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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tigers Hope Feeling of Deja Vu Fades Against Aggies

Tigers hope feeling of deja vu fades against Aggies

By Jim Masilak
March 21, 2007

A year ago, the University of Memphis played an Elite Eight game against a lower-seeded opponent in that team's home state.

In the game, the top-seeded Tigers were defeated as much by No. 2 UCLA's stifling defense and their own inept shooting as by the pro-Bruin atmosphere inside The Arena in Oakland.

The stakes may not be quite as high Thursday when Memphis faces Texas A&M in a South Regional semifinal inside San Antonio's vast Alamodome. But the scenario facing the No. 2-seeded UofM looks familiar:

Having to play a de facto road game against a lower seed?


Third-seeded Texas A&M's College Station campus lies roughly 200 miles northeast of San Antonio, a mere three hours away.

Having to play against one of the country's stingiest defenses?


Texas A&M is ranked No. 15 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 59.3 points per game.

Having to play on less rest than its opponent?


Like UCLA last season, the Aggies will enjoy an additional off day ahead of the regional-semifinal round. Memphis, on the other hand, must again make a quick turnaround after playing its second-round game on a Sunday.

"I'm mad about it," junior point guard Andre Allen said of being sent so close to an opponent's home for the second year running, "but we've just got to go play. It's out of our hands."

Making matters more difficult for the Tigers (32-3) is the injury concern surrounding sophomore guard Chris Douglas-Roberts. The left ankle sprain Memphis' leading scorer (15.4 points per game) suffered against Nevada on Sunday has left his availability against the Aggies in some doubt.

Senior guard Jeremy Hunt and freshman Doneal Mack both figure to play more prominent roles if Douglas-Roberts is limited or unable to go.

Hunt, however, doesn't think the tournament's selection committee intended to put Memphis at a disadvantage against the Aggies.

"When they did the brackets, they didn't know Texas A&M was gonna make it to San Antonio," Hunt said. "It's cool. We've been underdogs all year long. There's nothing wrong with being the underdog one more time."

Tigers coach John Calipari said the Aggies "deserve" to play what will essentially be a home game after beating Louisville last week in Lexington, Ky.

"We had 7,000 fans in New Orleans against 400 from Nevada," he said. "Now we've got to go on the road."

San Antonio has been good to Texas teams in the past. In 2003, Texas won Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games at the Alamodome en route to the Final Four.

The Longhorns were a No. 1 seed that year, playing even closer to their Austin home than the Aggies will be Thursday. Texas A&M is hoping for a similar boost against the Tigers and, should the Aggies advance, against either No. 1 Ohio State or No. 5 Tennessee on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four.

"If there is an advantage, I would think your fans are gonna try to make it an advantage for you," Aggies coach Billy Gillispie said. "But it doesn't ensure success."

Texas A&M learned that firsthand last week at Rupp Arena, where Louisville's "home" support couldn't quite manage to help the Cardinals past the Aggies in the second round.

"We were not gonna let that be a factor," Gillispie said.

The Tigers head to San Antonio with a 10-1 record in NCAA Tournament games played in Texas, including 10 straight wins. Two of those victories came last year, against Oral Roberts and Bucknell, at the Dallas sub-regional.

Memphis, however, is also just 1-3 in NCAA games when playing in an opponent's home state. The Tigers beat Wake Forest in Charlotte, N.C., in 1982, but lost to LSU in Baton Rouge in '86 and to Purdue in South Bend, Ind., two years later. Then came UCLA in Oakland or, as Calipari says sarcastically, "Pauley Pavilion North."

The Tigers, however, are more concerned with finding a way to get the better of the Aggies' big, physical defenders than with where the game is being played.

Asked if Thursday's game might be stylistically similar to last year's Elite Eight game against the Bruins, Calipari said it "could be."

"They bump you on drives when they step up to meet you. They're a really physical bunch, maybe more so than UCLA," Calipari said. "Their (post) duck-ins, they're like football blocks. It's like two guys smashing into each other. ... They're gonna bump and grind and stop you on drives. We've got some things to figure out in the next couple days."

Calipari said the way in which the game is refereed could have a major impact on the outcome. If the officials call a loose game, he suggested, it would likely be to the Aggies' benefit.

"You look at the crew and hope like heck they're saying, 'You can't play this way,' " Calipari said. "I'm not saying they're dirty, they just play really hard in a league (the Big 12 Conference) that plays really, really hard."

Faced with resistance more aggressive and physical than anything they'd seen before, the Tigers fell to UCLA last year amid a hail of fouls and missed shots.

Memphis shot just 2 for 17 from 3-point range, and a mere 31.5 percent from the field in all, while at the same time sending the Bruins to the free-throw line 39 times. The Tigers were held 36 points below their season average in a 50-45 defeat.

"If we do that again," Calipari said, "we lose."

The Tigers could well be in for a similarly frustrating day against the defense-minded Aggies.

Texas A&M has limited opponents to 60 or fewer points 18 times in 33 games, and the Aggies have allowed just three teams to surpass the 80-point mark this season. Texas, behind all-world freshman Kevin Durant, did it twice.

Tigers assistant coach Derek Kellogg points out, however, that "there's also been a couple games where (the Aggies) have scored 100."

"They've been a top-10 team the majority of the year," Kellogg added. "They can make it ugly but, at the same time, they can play up and down and score points. Good teams will be able to play all different styles."

The Tigers' players don't see any connection between the team that ousted them last year and the one standing in their way Thursday.

"UCLA and Texas A&M are two different teams," Allen said. "We've got a whole different team this year. We ain't worried about last year at all."

-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311

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