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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Tigers Make Mustangs Pay

Tigers make Mustangs pay
By Dan Wolken
February 4, 2007

The outcome had long since been decided, but University of Memphis freshman Doneal Mack had his own decision to make.

Take a wide-open 3-pointer against SMU's zone defense with eight minutes, 50 seconds remaining or shovel the ball to fellow rookie Tre'Von Willis for an even more wide-open shot?

Mack passed it. Willis made it. And though it was only a small moment in Memphis' 88-52 victory, it illustrated all the things that have put the No. 11-ranked Tigers on the brink of The Associated Press Top 10, where they will likely land on Monday.
Unselfishness. Execution. Adaptability. Improvement.

And apparently, opponents still haven't gotten the message. At least, that's the only explanation for SMU coach Matt Doherty stubbornly playing a 2-3 zone defense against the Tigers, who ripped that to shreds by making 15-of-25 from 3-point range and collecting 25 assists on 34 field goals.

Memphis' offense was so efficient, it spent much of the second half flirting with a 27-year-old school record of 65.9 percent shooting. Instead, the Tigers (19-3, 9-0 Conference USA) missed a few down the stretch and settled for 60.7 percent. Not that anybody among the announced FedExForum crowd of 15,748 was complaining.

"We knew the zone was coming, so we knew we had to hit 3s and drive the gaps, but when we see zone now it's kind of like a smack in the face," Mack said. "They're trying to say, 'You can't shoot.' I guess that's the rumor around the nation, that Memphis isn't a good shooting team. But we've been proving people wrong."

Especially Mack, who scored a team-high 17 points by making 5-of-5 from the 3-point line. He also added a dunk and two assists and was a key figure in Memphis' 23-7 run over a span of 7:29 to end the first half, giving the Tigers a 46-26 lead.

But Mack was far from the only shooting star. Sophomore guard Chris Douglas-Roberts repeatedly blew by SMU's defense scored 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Freshman point guard Willie Kemp went 3-for-6 from the 3-point line and scored 11 points with six assists. And sophomore forward Robert Dozier worked the middle of the zone for 10 points.

"Memphis is not considered a great 3-point shooting team, but they shot 60 percent," said Doherty, whose team fell to 13-9 overall and 2-6 in C-USA. "Once they started shooting that well from the 3-point line, our game plan fell apart."

Or maybe Doherty simply got some bad information. Though the Tigers don't always make 3-pointers, they don't have to, even against a zone. The Tigers have become such proficient passers -- "There's no question we're one of the best passing teams in the game today," senior guard Jeremy Hunt said -- they've gotten two different kinds of shots against zone defenses recently: good looks and great looks.

"They want to see zone," coach John Calipari said. "They know they get easier shots. There's not as much bumping and grinding. When a team plays us man, it's bump-and-grind, and it wears you down. When you're playing against zone, if you make the extra pass and make hard cuts, you're going to get something."

What the Tigers didn't get this week was much of a challenge. After dispatching Central Florida on Wednesday, 87-65, they were even more dominant against SMU.

SMU could only hang with Memphis for about 12 minutes, trailing 23-19. But a Hunt 3-pointer a few seconds later and another by Mack broke the game open. Though the Tigers could practically name the final margin -- they led by more than 30 points for the final 12 minutes -- they didn't get sloppy, indicating they've accepted the idea they're playing against their own standards as much as the opponent.

"I've just been talking to them about incremental improvement," Calipari said. "A small improvement makes a big difference. Water boils at 212 (degrees). We were at 211. We were hot, but at 212 , we're boiling."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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