SI.com Seth Davis
Postcard from Memphis
After Elight Eight run, Calipari reloading at Memphis
Posted: Saturday October 21, 2006 7:41PM
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- There stood Memphis coach John Calipari on Wednesday afternoon, right in the middle of the practice gym at the Finch Center. His players were lined up and ready to start a taxing defensive lunge drill. But before they began, Coach Cal couldn't help but lunge into another of his preacherly pep talks.
"When I see guys getting excited, that makes me excited," he said. "It's like seeing a light switch go on because guys are saying, 'I have hope. I have a chance.' We're saying to you, all you have to do is swim. We'll throw you the rope, and all you have to do is swims to it and hold onto it. You see what I'm saying? You gotta hold onto that rope!"
Cal blew his whistle and his players started their drill. Then he limped to where I was sitting by the scorer's table. (The limp is the lingering effect from Calipari's hip replacement surgery in 2004.) "I have to do this every day," he told me quietly. "I'm telling stories every day. They may not have to do that at Kentucky or North Carolina, but here, I have to teach 'em how to hold a fork, how to hold a knife, how to eat the right way. Every day."
The moral of the story: Calipari won't lead the nation in wins this season, but he might finish first in metaphors. He has always fancied himself the Father Flanagan type, so he's well-suited for yet another reclamation project. After losing senior forward Rodney Carney, sophomore point guard Darius Washington and freshman forward Shawne Williams from last year's Elite Eight squad, Memphis is once again starting over with a talented but extremely callow group. The good news is the Tigers go 11 deep. The bad news is eight of those 11 are freshmen and sophomores.
Yet, because Memphis remains light years ahead of its competition in Conference USA, the Tigers are virtually assured of another NCAA bid. Calipari has once again put together a national non-conference schedule featuring games against Tennessee, Arizona, Cincinnati and Gonzaga, as well as a trip to the Maui Invitational. With so much depth and so little experience, Memphis will depend on the wildly frenetic, press-and-run system Calipari bogarted from Vance Walberg, the new coach at Pepperdine who perfected his amphetamized attack during his four years at Fresno City College.
Calipari's players ran plenty during their workout Wednesday. Unfortunately, even a great pressing team has to make open shots once in a while, and I have to say I didn't see a whole lot of splashing going on. In fact, of all the major college practices I've witnessed over the years, Wednesday's was one of the worst collective shooting displays I've seen. It's possible the guys were just having an off day, but even Calipari got exasperated at one point when he watched his guards in shooting drills clank attempt after attempt from 3-point range. "Unbelievable, guys," he shouted. "You can't miss seven straight!"
Last season's statistics bear out this concern. The highest three-point clip among the returnees is Antonio Anderson's 36.5 percent. After that, Andre Allen made 35.7 percent and Chris Douglas-Roberts made 31 percent. Zone, anyone?
Concern No. 2 is ballhandling. Memphis averaged more turnovers per game (15.6) than assists (15.3) last season, with the point guard Washington actually having one more turnover than assist. It's a tribute to the team's defensive prowess that it still managed to go 33-4, earn a No. 1 seed and reach the Elite Eight.
Frankly, I was never a huge Washington fan. (Neither, apparently, was the NBA. He went undrafted.) This season, the point position will most likely be manned by Willie Kemp. The 6-foot-2 freshman won't overwhelm people with his size or athleticism, but from what I could tell in practice he looks plenty ready to step into the position. Allen, a 5-10 junior, should be a capable backup, but he's a backup -- not a starter.
Between Allen, Kemp, Douglas-Roberts, Anderson, Jeremy Hunt and Doneal Mack, Memphis will have as much perimeter depth as any team in the country. "We may not shoot it great, but we'll find out which of those guys you can't guard off the dribble," Calipari said.
