Calipari needs to keep Tigers sharp, hungry
by DICK "HOOPS" WEISS, Special to FOXSports.com
Updated: January 10, 2008, 1:48 PM EST
PHILADELPHIA - Looking at the schedule, it all seems so easy.
Memphis is 14-0, ranked second in the AP poll and on a roll following its 99-58 blowout victory over East Carolina Wednesday night at the FedEx Forum.
The Tigers have not been challenged since they dropped the hammer on Georgetown, defeating the beast of the Big East 85-71 at the FedEx Center three days before Christmas.
Their average margin of victory in the last three games has been 40.6 points and, with just four difficult games remaining on the schedule — home against Gonzaga, a home-and-home against Houston and home against Tennessee — they could be on target to become the first Division I team since St. Joseph's in 2004 to go through a regular season unbeaten.
How that all translates to remaining sharp heading into the NCAA Tournament is another story. Memphis played more than its share of challenging games in December, beating Oklahoma, UConn and USC in Madison Square Garden before taking out two Top 20 teams — the Hoyas and Arizona — at home.
Still, skeptics wonder if they will lose some of their edge if they can play in cruise control against teams from Conference USA that do not have nearly the amount of talent or future NBA players.
Memphis coach John Calipari, who has coached his Tigers for a pair of Final Eight appearances the past two years playing a similar schedule, doesn't seem all that concerned. He has done this before, taking UMass, a team from a mid-major conference, to the Final Four in 1996. The Minutemen won 26 straight before losing to Atlantic 10 rival George Washington at the Mullen Center in late February. Then, Calipari simply re-started the motor, and his team put on a clinic against Georgetown in the East Regional finals, defeating the Hoyas 86-62 in Atlanta.
That UMass team had 6-foot-10 All-American Marcus Camby, the most influential defensive player in the country, and superb chemistry in its starting five.
This team has better individual talent and a longer bench than that team. The Tigers can go 10 deep and have eight players averging at least seven points a game. Memphis has so much talent that 6-foot-6 freshman Jeff Robinson, from St. Patrick's of Elizabeth, a Top 50 prospect who struggled to into the rotation, came off the bench to finish with a team-high 20 points and 10 rebounds in 12 minutes as the Tigers buried MAAC favorite Siena 102-58 on Jan. 4 in Memphis. Memphis made 15 treys in that game, erasing the thought that the best way to guard the streaky-shooting Tigers was to open in a tightly packed zone.
In the next game, backup guard Doneal Mack came off the bench to hit seven 3s and score a career-high 23 points as the Tigers savaged Pepperdine 90-58, giving an education to Vance Walberg, the man who originated the up-tempo, attacking motion offense the Tigers run.
"We weren't trying to run it up on them, but when a guy hits seven 3s in a half, what are you going to do?'' Calipari said.
The Tigers made 13 for their first 18 shots in the second half against East Carolina, including 7-of-12 from downtown, winning their 41st straight home game and frustrating Pirates coach Mac McCarthy to the point where he was whistled for two technicals and left for the locker room with 12:15 remaining.
"Teams aren't as deep as we are and if we continue to run and run and run, they'll wear out,'' Tigers' junior guard Antonio Anderson said.
The biggest plus for this team, of course, is Calipari, a Larry Brown disciple who is always looking for new ways to motivate his team. He is not adverse to working to make his stars — freshman point guard and prodigy Derrick Rose, junior guard Chris Douglas Roberts and 6-foot-9, 245-pound senior center Joey Dorsey — better with some personalized individual instruction.
After answering the bell during a challenging pre-season, the regular sason can almost be viewed as spring training for March, where he can continue to test and fine-tune his team. Calipari's practices have been more competitive than most of his games. Conditioning has been a priority.
"If you can't run, you can't play for us,'' he said.
Calipari has done a good job so far in keeping his team focused. When you speak to Calipari, he never talks about winning the conference or getting to the Final Four. It's about earning a No. 1 seed and winning the national championship. That is his goal.
There have been speed bumps — specifically a bar incident involving Dorsey, Robinson and 6-foot-10 Shawn Taggert — but Calipari has been able to move past off-court distractions and keep his team pressing forward. He has continued to develop his young talent and gotten his team playing for the name on the front of the uniform, not the back.
Calipari's challenges will include continuing to develop chemistry, making sure Dorsey maintains his equilibrium so he can remain an effective factor, and earning a high enough seed so they will not have to play a good team on a less-than-neutral site.
In the past two years, the selection committee has given Memphis difficult geographical matchups. The Tigers were a No. 1 seed in 2006, but the committee sent them West in 2006 to play UCLA, a second seed, in the same backet in Anaheim where the Tigers lost 50-45 in the regional final.
Last year, the committee made Memphis a No. 2 seed in the South, but shuttled them to San Antonio as a No. 2 seed instead of St. Louis to play third-seeded Texas A&M in the Sweet Sixteen. The Tigers won 65-64 before losing to Ohio State in the regional finals.
This year, it may not matter. This team does not look like it's going to slow down.