Tigers achieve decisive victory over Pepperdine
No. 2 Tigers 90, Pepperdine 53
By Dan Wolken
Sunday, January 6, 2008
As the calendar turns and the level of competition clouds its accomplishments through no fault of its own, do not measure the progress of this University of Memphis team by how many jump shots it hits in a given game, how many free throws bounce through the rim or how the minutes get spread around.
On most nights from now until March, the No. 2-ranked Tigers will see a steady stream of clubs that can't match their talent, depth, experience and other measurable attributes. But at the end of this run, whenever and wherever it may be, the Tigers' success will ultimately rest on how well they can adapt to the numerous strategies teams will employ to stop them.
Day by day, the process is becoming easier for Memphis, as it showed Saturday in a 90-53 victory over Pepperdine. Presented with yet another defensive look they had not seen, the Tigers encountered some difficulty early in front of an anxious FedExForum crowd of 16,974. But once Memphis (13-0) adjusted, it asserted its dominance yet again for a school record-breaking 40th straight home victory.
"They were kind of in a funky defense so it took us awhile to recognize what they were in," said junior forward Robert Dozier, one of five Tigers who finished in double-figures with 11 points. "It still probably isn't happening as fast as we want. Guys want to be able to look at it and adjust right then. But it's a process, and I think as the season goes on, we'll get better at it."
When the Tigers started this process, they were completely unprepared for the unconventional. On Dec. 4 -- not so long ago -- Memphis was exposed by USC's triangle-and-2, lending credence to the idea that confusing the Tigers was the best way to beat them.
Since then, Memphis has seen practically every kind of defense, from rarely-used zones to sagging man-to-mans, to hybrids of both. Though Dozier described Pepperdine's strategy as a matchup zone, coach John Calipari said the Waves "tilted," to use the NBA term.
Ultimately, freshman point guard Derrick Rose began to recognize the open spaces, helping the Tigers make 50 percent of their field goals (15-of-34 from 3-point range) and record 28 assists on 34 baskets.
"If we caught it on one side of the floor, they tilted their defense that way so they just left men, and it almost became a zone," Calipari said. "Derrick kept telling me, the weak side is open. I said, 'I know, jump up and throw it to him.' So we started throwing it cross-court, and the threes we got were all in that weak side corner."
Though the Tigers' intelligence ultimately took over, their hustle betrayed them for the first few minutes.
Indeed, with 6:50 left in the first half, Memphis led just 25-24 as Pepperdine won practically every loose ball and ripped rebounds away from the likes of Dozier and Joey Dorsey for second-chance points.
A 16-1 run, however, put the Tigers in command, as Dozier, senior Andre Allen and junior Antonio Anderson made 3-pointers in quick succession. A 44-31 halftime lead then expanded to 25 in the next 10 minutes as Memphis held Pepperdine to 31.7 percent shooting, shut down the glass (Pepperdine had 14 offensive rebounds in the first half, just two in the second) and got a run of 3-pointers from sophomore guard Doneal Mack, who finished with a team-high 23 points in 14 minutes to break out of a season-long slump.
Mack made 7-of-13 from the arc, tying a school record with his mother, Lorna Rivers, in attendance. It was a rare opportunity for Mack to play in front of his mother, who lives in Germany.
"I'm cherishing this moment right now with my family being here and me playing a good game," Mack said. "Cal is very consistent; he says you have to get out there and play defense, keep the intensity and effort up, and that led to a lot of shots being made and me playing good on offense."
At this point, intensity may be the only issue Memphis will grapple with, at least until Gonzaga comes to town Jan. 26. Though the Tigers will certainly face better teams than Pepperdine (5-10) in the coming weeks, Saturday was the kind of game they will have to play often when the Conference USA schedule begins Wednesday against East Carolina.
Can the Tigers adjust on the fly? Can they bring the same enthusiasm against East Carolina and Tulsa that they did against Georgetown and Arizona? After Saturday, Calipari feels more comfortable answering those questions.
"What I saw in the second half is what I needed to see," he said. "On the road, if we do what we did in the first half, we're going to have problems. It's hard for them to be at a high every game.
"There's going to be games where we're down at halftime. They're going to be playing the best of their lives, and we're not quite ready. They're going to beat us to rebounds, beat us to balls and hopefully we'll adjust at halftime and make a commitment we won't let it happen in the second half."
Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at thememphisedge.com.