Calipari: Freshmen on pace
Early growing pains are no cause for alarm
By Dan Wolken
December 1, 2006
Willie Kemp is still mistake-prone. Pierre Niles isn't in shape yet. Doneal Mack sometimes gets lost in the shuffle and it's been a struggle to find minutes for Tre'Von Willis.
Five games into the University of Memphis basketball season, coach John Calipari's freshmen are still playing like, well, freshmen.
But as the No. 14-ranked Tigers (4-1) began preparations for Saturday's game against Manhattan, Calipari said his rookie class, which also includes center Hashim Bailey, might actually be ahead of schedule.
"I'd say all in all, it's pretty good," Calipari said.
Though Calipari has fully integrated Kemp, Mack and Niles into his regular nine-player rotation, all three have had their early ups-and-downs.
Kemp, who is starting at point guard but splitting minutes with junior Andre Allen, came to life against Kentucky in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, scoring 12 points in the second half of Memphis' 80-63 victory.
But Kemp still makes plenty of rookie mistakes, most of them caused by attempting difficult plays in traffic instead of easy ones. Like the one at the end of the first half of Wednesday's 86-60 victory against Arkansas State, when he forced up a jumper with six seconds left after Calipari had called a timeout to set up a play that never got off the ground.
Still, Calipari said Kemp (8.6 points per game) is a little further ahead of where he thought just one year after playing TSSAA Class AA basketball at Bolivar Central.
"I haven't been patient enough with Willie, to be honest," Calipari said. "His stuff isn't him not trying or listening. It's just, he doesn't know ... I don't mean that he hasn't been well-coached because he has been, but the style is so different from what that kid is used to."
Niles' biggest issue has been conditioning, which suffered a setback when he missed nearly three weeks of preseason practice due to minor knee surgery. Calipari still believes the 6-8, 285-pounder can still be the team's "X factor" once he gets in good enough shape to play at a high level for longer than a minute or two at a time.
"There may be people who have watched him saying, he's never been better than this," Calipari said. "He's never played harder than this. He's never tried like this, and I'm saying, yeah but it's not close yet. So sometimes, I'm not patient enough."
Though Memphis was never counting on Bailey to play major minutes this year, Mack and Willis were recruited with the idea that they might need to contribute right away at shooting guard behind sophomores Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson.
But when senior Jeremy Hunt was reinstated to the program in August, it suddenly became harder to find playing time for Mack and Willis, who are averaging 13.4 and 4.3 minutes, respectively.
Calipari said he's trying to find more time for them and even apologized to Mack after failing to play him in the second half of the Kentucky game.
"I didn't let that get me down," said Mack, who has chipped in 6.2 points per game. "Coach came after the game and apologized to me and told me I played a real good tournament. So I really didn't let that get to me. I'm a freshman. We've got Antonio, Chris and Jeremy, and they're all playing good. If they're producing, I'm happy because we're winning."
Though Memphis' freshmen last year -- including Shawne Williams -- almost immediately looked like big-time performers, the Tigers are counting on this class to make a bigger impact as the season goes on.
"We see it in practice," Douglas-Roberts said. "We're just waiting on it to come out in the game."
Etc.: Fans attending Saturday's game should be aware that the end of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon could cause traffic issues for the noon tip-off. Fans driving from from east Memphis and east Shelby County are asked to use Peabody, which leads to Linden Avenue that runs by FedExForum. Fans can also use I-55 to Riverside Drive to get to the arena. ... CSTV announced Thursday that Saturday's game will be available on a pay-per-view broadcast through the Internet. The cost is $9.95, and the game can be purchased at cstvppv.com.
-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365