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Friday, November 16, 2007

Tigers deflect pressure to win from outset


Tigers deflect pressure to win from outset
Calipari concerned with team intensity
By Dan Wolken
Thursday, November 15, 2007

NEW YORK -- When the University of Memphis traveled to Hawaii a year ago to play Oklahoma, the price of paradise was pressure. Knowing their schedule afforded the Tigers little opportunity to make a major national impression, coach John Calipari forthrightly proclaimed that anything less than a 2-1 record in the EA Sports Maui Invitational would severely hurt their NCAA Tournament seed.

But as the Tigers arrive at Madison Square Garden tonight for the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic semifinal -- where the opponent will, coincidentally, be Oklahoma again -- the mind-set seems drastically different.

This time, Calipari brings a Memphis team ranked No. 3 in the country, a Memphis team that will have several home games against Top 25 opponents and a Memphis team that appears content to ease into the season.

"It's too early in the year to feel pressure," junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said.

But maybe that's not such a good thing, at least with regard to the outcome this week. A year ago, after beating Oklahoma and blowing a sizable lead to Georgia Tech, the Tigers got their two Maui wins with a clutch performance against Kentucky in the consolation game.

Now, Calipari isn't so sure the Tigers need to be in must-win mode, especially with games against Georgetown, Arizona, Tennessee and Gonzaga coming up.

"When we went to Maui, we knew we had road games (after that), and that was it," Calipari said. "We're like, shoot, we better win two here, or we may drop all those three road games because they're all top-15 teams.

"This is a little different. What I'm hoping is we play well. If we play well, the other stuff will usually take care of itself, but it may not."

Complicating matters is that Memphis is a prohibitive favorite to romp over this four-team field, which includes two traditional powers who are unranked after non-NCAA Tournament years (Oklahoma and Connecticut) and the biggest early-season surprise in college basketball (Gardner-Webb). Anything less than two wins here will be cast nationally as a major upset, and the Tigers will be hard-pressed to contend for a No. 1 ranking until at least late December or mid-January.

But are the Tigers ready to deliver a championship in this event, given that their victories over Tennessee-Martin and Richmond last week were in less than impressive?

"Mentally we're probably not, but physically we're ready," sophomore guard Doneal Mack said. "Coach is going to have us prepared; he'll have us ready to play. We know it's not going to be a walk-through. It's going to be a tough battle, but we're eager to show everybody we can play with the best of the best."

Calipari admitted Tuesday he was concerned about the Tigers' mentality, whether they can play with enough focus and passion to combat a team like Oklahoma, which can't match Memphis' talent but will likely play with desperation.

Memphis hasn't shown much desperation in recent practices or games, though the Tigers appeared to make progress in the second half of Monday's 90-35 exhibition victory over Christian Brothers.

"We looked at tape from last year, and we weren't up to it," senior forward Joey Dorsey said. "Our defensive intensity wasn't there."

Has Calipari gotten the Tigers' attention yet? Though he did a lot of yelling and screaming after an 80-63 win over Richmond, in which Memphis broke down repeatedly on defense and couldn't solve a 1-3-1 zone until late in the game, it might not have been enough.

Calipari told the story of his 1996 team at UMass, which opened its season with an exhibition game loss to the Converse All-Stars, a collection of former Atlantic 10 players who had spent their careers getting beaten up by UMass. Only after that experience was Calipari able to shape a Final Four team.

"I'm worried that this team doesn't get it yet," Calipari said. "I hate to lose, but sometimes it's the only way they get it. I'm hoping we win games, but Oklahoma could pound us, and so could Connecticut. They have the talent, the coaching, the pedigree to do it. This team? I don't know yet. I'm trying to figure them out."

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at thememphisedge.com

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