Calipari 'having a ball' with open style
By Dan Wolken
October 29, 2006
There were times a year ago when the University of Memphis would leave the Finch Center after a preseason practice confused and frustrated, not feeling at all like a team that would ultimately win 33 games. The reason was a new offensive system coach John Calipari installed before last season that is both fast-paced and frenetic but also complex in its spacing and timing.
"Everybody was new to it," sophomore forward Robert Dozier said. "We kind of struggled and slowly got there." Though Calipari insists his current Memphis team isn't as talented and won't physically dominate opponents like it did a year ago, it is at least ahead of schedule in its understanding of the offense.
At one point Friday, during what Calipari later called one of his best practices in awhile, he stopped the action after a series of good plays and exclaimed, "Are you having fun? I'm having a ball!"
Though it was difficult to tell last year as the Tigers averaged 80 points per game, rolled through Conference USA and ran right into the Elite Eight, the preseason was a struggle as Calipari tried to integrate the concepts of a motion offense that is based on creating space and then driving the ball as opposed to a more traditional pass-and-screen attack.
Calipari borrowed the system from Vance Walberg, who went 133-11 at Fresno City College with teams that averaged 104 points per game.
Walberg got a lot of publicity during Memphis' NCAA run last year, and in April he became the new coach at Pepperdine.
Now, intrigued NBA teams are taking a look, a trend Calipari believes will continue. Denver and Atlanta are running some form of the offense, while a handful of colleges have caught on, including UTEP, where former Memphis assistant Tony Barbee landed.
At almost every practice this year, Memphis has hosted high school coaches who want to take a peek.
"It's not something for every coach," Calipari said. "If you have to hold onto 10 strings, it's not for you. If you're willing to hold on to seven strings out of 10, you can do it. If you don't mind the pace of the game being faster, you're fine. If you want it to be (scoring) in the 60s and control the game a little more from the sideline, it's not for you."
Besides needing players who can function at a rapid pace, the key to the offense is spacing. Players are spread out with large gaps between them, almost European-style. That allows good attacking players to drive for a layup or throw the ball to a wing for an open 3-pointer.
Timing is also a key. Though the offense is fast-paced, players are also asked to get in a spot and wait before shifting to a new position.
And experience counts, which is why Calipari has let freshman point guard Willie Kemp practice on a unit with veterans and put the more polished junior, Andre Allen, with freshmen like Doneal Mack and Tre'Von Willis.
"After you get it down pat, it's a great offense to run," Mack said. "If you know where you're going, no team in the nation can defend it.
"There's still some little stuff I have to get down like patience, but I have a good understanding of it. You've got to be patient, in the right place at the right time, and you have to depend on your teammates."
Though players and coaches are clearly more comfortable in the second year running this system, it's unclear how that will translate to the court given the Tigers' significant personnel losses from a year ago.
Also, teams are sure to be better prepared for the Tigers than they were last year, when opponents weren't used to defending that kind of system.
"People still start figuring out, what's the best way to guard it?" Calipari said. "Then we'll make adjustments from what they're trying to do. It's a little bit of a chess match, but you end up being a really, really aggressive team playing this way, which is what I want."
-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365