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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Commitment to defense gives Tigers shot at all-time record

Commitment to defense gives Tigers shot at all-time record
By Dan Wolken
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Two years ago, the University of Memphis chased Stanford's NCAA record for defensive field goal percentage deep into the season. The Tigers did not quite make it, settling for the school record of 38.0 percent instead.

Though it may never be realistic to eclipse Stanford's 35.2 percent from 1999-2000, the No. 2-ranked Tigers are at least venturing into that territory again. Opponents have shot just 37.9 percent against Memphis heading into Wednesday's game at Rice, and with the way the Tigers (15-0) have smothered their league opponents recently, they may once again find themselves eyeing the all-time record as the season goes on.

"It hasn't been talked about as much as it was my freshman year, but now it's kind of second nature to us," junior forward Robert Dozier said. "We just go out and play defense. That's what we do."

And you don't have to look at the box scores very long to see that Memphis has played a lot of defense lately. Of the Tigers' 15 opponents, 10 failed to shoot 40 percent and two couldn't crack 30 percent. The only team to make half its attempts was Austin Peay, which shot 53.6 percent in what now appears to be a statistical anomaly.

Since league play began, Memphis held East Carolina to 36.2 percent and Marshall to 34.0 percent, and given that Rice is shooting just 36.3 percent for the season, the Tigers' numbers could get even better by the end of the week.

Coach John Calipari, however, isn't sure if Memphis can keep shedding percentage points against Conference USA opponents who know the Tigers better than non-conference teams.

"You'd think (otherwise), but you get in league, you'll see it will go the wrong way," Calipari said. "It's so hard to chase it in the league because they're more comfortable playing against our guys. They're not as intimidated. But we're chasing it."

Regardless of what the statistics say, the Tigers pass the eye test defensively, perhaps more than any team Calipari has ever coached. And the reason is a combination of their ability to guard, help and block shots to erase any defensive mistakes.

Memphis also believes it is deeper defensively now than it was in the past. Last season, for instance, the Tigers' primary big man off the bench was Kareem Cooper, who was often a liability in the post. Though Shawn Taggart is not a finished product, he has 17 blocked shots in 15 games. Cooper had 15 all of last season.

Too, with the addition of Derrick Rose, the Tigers now have another athletic perimeter defender to bring off the bench in Willie Kemp. With Taggart and Kemp available as reserves, Memphis has not seen much drop-off defensively, aside from perhaps the Georgetown game when Calipari stuck with his starters in the second half.

"This year all five guys are committed (to defense), and the guys coming off the bench are committed to shutting guys down," junior guard Antonio Anderson said. "The previous years, everybody wasn't committed. This year coach finally got through to everybody; that's what's going to get us a championship and we believe in him and we're going to continue to do what we've been doing."

Though Stanford's record is a nice goal to pursue, as Calipari tries to find ways to keep Memphis on edge during the C-USA schedule, it would merely be a byproduct of playing at the defensive level Memphis wants to achieve as it moves toward the NCAA Tournament.

"As I watch us on tape, we swarm as well as any team I've seen," Calipari said. "And when we go to the bench, we don't get weaker. We just seem to get stronger defensively. When you have shot-blockers behind athletes, it makes it difficult."

In another development, priority tickets to the Conference USA Tournament will be on sale through Jan. 18. According to the league office, lower level and club level seats are still available for the tournament, March 12-15 at FedExForum. Season ticket holders will be given top priority, but after Jan. 18, ticket sales will be opened up to the general public. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling the Memphis ticket office at 678-2331.

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365.

'D' is for dominant

Barring a major defensive breakdown, this season's Tigers will be coach John Calipari's fifth team to hold opponents below 40 percent from the field:

Season / FG%

2000-01 / .409

2001-02 / .395

2002-03 / .406

2003-04 / .405

2004-05 / .384

2005-06 / .380

2006-07 / .390

2007-08 / .379

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