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Monday, November 26, 2007

SI.com's Luke Winn - Why Memphis is Thriving (Aside From The Obvious)


Why Memphis is Thriving (Aside From The Obvious)

NEW YORK -- There's an obvious reason these Tigers are a better team than the version that reached the Elite Eight in March. It's that kid with the sphynx-like mien and cat-like quicks. The freshman point guard. No. 23. Derrick Rose. Hard to miss him. He scored 24 points against the Huskies, including 16 in the second half. The fewest points he's scored in a game thus far is 17. But he's the obvious reason. There's no need to keep pointing it out.

The real question is, why else should we believe that Memphis has improved this year? Another night of watching the Tigers at Madison Square Garden yielded these answers:

1. Chris Douglas-Roberts spent the summer working on his accuracy -- but not his unconventional form -- after hitting only 32.8 percent of his threes last season. He's a better shooter now, knocking down seven of his first 13 trey attempts through four games. What's important, though, is that he hasn't been deluded into thinking he can thrive on the perimeter. "CD-R," as they call him, took 24 shots on Friday en route to scoring 33 points, and only three attempts came from beyond the arc (he made two). "Even though I improved my shot, I'm not going to shoot all threes," he said. "I like the physical play in the lane. I like getting bumped, I like getting and-ones, I like shooting runners. That'll always be my bread and butter."

Smart kid. Douglas-Roberts does not have a frame that appears built for contact -- he's essentially the anti-Joey Dorsey, a spindly wing with long arms swimming inside a baggy tee, socks pulled up high on beanpole legs and his jersey frequently slipping off his narrow shoulders. But CD-R is a wizard inside the arc. Memphis likes run him off low screens, set mostly by Dorsey, in order to free him up for isolation plays on the wing. Coach John Calipari criticized Douglas-Roberts on Thursday for being lackadaisical and picking up two, stupid early fouls against Oklahoma. Against UConn, he stayed out of foul trouble and made a massive impact, attacking Huskies forward Stanley Robinson time and time again for baskets inside the lane. Douglas-Roberts prefers to start his approach slowly, lulling his defender to sleep with lazy dribbles, then feigning a few pull-up jumpers, before backing in and finding acrobatic ways to launch the ball at the goal -- and usually scoring. "That's the best play," he said of Memphis' wing iso set. "That's our only play, really. It's called 'Quick'."

2. Not many teams have one, much less two, perimeter defenders who can handle the isolations Rose and Douglas-Roberts are allowed to run. To get an idea of just how often Memphis relies on this one-man, NBA mode of offense, consider that the Tigers scored 32 baskets against the Huskies -- and only five were assisted. Four of Douglas-Roberts' 14 makes were assisted and zero of Rose's eight were. Yet the Tigers' two stars still shot over 50 percent from the field combined (22-of-41).

Rose said that feeding the hot hand with isolation opportunities is one of the tenets of the Tigers' offense against a man-to-man: "Coach tells us to go with the person who's sticking 'em," he said, hence the frequency with which Douglas-Roberts found himself breaking down Robinson. UConn, it must be noted, put exceptional athletes up against Rose and Douglas-Roberts. A.J. Price, Jerome Dyson and Robinson are no slouches ... but they were still burned repeatedly. Price and Dyson managed to return the favor on the other end, combining for 40 points, but they didn't score enough down the stretch to pull off an upset.

3. Antonio Anderson no longer needs to shoot -- at all -- for the Tigers to win. This is more of a suggested opportunity to improve rather than a reason Memphis is currently better: The junior guard is still taking too many shots, as he was 1-of-8 from the field on Friday in 32 minutes. Memphis could make a major offensive-efficiency jump simply by ordering the junior guard not to take any more threes for the rest of the season. He was allowed to shoot 106 triples last year and made only 26 (for a dismal 24.5 percent success rate). Rose, Douglas-Roberts, Doneal Mack and Willie Kemp are capable of taking the bulk of the treys from here on out, while Anderson focuses solely on creating shots for others. Assist-men are what the Tigers need right now, anyways: Anderson was the only one with more assists (three) than turnovers (one) against UConn.

Rose, despite being billed in a few scouting reports as a deft distributor, is not yet acting like a pass-first point guard. He took 17 shots and had zero assists against five turnovers on Friday. In the two games at the Garden, he took 29 shots but dished out just three assists and committed nine turnovers. That's pretty much the definition of a scoring point guard.

4. Experience is now on their side. Rose is getting loads of attention, so much that Calipari held a meeting at his house earlier this month to attempt to prevent it from creating rifts within the team. It was a smart move, since the key to a Memphis title run this season may be that their rotation prominently features one seasoned senior (Dorsey, a rebounder extraordinaire who had 12 on Friday) and three juniors (CD-R, Anderson and Robert Dozier, who had a stellar, eight-point, eight-board, three-block performance vs. UConn).

"Our experience got us over the hump today," Douglas-Roberts said after the game, in which UConn took a 41-40 lead into halftime and didn't wilt until the final six minutes. "Two years ago, I'm not sure if we could've pulled this game out."

5. Worldwide Wes is now on their side more than ever. I'm only kidding about the impact of this on the Tigers' actual games. But I did find it interesting that William Wesley -- a.k.a. "Worldwide Wes" or "Uncle Wes," a confidant of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Jay-Z, et al, and the man of whom GQ asked, Is This The Most Powerful Man in Sports? -- was present on Friday. He came off the court with the Tigers following their tournament trophy ceremony, and was heard saying, "I want to hear the speech," before ducking into their locker room. Wesley has ties to Douglas-Roberts' AAU team, "The Family," which is sponsored by another friend, Richard Hamilton. Wesley is also rumored to have helped sway Rose toward Memphis. Said Rose of Wesley, "He's a close friend -- for the whole team." Douglas-Roberts said Wesley "doesn't have a role on the team; Uncle Wes is just a man." Later, Wesley was seen talking with one of Rose's older brothers, as well as an older brother of Tyreke Evans, who's the No. 2-ranked prospect in the Class of 2008 and one of the Tigers' top recruiting targets.

6. The Tigers aren't collapsing under the weight of their star power. Their assist-to-turnover ratio -- of 5-to-18 -- was horrible; but that was largely a product of all the isolation plays they used to break down Calhoun's man-to-man D (not the ideal scheme to use against Memphis). Rose will be in the spotlight all season, but he doesn't seek it out. When I inquired afterward about his favorite bucket of the game -- Calipari wasn't pleased with a few of Rose's "circus shots," but the freshman did knock down a a few crazy, hanging layups -- all Rose said was, "I just like seeing my other players score."

Douglas-Roberts, who was chosen the MVP of the tournament, made a point to say later that, "Joey [Dorsey] was the MVP. He gets double-digit rebounds, covers everybody's back, gets three blocks a game -- I mean, I don't see how he wasn't the MVP of this tournament." When asked if he would turn over his freshly acquired MVP trophy to Dorsey, Douglas-Roberts paused before saying, "I'll just make sure that he reads this." Unselfishness has its limits.

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