The frontcourt guys are less proven. The best of the bunch is 6-9 sophomore Robert Dozier, who has the length and athleticism of an NBA All-Star but skill-wise is still a work in progress. Joey Dorsey, a 6-9 junior, is in the best shape of his life, but he has had attitude problems in the past. Behind them stands a trio of big guys with high potential but poor conditioning: 6-10 freshman Hashim Bailey, 6-8 freshman Pierre Niles and 6-11 sophomore Kareem Cooper.
Contrary to some of the local buzz, Memphis will not be as good as it was last year, but that doesn't mean it won't win a bunch of games. At the very least, the Tigers will be fun to watch -- and from what I can tell, fun to coach as well. Calipari was in great cheer when we went to dinner Wednesday night. That may have had as much to do with the divine Italian fare at Conte's restaurant, where the owner and head chef, Pam Conte, made us a delicious meal capped off by a diabolical dessert called Xanja, a pastry of deep-fried bread sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and wrapped around cheesecake.
Cal's good mood could also be attributed to his being surrounded by a few of his assistants and some friends from his days at UMass, including his former AD there, Bob Marcum, who is now the AD at Marshall. Then again, his cheerfulness might also have come from the sambuca and limoncello we sipped during dessert. Pam brought us the booty after Cal instructed her to raid the stash kept at Conte's by Mike Fratello, Calipari's fellow paisan and the coach of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.
Right before Pam brought us our entrees, Calipari's cell phone rang. He looked at the screen and said, "Why would Willie Kemp be calling me?" Sounding concerned, he stepped outside and talked to Kemp for about 15 minutes. When he returned, Calipari said, "He just called to ask if he was doing everything I wanted him to do. I'm telling you, I'm gonna love coaching this team."
Herewith, my breakdown of the Memphis Tigers:
Heart and soul: Douglas-Roberts. The 6-6 sophomore was a much-heralded recruit last year, and he is the team's leading returning scorer after starting 25 games as a freshman. Douglas-Roberts isn't much of a vocal leader, but he'll be Memphis' go-to player down the stretch. It will be a big adjustment for him to go from playing off of Washington and Carney to being at the top of the opponent's scouting report, but he has the ability to handle it.
Most improved: Dorsey. His biggest problem in the past has been foul trouble (eight DQ's last year), but Dorsey is still a very big body who is moving and jumping better than he ever has. He doesn't have to be a big scorer on this team; he only needs to give Memphis a consistent rebounding presence. It will be especially important for Dorsey to stay out of trouble early because it will take some time before the other bigs are ready.
Glue guy: Anderson. The 6-6 sophomore guard started 21 games last year, averaged 27.3 minutes, led the team in steals and finished third in assists. Most of the time, Calipari will give Anderson the toughest defensive assignment, and Cal can even play him at the point if the situation calls for it. Anderson also has an outgoing, engaging personality that will make it fun for everyone else to come to practice.
X factor: Kemp. When I asked Calipari who his X factor is, he immediately said Niles, but I told him I was going to overrule him. If Kemp shows the poise and judgment to take over the point full time, that will allow all the other pieces to fall into place. Douglas-Roberts and Anderson can concentrate on scoring, and Allen can provide his spark off the bench. But it's a lot to ask a freshman to run your team from the point, especially in this hyperactive system.
Lost in the shuffle: Mack. He originally signed with Florida, but he was denied admission there and latched on with Memphis. He is a little wild, but while he didn't look all that skilled during drills Wednesday, he showed a lot of gumption and explosiveness during the full-court five-on-five sessions. It appears Mack and Hunt, who was reinstated after getting into various off-court difficulties last year, will fight to be the fifth guard in this rotation. Because Hunt is a senior and Mack is a freshman, I have to believe Hunt will get that nod.
Bottom line: Watching Memphis play this year should be a lot like tuning into an exciting car race. The speed factor keeps you glued, but you also want to look away because you're afraid someone's going to crash. It's a common maxim among coaches that you can beat a bad team with a press, but not a good one. Memphis will beat most teams it plays this season, but unless these young kids grow up really fast, it's hard to envision the Tigers beating any great ones. Memphis will get to the NCAA Tournament, but I don't foresee it making it to the second weekend.