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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Tigers Near Top of Cal's Shot Chart

Tigers near top of Cal's shot chart

By Dan Wolken
January 19, 2007

When you've coached a team to the Final Four that shot 38.7 percent for a season, field-goal percentage isn't necessarily the statistic that becomes your professional bread-and-butter.

But even University of Memphis coach John Calipari has to pay attention to what his No. 17-ranked Tigers are doing this year. Through 17 games, Memphis is shooting 47.3 percent from the field.

To be sure, that number won't make any national waves, given that it ranks Memphis just 61st in field-goal percentage among Division 1 teams as of Thursday. But, if the Tigers keep it up, it could be somewhat historic.

In Calipari's 15 years as a college head coach, only once has his team finished a season 46 percent or better. And that team, his 1988-89 squad at UMass, won just 10 games.

By contrast, Calipari's best teams at UMass in 1994-95 and 1995-96 shot just 38.6 percent and 38.7 percent, respectively. In Calipari's first six years at Memphis, all his teams shot between 42 percent and 45.9 percent.

Last year, Memphis shot 45.1 percent and finished in the Elite Eight.

"I go recruit tough, hard-nosed players," Calipari said, explaining the shooting trends. "The two things I don't spend a whole lot of time on are 3-point shooting and shooting. I spend some time, but I want them to play. I want them to be unselfish, create good opportunities, to have the courage to want to take shots, make baskets and get offensive rebounds. My teams have had to be great offensive rebounding teams for us to have success."

Though none of that has changed, Memphis' shooting percentage is reflected in some of the recent results. The Tigers go into Saturday's Conference USA game at East Carolina on a six-game winning streak, all by double digits. Though several of Memphis' 14 victories have come against very suspect competition, the Tigers have won those games by an average of 22.6 points.

That's not bad, given that Sports Illustrated college basketball columnist Seth Davis wrote in the preseason that the Memphis practice he witnessed in October was "one of the worst collective shooting displays I've seen."

Though Davis apparently still isn't a believer -- he was one of just four voters in this week's Associated Press poll to omit Memphis from their Top 25 ballots -- it's hard to argue with the numbers.

Especially lately. Against UAB (49.2 percent), Southern Miss (46.3 percent), Houston (60 percent), and Cincinnati (59.3 percent), the Tigers have been dangerous inside and outside, getting baskets off drives and making open jumpers.

"We're making shots and making easy plays that turn into easy shots," senior guard Jeremy Hunt said. "I think everybody's trying to make easy plays, and if you do that, you get easy buckets."

Make easy plays. It's something Calipari says every day, and it's the essence of the offense Memphis has used the past two seasons.

But now, not only are the Tigers getting their fair share of easy looks inside, their decision-making has improved significantly in recent weeks, leading to good shots on nearly every possession.

That's a little different than the way Calipari talks about last year's Tigers, who took some bad shots but made them.

"We're shooting (47.3) percent because we're either getting layups or we're getting absolutely wide-open 3s," Calipari said. "I don't remember us (taking bad shots). Every once in a while, (Hunt) will take a bad shot, but it's an aggressive shot. It's not a leaping leaner fade-away. Every once in awhile Robert (Dozier) will take a weak shot, but it's not a bad shot. It's a 3-footer."

Sophomore guard Antonio Anderson, who just recently emerged from a shooting slump, said the high percentage can be attributed to the Tigers' attacking philosophy.

"We go hard to the basket in practice," Anderson said. "When we get in the game it makes it a little bit easier because we're used to getting bumped."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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