet from Laurinburg Institute, and five are averaging at least 11 minutes per game. Williams and Anderson are starters; Chris Douglas-Roberts, Dozier and Cooper and Allen are the team's top reserves; so is sophomore Andre Allen, a Memphis native who was academically ineligible to play as an academic non-qualifier last season.

Williams, a homegrown product from Hamilton High School in Memphis, is considered the best player and NBA prospect among the freshmen because of his long wingspan and extraordinary athleticism. He is the Tigers' second-leading scorer with 13.4 points per game, behind senior Rodney Carney, and averages 6.1 rebounds.

Williams, 6 feet 9 and 225 pounds, spent a year and a half at Laurinburg Institute before returning home to play for the Tigers. Anderson, a 6-6 shooting guard, played at Lynn Tech in Lynn, Mass., and Maine Central Institute before transferring to Laurinburg. He averages 7.4 points and 3.4 rebounds.

"I had to get my grades up," Williams said. "It was a blessing in disguise. It gave me an extra year to get my head right and get my grades, and I was able to do it with other people who were coming to Memphis."

Cooper, who was born in the District and attended two other high schools in North Carolina, including the controversial Mount Zion Academy, declined to be interviewed for this story when approached in the Tigers' locker room after last Sunday's game.

Dozier, who played at Lithonia High School in suburban Atlanta, attended Laurinburg Institute after the University of Georgia withdrew a scholarship offer in the spring of 2005 because of an irregular increase in his standardized test scores.

"Going to Laurinburg made our transition to college a lot easier," Dozier said. "The four guys who came in together already knew each other, so we just had to get to know the guys that were already here. Most freshmen come into college and everything is new."

Calipari said Dorsey, Cooper and Anderson had already enrolled at Laurinburg before the Tigers started recruiting them. Williams and Dozier had orally committed to play for Memphis before enrolling at Laurinburg, but Calipari said he did nothing to facilitate the players enrolling at the prep school. Together, the four Memphis freshmen helped lead Laurinburg to a 40-0 record and the prep school national championship during the 2004-05 season.

"Laurinburg has been around for 100 years," Calipari said. "It's not one of those diploma mills you've been reading about."

While the Laurinburg Institute pipeline has worked out well, Calipari said having four signees at the same prep school did have its risks.

"What if they didn't like each other?" Calipari said. "Then what do you do?"