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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Calipari: USC covered all the angles against Tigers

Calipari: USC covered all the angles against Tigers
Trojans' defense spooked U of M offensive stars
By Dan Wolken
Friday, December 7, 2007

On the airplane ride to New York last Sunday, University of Memphis coach John Calipari saw something on film that he hadn't seen before.

Though assistant coach John Robic apparently told Calipari that a triangle-and-2 defense had shown up in his scouting report of Southern California, it didn't register until he watched the first half of the Trojans' victory over Southern Illinois on Nov. 25.

So when No. 2-ranked Memphis got to New York, Calipari devised a plan to counter the triangle-and-2 -- known in basketball circles as a "junk" defense -- and practiced with it Monday. But when the Tigers took the court at Madison Square Garden and saw the oddball defense in real time, they froze. They might have even panicked a little.

And though the Tigers' defense, grit and ability to create transition baskets ultimately bailed them out in a 62-58 overtime victory, Calipari on Thursday took full blame for the team's ugliest and most befuddling offensive performance since they lost to Tennessee almost a year ago exactly.

"What we put in was something I was comfortable with," Calipari said. "The problem was, the players weren't. And if they're out there and they're not comfortable and we didn't have enough time to do live -- we did it all dummy -- they're going to play like they're tight, they're tired, whatever, and that's what they did."

One week after the Tigers' offense appeared to be breaking through in a major way -- their execution was almost flawless in a 104-82 victory over Austin Peay -- it was surprising to see them struggle so mightily against USC. Unable to create driving lanes, unable to knock down open jumpers, Memphis made just 25-of-67 field goal attempts, 5-of-22 from 3-point range and committed 21 turnovers.

The triangle-and-2, designed to limit an opponent's two biggest offensive threats, was effective against Chris Douglas-Roberts (4-for-13 from the field) and Derrick Rose (3-of-9). And with nobody else able to truly get in rhythm -- forward Robert Dozier had a team-high 13 points -- the result was not what the nation has become accustomed to seeing from a Memphis team loaded with veterans.

Calipari said the blame, however, should go on him for not countering with a plan that got more opportunities for Douglas-Roberts and Rose.

"If you play into their hands and still don't try to get your best players free and then play off them, you made a mistake. Who made the mistake? I did," Calipari said. "I had guys in total confusion. They didn't (guard) three guys. And when that guy missed a shot, he panicked. If you triangle my best two players, I'm still going to get the ball to them, but we weren't doing that."

Memphis, however, had issues during the game that were seemingly unrelated to any defense USC threw out.

The Tigers, for instance, went 7-for-18 from the free-throw line. They airballed 3-pointers. They wildly missed lay-ups. They committed a handful of turnovers in transition, not in the half-court. On a couple of occasions, players passed up open 3-pointers, only to end up missing a more difficult shot later in the possession.

But Calipari said all of those errors were tied in to the sense of discomfort his team felt with the offensive game plan it was trying to execute against a defense it hadn't seen before.

"They were hyped for this game for a month," Calipari said. "But when you're confused, you're on your heels. And it wasn't that they weren't enthused. You saw at the end how they wanted to win the game. Believe me, the guys, they practiced hard, they like each other, they're doing their stuff. All of that is good. Now I've got to do my job. My job is to make sure I keep a pulse on the team."

And obviously, the pulse beats strongest when the game is on the line. After plodding along for most of the game, the Tigers found a little extra pep over the last seven minutes of regulation and overtime, holding USC without a field goal for long stretches.

"I just think we got out of kilter," Calipari said. "A year ago, early, we lose that game."

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

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