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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Deep, athletic Tigers preparing to press more than ever

Deep, athletic Tigers preparing to press more than ever
Calipari wishes he'd gone for it against Ohio St.
By Dan Wolken
Monday, October 15, 2007

John Calipari had spent two years forging the University of Memphis' identity as an up-tempo, running-and-pressing program. Then, in the game that mattered above all the others -- the game that could send the Tigers to the Final Four -- he flinched.

In retrospect, Calipari's decision to completely abandon the full-court press in the Elite Eight loss to Ohio State is one he wishes he could have back.

"If I had to do it over again, I would have pressed," Calipari said. "I don't know if we'd have lost by 20, but I do know we lost by whatever we lost by (92-76) not pressing. That's what I thought our best chance was to win that game. But I'd like to know for sure."

This season, Calipari is hoping he won't have to second-guess himself. With a deeper bench and a more athletic group of big men, the Tigers believe they can play even faster and press more than they did last season when they averaged 78.9 points and forced 17.4 turnovers per game.

"We really are working hard on it," sophomore point guard Willie Kemp said. "We're ahead of where we were last year. We're just trying to get the new guys to press a lot. That's our biggest threat, is our press, so we're coming into the season as a pressing team. It's something we work on every day, and I think we can get to the next level with our press."

Though the Tigers' halfcourt man-to-man was stellar most of the season, it's debatable how effective their press was. At times, Memphis could press the weaker teams on its schedule into submission. But in big games, the Tigers tended to use token pressure and then swarm in the halfcourt.

That lack of commitment to the press ultimately showed up against Ohio State. Though the Buckeyes had been vulnerable against Tennessee's aggressive full-court defense, Calipari didn't feel like the Tigers' press would force Mike Conley, Jr., and Ron Lewis to turn the ball over.

The makeup of this year's team, however, could lend itself to pressing more. Last season, Memphis' primary big man off the bench was Kareem Cooper, whose lack of mobility limited the team's options when he was in the game. Memphis also has more athleticism at the guard and wing positions, and Calipari now feels comfortable that nobody can out-run the Tigers.

"I have one more big sub in Shawn Taggart that I obviously didn't have last year," Calipari said. "The second thing is, I think Derrick Rose and Jeff Robinson give us two more athletes that I would say could run. So even if they had two guards, who cares?"

The Tigers' press should also be better simply because they're working on it earlier and more often. During the five-week preseason last October and November, Calipari focused almost exclusively on their dribble-drive motion offense, which he felt was necessary since it was only his second full season employing the attack he borrowed and adapted from Pepperdine coach Vance Walberg.

Because 10 of Memphis' 13 players are veterans, Calipari felt comfortable devoting half of the team's practice time over the weekend to defense.

"Coach has got a nine- or 10-man rotation, and we're going to press," sophomore guard Doneal Mack said. "If he doesn't see it working, he'll go a little more conventional. But we love to play fast, we love to press, get them turnovers and get the crowd pumping. That's our offense, starting the fast break, and we hope it's going to work out for us this year."

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