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Friday, December 21, 2007

Shooting a problem for U of M

Shooting a problem for U of M
By Dan Wolken
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

There were no illusions heading into this season about where the University of Memphis was most vulnerable. Indeed, the Tigers were so well-aware that opponents would try to exploit their often suspect outside shooting that they worked harder than ever this offseason to make the 3-pointer a weapon rather than a blight on their box score.

But eight games into the season, No. 2-ranked Memphis is not seeing the results it wanted or expected. No matter how much or how well the Tigers have shot in practice, only 32.1 percent of their 3-point attempts have gone in during games.

Though it has not affected the Tigers in any tangible way -- they are 8-0, after all, heading into Wednesday's game at Cincinnati -- there's no question that making more threes would make life a lot easier.

"I think we've got to shoot the ball better," sophomore guard Doneal Mack said. "In big games, we have to hit shots because we've seen what can happen like in the (Southern California) game. We've got big opponents coming up, and we have to shoot the ball better to be satisfied."

Memphis may never be a great 3-point shooting team, but it doesn't have to be. The Tigers believe they can win even when shots aren't falling, and they've done it against high quality opponents like USC, against whom they made just 5-of-22 from the 3-point line.

But after coach John Calipari watched his team make 4-of-19 3s in last Saturday's 65-41 victory over Middle Tennessee, he wondered aloud whether all that shooting it has done in practice is even worth it. Already, Calipari has begun to employ some different shooting drills in the last two practices, emphasizing game-style shots rather than standing 3-pointers.

"I don't know what the number is, but we've taken maybe 30,000 3-point shots," Calipari said. "We may cut back a little bit."

Last season, the Tigers shot just 35.1 percent from 3-point range, a number that put them well below the average for a top-level team. And despite the loss of Jeremy Hunt, who made 38.2 percent of his attempts, Memphis believed that the collective improvement of Mack, Willie Kemp, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Antonio Anderson would more than make up for it.

Kemp has improved, making 45.2 percent, but the rest of the team has not given him much support. Mack, most notably, has gotten off to a slow start, converting at 34.8 percent after finishing last season at 40.5 percent. Though Douglas-Roberts is making 45 percent of his threes, he's only taking 2.5 per game. Meanwhile, others have slumped, including Anderson (7-for-29) and Andre Allen (2-for-19).

"We've got a long season ahead of us," Mack said. "I've been taking what coach has been saying about amnesia, go to the next play. So I'm not going to worry about it, I'm just looking forward. Our team has confidence. We know we have to make shots, and we're going to keep practicing. There's going to be games when we shoot bad, but later on in the season I think there's going to be a lot more games where we shoot the heck out of the ball."

There is a school of thought that the Tigers' outside shooting suffers because of how much energy they expend on defense. In other words, the Tigers do so much lunging and scrambling trying to guard people that they simply don't have the legs to make lots of jumpers. Indeed, as bad as the Tigers have shot from 3-point range, opponents are even worse at 31.2 percent.

"It tires you out, but it shouldn't make a difference," Anderson said. "Your legs are a little bit tired, but it's part of basketball. It's something we're all used to. We can't use it as an excuse."

The remarkable thing for Memphis is that it wouldn't take much for their shooting to become a non-issue. The way Calipari sees it, if Mack and Kemp or Anderson and Douglas-Roberts could make just three more 3-pointers per game between them, their 10-point wins would become blowouts and their close wins wouldn't be in doubt.

"(Former Minnesota and Western Kentucky coach) Clem Haskins came up to me after the game and said your team is unbelievable, the way they guard," Calipari said. "He said, your goal is to get two of these guys absolutely believing when they're open, the ball is down. If you can keep them defending and keep them betting better and better, rebounding and blocking shots like you are, making the game hard for the other team, he said, you just need a couple guys when that thing is open, everybody in the building knows, oh, man.

"And I think we have those guys; they've just got to start making them."

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365.

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