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Thursday, February 21, 2008

N.O. Times Picayune - Memphis lives up to the hype, and ranking

Memphis lives up to the hype, and ranking
Thursday, February 21, 2008

The No. 1 college basketball team in the country gave its coach his 400th career victory, and gave itself its 26th victory of the season, but no one was celebrating what took place Wednesday night before a sellout crowd in Fogelman Arena.

"I was scared to death before this game," Coach John Calipari said after the Memphis Tigers' 97-71 destruction of Tulane.

The winning coach was scared because he felt his unbeaten ballclub would be looking ahead to Saturday's showdown with No. 2 Tennessee, a rare regular-season meeting of Nos. 1-2.

Calipari was not worried about the Vols, that is, he was not worried about his troops not being mentally ready to take on what he felt was the most talented team around.

Obviously, that's a topic Tulane would be happy to debate.

On Wednesday, it was a simple matter of a blue wave overwhelming the Green Wave.

The Tigers did it with full-court pressure, with a porcupine defense, with a relentless transition game that wore down an overmatched enemy.

"You know, I thought Tulane played great," said Chris Douglas-Roberts, who finished with 29 points on 13-for-17 shooting. "But we had more depth."

That's right, more depth, more talent, more quickness, as in three likely future first-round NBA draft picks.

Given the circumstances, Coach Dave Dickerson's Greenies played as well as one could expect against a ball-hounding bunch that had a dozen steals, that kept taking it to the basket given the slightest sliver of daylight.

David Gomez made the most of his 34 minutes, battling for most of his 23 points in a clogged middle. Kevin Sims played a minute more and finished with 14, nailing three of six 3-pointers.

The most significant stat of the evening was not that the Tigers shot 48 percent from the field.

It was that they scored 54 of their 97 points in the paint, on layups, tip-ins, stuffs, bank shots at point-blank range.

The 54 was more than half of the Wave's in-close 26.

So what impressed Dickerson about surrendering the most points his team has given up this season?

"It's their confidence," he said. "They never seem to get rattled, they just go about business."

So far, at 26-0, Calipari likes what he has seen so far from a group, he says, that is "friends first, teammates second. They have each other's backs. They're settling into their roles."

Which is running and shooting, rebounding and defending, for a full 40 minutes, at a breathless pace.

Going into this one, Dickerson felt any chance his team had to make a game of it was how it did in two areas: Rebounding and protecting the basketball.

At halftime, he could not have hoped for more on the boards, a virtual 23-22 standoff in favor of the Tigers.

The Tigers owned a 7-4 edge in steals, which was not surprising.

So why were the visitors in front, 46-27, after 20 minutes?

Mainly because they outscored the Greenies 26-14 in the paint, out-shot them 50 percent to 34 percent, all a result of quickness in getting the ball inside, forcing the Wave into some hurried shots, the result of a relentless, in-your-face man-to-man defense, a trademark of this Memphis club.

How did depth pay off?

Early in the first half, the Tigers led by eight points. Five minutes later, they led by 17. At halftime, they led by 19.

Midway through the second half, it was 30.

The Greenies never made a serious run against a bunch that got from 14 to 28 minutes of service from nine players.

If Memphis has an Achilles' heel, it's probably in the area of shooting 3-pointers.

"Sometimes we'll hit 40 percent," Calipari said. "Other times we'll go 1-for-18."

He was quick to point out that shooting the 3-pointer, and making it, was one of Tennessee's biggest asset.

Which should make Saturday's 1-2 clash a challenge for Memphis defending the perimeter.

And what does Douglas-Roberts say about that?

"We love challenges," he said.

So far they've faced 26 and come out smiling.

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