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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Tenacious Tigers

Tenacious Tigers
Aggressive defense key to Memphis' success
Posted: Wednesday March 21, 2007 2:10PM
By George Dohrmann,

There is a drill Memphis runs in practice that coach John Calipari calls "The Perfect Stop." Four players line up on defense against four offensive players. The clock is set for 35 seconds, and the defenders must keep the offense from attempting a shot in the lane.

The drill is both dreaded and loved by Tigers players. Memories of long practices when "The Perfect Stop" wasn't achieved haunt them. With the extra space created by removing two players from the floor, the offense has a distinct advantage. And if the offense gets off a shot, another 35 seconds are put on the clock and the same group of defenders must go again until they get a stop.

"We do it almost every practice and it's rough," said Memphis freshman guard Doneal Mack. "But if you get a stop in that drill, you can get a stop against anyone."

Much of Memphis' success this season is rooted in that drill. Cynics will say that Memphis sports the nation's longest winning streak (24 games) because it plays in Conference USA. But in defeating North Texas followed by Nevada to advance to the Sweet 16, the Tigers showed that their intense team defense also deserves credit for their rise.

"When I shake hands with opposing coaches we have played the last two months, all they have said, 'This team plays together better than last year,'" Calipari said. "Last year's squad was definitely more talented and that was seen when we had two players (Rodney Carney and Shawne Williams) taken in the first round of the NBA draft. But I can see that this year's team plays together better on the defensive end."

Seven of Calipari's players average 20 minutes per game and it seems like he has an unlimited supply of long and quick defenders to throw at the opposition. Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jeremy Hunt, Antonio Anderson and Mack are all at least 6-foot-4 and each, at times, can guard three positions. Calipari also has the short but stout Andre Allen to bring in off the bench to match up with smaller guards.

"They are just extremely long and athletic, extremely athletic," said Nevada coach Mark Fox. The night before facing the Tigers, the thought of facing Calipari's fleet of athletes even killed Fox's appetite. "I couldn't keep any pizza down looking at (film) of what were about to face."

The following day, Fox's team shot 36.8 percent, including 5-of-21 on three-pointers, and had 14 turnovers in a 78-62 loss. Nevada did not score over the final 6:17, a stretch so dominated by Memphis' defense that Fox's appetite might not return for weeks.

"I thought what happened to our defense was, we thought, 'Uh-oh, we could lose this thing,'" Calipari said. "So, we turned it up a notch."

Adds Mack: "We have a lot of those games were our defense just helps us get out to one of those runs and we take over the game."

When Memphis takes on No. 3 seed Texas A&M in San Antonio on Thursday, the game might hinge on the health of Douglas-Roberts, the team's leading scorer. He sprained his left ankle against Nevada but is expected to play. Even if he is not 100 percent, the Tigers' defense is capable of making up for any offense that is lost.

"Off the court, we are like family. And, that carries out onto the floor," Douglas-Roberts said. "Defense is about working together and every game we go out there wanting to work for each other."

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