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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tigers Found Winning Edge With Defense

Tigers found winning edge with defense

By Dan Wolken
March 14, 2007

Every few days, high school and college coaches file into the Finch Center with their notepads and pens, diagramming offensive sets and taking notes about the quirky driving-motion system used by the University of Memphis the past two seasons.
The curiosity is only natural, considering how Memphis got to the brink of the Final Four in its first season using the offense developed by Pepperdine coach Vance Walberg.

And in the coming days, as Memphis prepares for its NCAA Tournament opener against North Texas on Friday, coach John Calipari will likely be asked again to describe the Tigers' unusual style.

But all the attention given to Memphis' offense has overshadowed the real reason the Tigers have been special the past two years, earning a No. 1 and No. 2 seed in consecutive NCAA Tournaments: 38.0 and 38.5.

Those are the field-goal percentages of Memphis' opponents last season and this season, respectively. And it's not an accident.

"We're right at the top of the nation," sophomore forward Robert Dozier said.

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, only seven teams are ahead of Memphis in defensive field-goal percentage, and three of them are considered legitimate contenders for the national championship: Texas A&M (37.2 percent), Kansas (37.4 percent) and Georgetown (38.3 percent).

But none of those teams rack up as many steals as Memphis, which ranks eighth nationally at 9.8 per game.

The Tigers are also 13th in blocked shots at 5.9 per game, making them unquestionably one of the country's elite defensive teams.

Though that's not a surprise -- Calipari was regarded as a top defensive coach at UMass -- Memphis' defensive philosophy has evolved almost as much as its offensive attack.

"At Memphis, our defensive philosophy is probably more disruptive," assistant coach Derek Kellogg said. "We're a team that likes to get into passing lanes to take teams out of what they're doing. We try to get other teams to play and not hold the ball, and when that happens, I think our depth and overall talent ends up being able to take over.

"At UMass, we were more of a half-court, physical, grind-it-out type of game, and that was a combination of the types of players we had."

Indeed, as the depth and athletic ability of Memphis' roster has increased, so has the Tigers' aggressiveness defensively.

With long, athletic players on the wings and 6-9 Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier in the middle, Calipari said Memphis is playing more risk-reward defense than any of his teams ever have.

"It's old school," Calipari said. "We're going to give you one hard shot, and we're going to rebound. But my teams never have had this many steals, and that's because we have guys who can stretch and still stop the drive. In other words, I can be out there, but if your man beats you, I'll get there. That's old school. That's when you have great athletes.

"It's what we did in Kansas when I was with Larry Brown. I'm telling you, it's 1950 stuff."

Oddly enough, the Tigers found their defensive identity this season in the midst of their biggest crisis.

On Dec. 6, Memphis traveled to Knoxville only to get obliterated by Tennessee, 76-58.

On the way home, the Tigers struggled to make sense of it. But the next day, the game film told all.

Though UT guard Chris Lofton played like an absolute star, scoring 34 points, that's not why Memphis lost.

The truth was, Volunteer after Volunteer drove right past Memphis defender after Memphis defender.

Nobody stood in the way. Nobody helped. Nobody moved.

"We got beat on so many dribble drives, it was ridiculous," Dozier said. "So we took it upon ourselves to have more pride in playing defense like guys did last year, and guys stepped it up."

Over the next few weeks, the Tigers forged a new bedrock: Help defense.

Sophomore guard Antonio Anderson, who made the Conference USA all-defensive team, explains:

"If I'm covering a guy and he drives and he has me beat, the guys on the wings will fake at the guy to try to get him to slow down so I can catch up," Anderson said. "There are little things like that, little things like that help get our team going as a whole."

Because of that help -- and the trust Calipari has in Dorsey and Dozier blocking shots -- the Tigers are also taking more chances and producing more points off their defense.

And though Dorsey only ranks 25th nationally at 2.3 per game, his presence is the reason opposing teams began to miss more and more layups in the second half of the season.

It's also why the 6-6 Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts have free rein to go for steals, to trap opponents and try to create chaos.

"You can play a guy physical and you have a feeling, if you get beat, if Joey doesn't block a shot, Rob is going to block a shot," Anderson said. "We've just got two big-time defenders down low. That takes pressure off the guards."

The key to defending this way, Kellogg said, is a combination of recruiting and then demanding that players guard once they get to Memphis.

Though the Tigers create defensive game plans for each opponent, those things supersede any of the X's and O's.

"It's a mindset," Kellogg said. "If a team is trying to make an entry pass, we're trying to make that hard to do, but the biggest thing is to get these guys to play hard. Use your better athleticism, your quickness, your speed, but that can't be negated because the other team is playing harder.

"We have to be the aggressor. We have to be the ones playing as hard, or harder, than the opponent. When that happens, the team that's more athletic normally can get out and make so me things happen defensively."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

NCAA tickets

Tickets for games in New Orleans are still available through Ticketmaster. Users will be asked to select or click on "go to event" and enter the city of the event as "New Orleans." A pop-up will appear that will say, "Fans of Memphis," and fans will be required to enter the password, "Tigers." The tickets offered are all-session tickets priced at $148 plus a Ticketmaster service fee.

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