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April 2, 2008

Taggart helps man the middle for Memphis

VIDEO: Memphis heads to Final Four | MORE: Rivals.com NCAA Tourney Central

HOUSTON Freshman guard Derrick Rose is widely regarded as the reason Memphis finally broke through and reached the Final Four this season.

Rose boosted the Tigers' overall athleticism and speed, which wasn't easy to do on what already was a roster overloaded with talent. Rose, a dynamic 6-foot-3 playmaker, was the best player on the court in top-seeded Memphis' 85-67 rout of second-seeded Texas in the South Regional final, which earned the Tigers a spot in the national semifinals against UCLA on Saturday night.

Memphis players also will tell you their experience has made them better. Rose is surrounded by three juniors and a senior in the starting lineup. That group won six NCAA Tournament games before Rose showed up this season.

But there is another factor, one that has gone unnoticed by most. Reserve sophomore big man Shawn Taggart, a transfer from Iowa State, has given the Tigers a new, much-needed dimension. Taggart, a 6-foot-10, 230-pounder, is a more-than-adequate backup for starting center Joey Dorsey, something Memphis lacked during the previous two seasons. Taggart has scored in double figures in six games this season, including a 12-point performance in 18 minutes against the Longhorns.

"Taggart is one of the bigger reasons we are where we are today," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "Because when we got to the bench or we have foul trouble, I have a player that good coming off the bench."

That was not the case in 2006, when Dorsey fouled out in just 21 minutes in UCLA's 50-45 triumph over top-seeded Memphis in the Elite Eight. Calipari's only options were to replace Dorsey with freshman forward Robert Dozier or center Kareem Cooper, neither of whom proved effective. In the 2007 Elite Eight, foul trouble limited Dorsey to 19 minutes in the Tigers' 92-76 loss to Greg Oden and Ohio State, and Calipari had to turn to the overmatched Cooper.

Memphis had hoped to have Taggart for both of those games. The Tigers had brought in Taggart, the No. 35 overall prospect in the class of 2005, for an official visit, but he signed with Iowa State - something coaches and teammates haven't let him forget.

"We recruited him hard coming out of high school," Memphis assistant Derek Kellogg said. "We really wanted him because we didn't have a backup (for Dorsey). He would have made the difference for us last year. We kind of give him a hard time about that."

Taggart grew up in Richmond, Va., and played his senior season at Durham (N.C.) Mount Zion Academy. With the Cyclones, Taggart quickly earned a spot in the rotation and put together a promising freshman campaign, averaging 5.6 points and 3.6 rebounds. But Iowa State fired coach Wayne Morgan after a 16-14 season in 2005-06. Taggart decided he wanted out.

"I got on the phone with Coach (Calipari) and he said, 'You know, I have never taken back a player that rejected me the first time,' " Taggart said.

Taggart ultimately persuaded Calipari to do just that. He then tore the ACL in his right knee in a pickup game before practice started for the 2006-07 season.

"My time at Iowa State humbled me, and the knee injury really humbled me," Taggart said. "I thought it was over for me when it first happened."

Weekly phone conversations with his older brother, Robert McCray, who is incarcerated, helped lift Taggart's spirits during the long rehab process that followed.

"My brother just told me to stay strong and keep focused," said Taggart, who didn't want to divulge where his brother is incarcerated or the offense. "He said it would be worth it in the long run. We talked every few days, and he just kept repeating those same words over and over."

But before practice began this season, Taggart ran into some off-court problems. Taggart and freshman guard Jeff Robinson were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and inciting a riot outside a Memphis club in September. The charges were dropped, but both had to take anger management classes.

INSTANT OFFENSE
Memphis backup center Shawn Taggart has scored in double figures in six games this season, despite not playing more than 20 minutes in those games.
Date, opponentMinutesPointsResult
Nov. 27, Austin Peay 20 17 W, 104-82
Dec. 15, Middle Tennessee 17 11 W, 65-41
Dec. 29, Arizona 19 15 W, 76-63
Jan. 23, Tulsa 19 14 W, 56-41
Feb. 27, Tulsa 20 12 W, 82-67
March 30, Texas 18 12 W, 85-67
Taggart proved he was physically healthy when practice began, and he has been the first big man off the bench all season.

Taggart, who has a soft shooting touch and range that extends to beyond the 3-point line, gives Calipari numerous frontcourt options. Calipari can put Taggart in for Dorsey without losing much. That allows Dorsey more breathers and a better chance at sticking around for the final minutes of tight games. Calipari also plays Taggart and Dorsey together at times, creating matchup problems for most opponents.

"Shawn makes a huge difference because he stops us from worrying about Dorsey and Dozier getting into foul trouble," Kellogg said. "Or if a guy is not playing well, we can plug him in there. He's versatile. He can play the 'four' or the 'five,' and he can really score."

Taggart had 15 points and seven boards in the Tigers' 76-63 win over Arizona on Dec. 29, and 14 points in 19 minutes in a 56-41 victory over Tulsa on Jan. 23.

"If I have a game where I struggle, he comes in, steps up and gives us points and rebounds," Dozier said.

After the Tigers cruised to another Conference USA Tournament title, Taggart was given the team's perseverance award. And after his performance against Texas, Calipari's daughter, Megan, came into the locker room and hugged him.

"That was great to see," Calipari said. "He's one of the kids you are rooting for."

Calipari may be hugging Taggart himself if the Tigers get past UCLA. With the Bruins built around their own freshman phenom, bruising center Kevin Love, Dorsey and Dozier are going to need all the help they can get. That likely means an important role for the backup big man the Tigers long felt they lacked.

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

VIDEO: Memphis heads to Final Four | MORE: Rivals.com NCAA Tourney Central



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