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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Missed FTs a Concern for Calipari

Missed FTs a concern for Calipari
Tiger coach: Making them in crunch time is what counts

By Dan Wolken
March 3, 2007

DALLAS -- First, John Calipari watched point guard Andre Allen miss two free throws in the first half of Thursday's game at UTEP. Moments later, when Allen was momentarily hurt after a hard foul, freshman Willie Kemp replaced him to shoot his free throws. As Kemp's first and second attempts bounced off the rim -- neither coming close to going in -- Calipari turned to his bench with his arms folded, trying to restrain his reaction.

Tonight, the University of Memphis will take the court at Moody Coliseum as heavy favorites to beat SMU and complete a 16-0 record in Conference USA. But as the No. 6-ranked Tigers transition from the regular season to what they hope will be a long March, there is one obvious issue threatening to undermine their accomplishments.

Though Memphis has been a poor free-throw shooting team all season at 61.3 percent, it nearly reached a crisis point in El Paso. Though the Tigers won, 78-67, they made 11-of-25 from the line -- and that was an accomplishment, considering they made an inexplicable four of their first 16.
Calipari has tried not to chastise his team too much over free throws, afraid he'll make the situation worse if he turns it into an issue. But Calipari acknowledged after the UTEP game there is some concern about it heading into the NCAA Tournament.

"There is," Calipari said, "but my teams have never been great free-throw shooting teams. What you've got to do is make them when they count."

The Tigers certainly did that against UTEP, making 7-of-9 down the stretch as they tried to protect the lead. But their failures to convert early in the game played a part in the Miners having a chance to win deep into the second half.

Missing 14 free throws (out of 32 attempts) also helped Gonzaga push the Tigers into overtime on Feb. 17.

"We're not a very good free-throw shooting team, but we've maintained making them in crunch time," senior Jeremy Hunt said. "That's when it counts. As long as you make them in the clutch, that's a good thing. We've just got to focus when we get on the line, relax and take our time. (Against UTEP), a couple went in and out, and there's nothing you can do about that."

The free-throw situation is important -- particularly with this team -- because it invites opponents to play extremely physical defense, as UTEP did. When the Tigers aren't making teams pay for that strategy by making free throws, they are clearly more vulnerable.

Though Calipari doesn't want to play UTEP in the C-USA Tournament next week because it's so gut-wrenching for him to coach against former assistant Tony Barbee, he wants Memphis to face that kind of physical challenge again before the NCAAs.

"Are we tough enough?" Calipari said. "When it gets rough, who's going to make plays, and who's going to close their eyes when they shoot? And I hope the next team plays us rough, and I hope we're played rough throughout the whole tournament."

Memphis' free-throw woes can't be attributed to a lack of attention. Shooting has been part of essentially every practice since late December. Still, players who by all rights should be good free-throw shooters -- including Robert Dozier (65.2 percent), Kemp (40 percent) and Kareem Cooper (60 percent) -- have struggled lately.

In the cases of Dozier and Cooper, both are shooting far below what they did last year when they converted 75 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

Add that to players like Joey Dorsey (43.9 percent) and Allen (47.8 percent) who have never been good free-throw shooters, and the problem suddenly seems contagious.

"In tournament games, you're not going to be able to go in and miss a lot of free throws and still win against a really good opponent," Hunt said. "We've got to get to the point where we're making our free throws because we're going to need it down the stretch."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

No. 6 Tigers at SMU

When, where: Today, 8:30 p.m., at Dallas

TV: CSTV (Ch. 222 on Comcast digital cable, Ch. 610 on DIRECTV, Ch. 152 on DISH Network; not all available on every cable or satellite package)

Radio: WREC-AM (600)

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