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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Tigers On Roll With C-USA Looming

Tigers on roll with C-USA looming

By Dan Wolken
January 8, 2007

On Dec. 6, University of Memphis players dressed silently inside a locker room at Thompson-Boling Arena, so bewildered and frustrated at a 76-58 loss to Tennessee, their explanations barely stretched beyond a sentence.

Exactly 29 days later, the Tigers appeared to be a team transformed, closing their non-conference season with an 88-55 victory over Cincinnati that couldn't have been more efficient or dominant.

The Tigers, ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press poll, begin their Conference USA schedule in earnest Thursday at Houston feeling as good about themselves as they have at any point this season.

But the six-week lead-up was far from perfect. As Memphis compiled an 11-3 record, it displayed endless potential and athleticism, but also suffered from perplexing shooting slumps and struggled on the road in losses at Tennessee and Arizona.

Though Memphis probably isn't on track to receive a second consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers are more or less where coach John Calipari expected with just one senior and two juniors among their top 12 players.

What Calipari didn't anticipate was the way he's had to coach this team, eschewing "cerebral" practices for competitive, scrimmage-based sessions, something he figured out after the Tennessee debacle.

"This team, we need to scrimmage," Calipari said. "We're doing things we need to work on, some defensive things, and then we throw it up. What happened to us is, you get stuck. You think, the best thing to do is cerebral. This team is proving, you don't need to go long. Go a half-hour, but go hard. You can't say, let's talk our way through this. You can't do it. You might as well go 30 minutes and compete."

Senior Jeremy Hunt, who gave Memphis an A-grade for its home performance so far but a D-minus on the road, said the Tigers still can position themselves for a deep NCAA run, especially given the parity in college basketball.

"Everybody's losing to everybody, all over the country and it happens really when league play starts," Hunt said. "It shows that if we're on our P's and Q's and playing real good as a team, we can make a run for it. Everybody from the top 25 has had upsets, has lost to somebody. Nobody's dominating."

Here are the highs and lows from Memphis' non-conference season:

Best victory: Given lack of opportunity for big wins in C-USA, it was more crucial for Memphis to go 2-1 at the EA Sports Maui Invitational than any team there.

With those high stakes, Memphis dominated Kentucky in the third-place game, 80-63, making 16-of-27 field goals in the second half. Though Kentucky isn't in the top-25, the Wildcats haven't lost since and currently rank seventh in the RPI.

Worst victory: Memphis had little trouble beating Austin Peay 88-63 on Dec. 14, but the sloppy 23-turnover performance left a lot to be desired. Memphis sprinted out to a 22-2 lead in the first 6:30, but over the next 22 minutes, Austin Peay outscored the Tigers 39-36. Though another Memphis run put the game out of reach, it never should have come to that.

Best loss: The Tigers felt they wasted an opportunity Dec. 20 at Arizona, losing 79-71. But Memphis certainly didn't embarrass itself, leading 38-33 at halftime and playing well except for a five-minute stretch to start the second half. It certainly didn't help that leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts was suffering from a stomach virus, limiting him to seven points in 23 minutes.

Worst loss: Memphis was awful in almost all phases Dec. 6 at Tennessee in a 76-58 loss. Though the teams played even through the first 11 minutes, UT finished the first half on a 25-5 run fueled by Chris Lofton, who scored 34 points. Memphis couldn't make any kind of shot to stop the run, finishing 22-of-77 from the field.

Best player: After averaging 8.5 points as a freshman, Douglas-Roberts has developed well in his second year, scoring 15.1 points and shooting 55 percent from the field. He's had several big games, scoring 26 in a loss to Georgia Tech, 17 against Ole Miss and 28 against Austin Peay, showcasing his tremendous skills close to the basket. In C-USA play, "Buckets" will have plenty of opportunity to prove that he's a "go-to" scorer late in close games.

Most surprising player: Hunt's emergence as Memphis' second-leading scorer this season has been an unexpected development, especially given that he was "permanently dismissed" from the program at this time last year for off-court issues. Hunt has been a model citizen away from basketball since his reinstatement, and he's been tremendous on the court, averaging 13.8 points off the bench. His 3-point shooting (42.2 percent) and relentless hustle have made him a fan favorite once again.

Biggest disappointment: Only two of the five freshmen in a highly-touted recruiting class -- point guard Willie Kemp and shooting guard Doneal Mack -- are in the regular playing rotation, and they've had their struggles. Kemp is still adjusting to the college game, and Mack is 27.3 percent on 3-pointers. Calipari called 6-8 forward Pierre Niles the team's "X factor" before the season, but he's yet to catch up from an early knee injury.

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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