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Monday, November 26, 2007

Tigers bracing for high-Cal diet

Tigers bracing for high-Cal diet
Schedule lull will bring harder practices
By Dan Wolken
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The University of Memphis is only four games into this basketball season, but John Calipari's voice is already getting scratchy, a reasonable yet irritating byproduct of the Tigers' victory over Connecticut last Friday. Indeed, by the end of tonight, when No. 3 Memphis plays Arkansas State at FedExForum, it may be gone entirely.

But no matter the condition of his vocal chords, Calipari is getting ready to turn up the volume on this season. Tonight's game begins a stretch in which Memphis will play just three times over the next 24 days, and the Tigers know exactly what that portends.

"Long practices, which means more teaching and more yelling from Coach Cal," junior forward Robert Dozier said. "But we're used to it. Guys have been here two or three years now, so it's about getting better."

Though his infamous "Camp Cal" won't truly begin until the academic semester ends, Calipari will indeed use the next three-plus weeks as a sort of second training camp. As a concession to the Tigers' shortened preseason -- the Nov. 5 opener was roughly 10 days earlier than usual -- Calipari only installed the bare minimum of what Memphis could get by with in the 2k Sports College Hoops Classic.

The time crunch was so severe, even fundamental parts of their gameplan were essentially ignored. For instance, Calipari wasn't upset that the Tigers' transition defense was torn apart by Connecticut last Friday because he hadn't yet covered it. And Memphis' offense often looked disorganized and simple because, well, that's exactly what it was.

When the Tigers were tied with UConn at 60-60 in the second half, it wasn't brilliant bench work that sent them on a decisive 14-3 run. It was Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose being talented and athletic enough to create offense and drive for layups.

"What we've done to this point is what we needed to play those games, and we had enough in," Calipari said. "We had a finish to the game, where we were able to grind it out, but we didn't have anything off of it. It was, 'OK, do this, and Chris, try to score.'"

After tonight, however, the stakes go up. Short of a massive mental breakdown, Memphis should have enough to get by Arkansas State. Then, after a short Thanksgiving break on Wednesday and Thursday, the Tigers will go into lockdown mode all weekend, leading up to another home game next Tuesday against Austin Peay.

Memphis will then have another week to get ready for Southern California on Dec. 4 in the Jimmy V Classic, once again at Madison Square Garden in New York. An 11-day break follows that game before the Tigers play Middle Tennessee in Nashville and get back on a fairly regular schedule where they'll play twice a week.

By then, the Tigers should look like a much different group, ready for a stretch when they'll play six of the toughest games on their schedule in a five-week period, beginning Dec. 22 against No. 5 Georgetown.

"We're going to get much better," said Douglas-Roberts, who on Monday was named the Conference USA Player of the Week for the second time in two weeks. "This is when we really get better. Every year I've been here, when we've had this winter break, we got so much better. We don't have nothing to do but practice, eat and lift, but that will make any team better. Plus, those two games in New York told us a lot about our team. Everybody's feeling their roles out, and with those games behind us we'll know how we need to play in the future."

The only potential issue with the spacing of the schedule is whether Memphis will retain its competitive edge. A year ago, Memphis did not have long breaks between games. The Tigers played six times between Nov. 29 and Dec. 14, a stretch that clearly paid dividends for that team leading into January.

Calipari said he's almost tempted to employ a USC football-style tactic and have one practice per week where he throws open all the starting positions and gives them to whichever players perform best in that practice. Though that idea might go a step too far for his taste, Calipari expects to have a much sharper, much more organized team by mid-December thanks to the number of practices he'll be able to squeeze in.

"It gives us a chance now to work on both zone defense and zone offense," Calipari said. "It gives us a chance to do more with our man-to-man, if we want to switch everything, if we want to deny everything, so we can play different ways. And it gives us a chance to work on situational stuff, which we really haven't done. If we needed a three, we're just going to run what we run and hopefully get a three. We just don't have that stuff in."

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