Memphis Must Regroup in Time for NCAA Tourney
by The Associated Press
MEMPHIS - A glance around Memphis' dressing room showed the challenge facing coach John Calipari now that the Tigers' chase for perfection is over.
Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey sat at their lockers with their jerseys pulled over their heads and most Tigers declined to talk after No. 2 Tennessee stunned top-ranked Memphis 66-62 Saturday to likely grab their No. 1 ranking.
Freshman Derrick Rose, who led Memphis with 23 points, acknowledged that the Tigers had talked of perfection, trying to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated and win a national title.
"It's not just this one. If we had lost to anybody, it would have hurt the same way. We were supposed to come out with the victory," Rose said.
Memphis had been No. 1 in the country for five weeks and the unanimous pick for that spot the past three. The first matchup of Tennessee teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 was supposed to be a crowning moment to prove that Memphis could get to its first national title game since 1973 - and win.
Letting go of having missed a shot at perfection will be the Tigers' initial hurdle in bouncing back from their first home loss since Jan. 2, 2006, against Texas. Memphis (26-1) also has to solve its rebounding and free-throw shooting woes to make a run to the Final Four.
If any coach can help Memphis through this situation it's Calipari. He faced exactly this challenge in 1996 at Massachusetts when his Minutemen had won their first 26 games and lost the 27th at home.
"I'll be honest with you, the next game was a tough game, too. ... There's going to be a natural letdown," Calipari said.
His Tigers had Sunday off, and their Conference USA schedule is such that they shouldn't face another stiff test until they play in the NCAA tournament, possibly as a No. 1 seed.
Two of their final four regular-season games are on their home floor starting Wednesday night with Tulsa, a team they beat 56-41 in Oklahoma on Jan. 23. Trips to Southern Miss and SMU will have big crowds but nowhere near the pressure of trying to remain undefeated.
Then they're back in Memphis hosting the Conference USA tournament, where they haven't lost since 2005, Louisville's last year in the league.
Doneal Mack called the loss a setback the Tigers will have to overcome.
"I didn't care about the perfect season, but you want to win any game you play. ... That's why this one hurts so much now," he said.
"There were things we should have done and we could have won. That's why it hurts. Some people stepped up. Some people didn't."
Memphis had been Conference USA's best at outrebounding opponents, but Tennessee had a season-best performance with a 50-34 advantage. The Vols dominated Memphis near the basket with a 20-point advantage.
Dorsey had a team-high six rebounds but only one point. Douglas-Roberts, who had been leading the Tigers and making a case for player of the year honors, struggled with 14 points and two turnovers.
Memphis, 326th out of 328 Division I teams in free-throw shooting, hit only one of five foul shots in the final 4:12 and was 8-of-17 for the game.
"It was just sloppiness," said Calipari, who went through his timeouts trying to keep Memphis in the game.
"I mean we got 10 steals, nine blocks. We hold them to 37 percent from the floor and lose, there's no such thing. They outscrapped us on the backboard. I can remember offensive plays, J.P. Prince just ran by two guys."
It was Tennessee that made the plays even as Memphis led 61-58. Calipari said his Tigers needed this game to learn how to make plays at the crucial moment, especially important for a team that has lost in the NCAA regional final the past two years.
"It's got to mean something to you. So, if that's the lesson we learn, then it's a good lesson for us," Calipari said.
Only March will tell whether the Tigers paid attention.