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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Calipari keeping tabs on Tigers' growth patterns

Calipari keeping tabs on Tigers' growth patterns
By Dan Wolken
Monday, December 3, 2007


Of the observations sports psychologist Bob Rotella made about the University of Memphis basketball team during his recent visit, one resonated with coach John Calipari above all others.

For the first hour of each practice, the No. 3-ranked Tigers play with boundless energy and compete with game intensity. Then they sag. Their body language changes. They struggle for a second wind.

That insight has given Calipari a roadmap for where he needs to take the Tigers in practice this month, as they prepare for some of the biggest games on their schedule. But there are certain things even Rotella can't help Calipari figure out.

To that end, Calipari expects Tuesday's game against No. 22 Southern California to provide the Tigers with plenty more material for self-analysis.

"I'm not hinging anything on (the outcome)," Calipari said. "But we may learn after this game, man, we've got a ways to go and we're not as good as everybody thinks ... Or we may find out we're pretty good."

In this five-month journey from Memphis Madness to March Madness, the Tigers are still in the early stages. Despite the vast experience on their roster, the sense is that this team has not quite forged its identity.

Though the Tigers have won all six of their games by double digits, have they looked like a team worthy of preseason top-five status? Are they as hungry to be respected as they were last year, when Memphis silenced critics by winning 25 straight games? Are they as committed to stopping opponents as the last two Tiger teams, who were among the national leaders in defensive field-goal percentage? And how do the Tigers get the most out of their personnel against marquee opponents?

Those questions, in many ways, have not come close to being answered. The Tigers have struggled deep into the second half with at least a couple of inferior opponents, and their best win came against a Connecticut team that didn't even make the NIT last season. Calipari has questioned his team's effort on a couple of occasions, most recently after the Arkansas State game when he took away its Thanksgiving break. Of Memphis' six games, only one (Oklahoma) could be considered a stellar defensive effort. The Tigers allowed Arkansas State and Austin Peay to shoot a combined 50.5 percent.

Memphis is still trying to find a comfortable rotation, which has been complicated by injuries to senior forward Joey Dorsey (shoulder) and junior forward Robert Dozier (foot) and the somewhat slow progress of freshman Jeff Robinson.

Though Tuesday's game won't necessarily address all those issues, it will at least serve as a guide for how the Tigers proceed with Georgetown and Arizona coming up at the end of this month. Despite Sunday's 59-55 loss to Kansas, USC is arguably as talented as any team on the Tigers' schedule with freshman superstar O.J. Mayo, forward Taj Gibson and first-year player Davon Jefferson all possibly headed for NBA careers.

"I've got to keep learning about this team so that there's no confusion about who's who; who can do what in big games," Calipari said. "Who do we have, in a bigger game, who can't play as many minutes? You've got to figure out, can he guard in that game? Can he play in that game? Some guys physically can't play in a game or aren't the right match in a certain game. Maybe the guard is too big or fast, maybe the four-man is a monster and we have to play Jeff Robinson at the three. That's the kind of stuff you're trying to really hone in on and figure out."

— Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365

Next for No. 3 Tigers
Opponent: No. 22 USC
When, where: 8:30 p.m. CST Tuesday at New York's Madison Square Garden

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