Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Hard work pays off for Tiger bench
Calipari spending extra time with reserves, just in case
By Dan Wolken
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
In nearly two years at the University of Memphis, 6-8 forward Pierre Niles has never worked harder than he did Tuesday afternoon during a 25-minute, one-on-one workout with coach John Calipari.
"When the head coach puts you through something, you know it's going to be hard," Niles said. "It's going to be crazy."
Though Niles may be more exhausted these days, he also has never been more confident in himself as a college basketball player.
And that, ultimately, that is why Calipari has taken a special interest recently in Niles, sophomore Doneal Mack, sophomore Willie Kemp, senior Andre Allen and freshman Jeff Robinson, trying to get his bench revved up as the No.2 Tigers prepare for Siena on Thursday and Pepperdine on Saturday at FedExForum.
"At this point, we've got to find more minutes for the guys on the bench, but they've also got to perform at a higher level," Calipari said. "To help them perform at a higher level, I'm going to work individually with guys, so that they know what I expect, the level of intensity I expect, and the only way they know that is if I'm doing it myself."
As the Tigers have collectively stormed to an 11-0 record, several individuals have suffered through slumps.
After the team's victory at Cincinnati Dec.19 in which junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts and sophomore forward Shawn Taggart played poorly, Calipari worked with them separately before the next two practices. It paid dividends, as Douglas-Roberts broke out with 24 points in a victory over Georgetown and Taggart followed with 15 points in 19 minutes against Arizona last Saturday.
The results were so encouraging, Calipari decided that similar tactics might bring others back to life including Mack, who played just seven total minutes the last two games, and Allen, who has not found a comfortable or consistent role yet behind freshman point guard Derrick Rose. Meanwhile, the Tigers would love to get something out of Robinson, a top-50 recruit, and Niles during the second half of the season after struggling to crack the rotation early on.
"We need to make sure we're playing 10, 11 guys or we have 10, 11 guys at all times to go to," Calipari said. "You can go small with Jeff and still have rebounding. Doneal Mack is an absolute guy that will break open a game athletically and shooting the ball. Willie leads us in 3-point shooting. Andre, I think you'll start seeing Andre play differently now.
"When I'm going through all this, they kind of reconnect themselves to their game, and sometimes I forget how good they are. Then you get out here and start working with them, and you're like, son of a gun, this guy is good."
It has not necessarily been easy this season to come off the bench for Memphis. Despite all the preseason chatter about depth, Calipari has leaned on his starters for big minutes, especially in the games against marquee opponents like Georgetown, Arizona, Connecticut and Southern California.
That isn't unusual for an elite team; Florida, for instance, basically played with a seven-man rotation during its national title run last season.
But using the starters more minutes has put pressure on the likes of Allen, Mack and Kemp to play with more efficiency because they have not been on the court as much as they are accustomed to. Allen, last season, averaged 20.4 minutes per game but has dropped to 14.2 minutes this season. Mack's average minutes have only dropped slightly, from 14.2 to 11.8, but he's had several short outings this year. Kemp played 21.4 minutes as the starting point guard last season, and he's now playing 15.5 per game as a backup.
Except for Kemp's 42.2 percent 3-point shooting, none of the three have played to their abilities yet this season.
"It's very hard because last year, I knew I would play a certain amount of minutes, what I had to do," Allen said. "This year, some games I'll play, some games I won't. Some games I might get in and might not perform well, then I may not get in no more to show what I can do. It's all a matter of performing in the minutes I get."
Niles and Robinson have had even fewer minutes in which to make a positive impression, and they have only appeared in seven of 11 games so far.
Though Calipari told the 300-pound Niles he would not be able to contribute until he lost weight, Niles has shown enough in short stints against Georgetown and Arizona to merit further consideration for playing time. And the raw ability Niles has displayed in his workouts the past two days has only confirmed the idea that he could be a major force for the Tigers if he gets in shape.
"I think I've I stepped up my game a little bit," Niles said. "With me practicing and him working me out, I think I'm starting to come along, like I'm starting to get my game back. When I'm on the court, I'm usually just out there to be out there. Now I'm happy to be out there, I'm having fun. In practice, I'm having fun. I'm building my confidence back up."
Calipari said he's enjoyed the individual workouts, which are basically a series of drills in an energy-packed 25 minutes. He said he might even put players through them on game days for 15 minutes just to get the blood pumping so they can come off the bench and be ready to contribute right away.
"It's good for my confidence in them and their confidence in themselves," Calipari said. "I just wish I had time myself personally to go work with 12 guys. I'd need 12 hours for practice and then every once in a while go recruit. You just don't have enough time in the day. I just told the first six, seven guys, look, I have to make time for these guys. I told them as a group; I'm working with these five guys, and I'm going to make time for them. And I need to do that to get them ready."
Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at thememphisedge.com.
Next for No. 2 Tigers
When, where: 8 p.m. Thursday at FedExForum