Kansas City, Mo. — Prompted Thursday night after his Big 12 tournament debut to take a trip down his personal March Madness Memory Lane, Dedric Lawson’s roots popped up.
A native of Memphis, Tenn., and, of course, a former Memphis Tiger himself, it came as no surprise that his hometown college basketball program left quite an impression on him as a child.
Though Lawson said he didn’t run around Memphis as a youngster wearing a Derrick Rose or Chris Douglas-Roberts jersey, those were his two favorite players when he first started following the game closely.
The Memphis basketball program really began to take off under then-head coach John Calipari when Lawson was in elementary school, and Lawson found himself drawn most to Douglas-Roberts, a versatile small forward not too dissimilar from the player Lawson would grow to become.
“He was more of like a 3,” Lawson said of why as a child he chose the 6-foot-7 Douglas-Roberts as his favorite player instead of the explosive point guard, Rose. “I met those guys when they were at Memphis. We used to go around the program and things like that. They was real cool. Robert Dozier (a Tigers big man), he was real, real cool, too.”
Years later, when Lawson was a member of the Memphis program, playing his first season under coach Josh Pastner and his second for Tubby Smith, some of those Tigers he grew up admiring would come back around.
“We played pickup together and things like that. Those were cool people,” Lawson said.
And with Memphis basketball so much a part of his DNA, Lawson couldn’t help but laugh about the fact that his favorite childhood team lost to Kansas in the 2008 national championship game.
Lawson was 10 years old when the man who is now his head coach, Bill Self, guided the Jayhawks to an overtime victory against Calipari and Memphis.
Was he bitter at the time?
“I definitely was,” a smiling Lawson admitted, adding he remembers it like it was yesterday.
Perhaps unfortunately for Lawson and those old March Madness scars from his time as a fan, he gets a reminder of that pain before every KU home game, when the hype video plays a clip of Mario Chalmers’ iconic 3-pointer that sent the 2008 title game to OT.
“I’m cool with it now,” a laughing Lawson shared. “I’m a part of both cultures. There’s not really too much bitterness no more. And Mario, he’s a cool guy, as well. It was great for Mario. It was something great that happened for him, something sad that happened for Memphis.”
Of course, Lawson and the Jayhawks aim to create their own March Madness memories this weekend and beyond. And right now, their focus is on Friday night’s semifinal at Sprint Center, where they will meet up with an unlikely foe, No. 10 seed West Virginia.
Lawson couldn’t have imagined before the Big 12 tournament began that KU would be facing the Mountaineers.
“Nah. We was definitely expecting Tech,” Lawson said. “Of course, everybody probably was. Just to kind of play them again — we lost to them by like 20 — so we wanted to play against them guys again,” he added, referencing KU’s 91-62 loss at Texas Tech on Feb. 23.
“But it’ll definitely be a competitive game,” Lawson said of facing a WVU team that upset Kansas in Morgantown, W.Va., back in January. “They’re not gonna quit. They’re gonna come out playing with a lot of intensity and very hard.”
With the help of a big, mobile quarterback who can command a versatile offense, Memphis football coach Justin Fuente is leading the kind of turnaround David Beaty hopes to pull off at Kansas.
Fuente took over a downtrodden Tigers program in 2012. After a 3-9 mark in 2013, Memphis went 10-3 last season, won the American Athletic Conference title for the program’s first league crown in more than 40 years and beat BYU in double overtime at the Miami Beach Bowl.
Entering Saturday night’s game at KU’s Memorial Stadium, Memphis has won its last eight games, dating back to the 2014 season — the fourth-longest win streak in FBS Football. Heading into this week, only Ohio State (14), Boise State (10) and TCU (nine) have longer win streaks. You might have heard of those programs.
Fuente’s teams are known for having creative offenses that can fool and burn defenses in a number of ways. The bad news for the Jayhawks: Memphis didn’t have to show much of anything in its season-opening, 63-7 dismantling of Missouri State.
The Tigers utilized six running backs who helped account for 317 rushing yards. Memphis’ 63 points against Missouri State ranked seventh in the nation, while the Tigers’ defense also put up some stellar numbers, nationally: rushing defense (18 yards, sixth), total defense (125 yards, fifth), turnover margin (+3, fifth)
Although Memphis put up 519 yards of total offense (35th) in its opener, KU actually fared better, with 576 yards (19th).
While Memphis and Kansas are in very different places as programs right now, Memphis has lost 19 straight games to schools which currently reside in the so-called Power 5 or BCS conferences. The Tigers’ last victory over a program from a major league came in the 2004 season opener against Ole Miss.
Fifteen of the Tigers’ 19 such losses in the past 11 seasons came against either ACC, SEC or Pac-12 opponents — six to Ole Miss and four to Tennessee. Four more came against current ACC program Louisville.
Interesting note: Memphis assistant head coach Darrell Dickey played QB for Kansas State from 1979-82
FIVE TIGERS TO WATCH
No. 12: QB Paxton Lynch | 6-7, 245, jr.
Pulled from the opener late in the first half, Memphis star quarterback Paxton Lynch completed eight of his 12 passes for 78 yards and a touchdown vs. Missouri State.
In his career, Lynch has started 26 consecutive games, completed 60.7% of his 774 throws, racked up 5,165 yards and 32 touchdowns through the air and rushed for 15 more scores.
At the Miami Beach Bowl, Lynch played a part in seven total touchdowns (four passing, three rushing) — tying an NCAA bowl game record — and was named MVP.
On watch lists for Maxwell Award and Davey O’Brien National QB Award.
No. 11: RB Sam Craft | 6-0, 210, jr.
Though Jarvis Cooper led Memphis with 102 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns last week, he was one of many backups to see extensive playing time. No. 1 RB Craft still went for 72 yards on 12 carries.
Last week’s 12-touch game figures to be an anomaly this season for the junior, and Craft as recently as last season against Cincinnati tallied 38 carries in one game. He rushed for a career-high 170 yards against Cincy.
The speedy junior also serves as a kickoff returner for Memphis.
No. 39: FS Reggis Ball | 5-11, 210, sr.
The Tigers’ leading returning tackler has 95 in his career — 68 unassisted — in 38 games.
Ball is capable of doing a bit of everything on defense and will be counted on to do so as a senior defensive back. He has 3.0 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, two pass breakups, three fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and two blocked kicks during his time at Memphis.
Returned an interception 93 yards in 2013 vs. SMU.
No. 40: TE Alan Cross | 6-1, 235, sr.
Don’t let the 0 receptions vs. Missouri State fool you. Cross earned first-team all-AAC honors in 2014 for a reason.
The tight end caught three passes for 69 yards and a TD in the Tigers’ bowl win over BYU to close 2014.
On the John Mackey Award watch list for the nation’s top tight end.
No. 46 : PK Jake Elliott | 5-10, 165, jr.
Not many college programs are fortunate enough to have a real weapon in their place kicker, but Memphis does in Jake Elliott.
In 2014, Elliott made 21 of 32 field goals. Of the 11 he missed, eight came from more than 45 yards out.
The kicker set a new school record by hitting 57 extra points, going perfect in the process.
Eight of Elliott’s 10 kickoffs went for touchbacks in the season opener.
Named the American Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Year in 2014.