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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Schedule looks to be on Tigers' side

Schedule looks to be on Tigers' side
C-USA opponents offer room to breathe
By Dan Wolken
Monday, February 11, 2008

Despite the numerous pundits who hold Conference USA against the University of Memphis, there is an advantage to the Tigers' league dominance that rarely gets discussed.

As Memphis moves toward the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers do not spend January and February grinding out one physical battle after another, leaving a worn-down team for the chaotic March run.

Rather, the schedule offers the No. 1-ranked Tigers a chance to push the pedal in short bursts, extending themselves when necessary, but also getting opportunities to re-energize.

For Memphis (23-0, 9-0 C-USA), last week fell into the latter category. Against SMU and UCF, teams incapable of putting up much physical resistance against the Tigers, freshman Derrick Rose played an average of 26 minutes instead of the 32 or 33 he'd be required to log in closer games. Junior Antonio Anderson, often counted on to be an ironman, averaged 23 minutes. And leading scorer Chris Douglas-Roberts, who happened to be suffering from the flu, was not needed for more than 16 minutes per game.

Having a week like that is a major bonus for the Tigers, especially now that the schedule gets a bit trickier beginning with second-place Houston on Wednesday, followed by road trips to UAB and Tulane before coming home Feb. 23 for the showdown with Tennessee.

And in the long term, every bit of rest counts for Memphis, which hopes to minimize wear-and-tear as the focus turns toward the NCAA Tournament.

"We get to rest our legs," said junior forward Robert Dozier, who sat out Wednesday due to a suspension and played 20 minutes against UCF. "Come March and April, hopefully, guys have to be ready to play and be energized. It's good for us to have a break sometimes."

In that respect, the Tigers' schedule has been almost uncanny in providing breathers at exactly the right times. After their three-game stretch in December with Cincinnati, Georgetown and Arizona, the Tigers spent two weeks feasting on Siena, Pepperdine, East Carolina, Marshall, Rice and Southern Miss, winning by an average of 34.7 points and spreading minutes around liberally.

After that, however, coach John Calipari leaned on his starters to get through the next four against Tulsa, Gonzaga, Houston and UTEP, where the margin of victory predictably shrunk to 10.3 points per game. Though Calipari didn't use his bench as much in those games, the Tigers' reserves have had ample opportunities during the C-USA schedule to gain experience.

"There's two sides of this," Calipari said. "The first side is, you get to play a lot of people, and now there's a lot of room for error at the end of the year. Whether it's foul trouble, injuries, suspensions, you've played so many people that you're not playing somebody who's never played. But the other side of it is, you want your best players in the end of games like they were against Southern Cal and you want them in where we were against UTEP."

Against UTEP, which pushed Memphis to the wire in a 70-64 victory at FedExForum, Calipari shortened his bench as he'd be more apt to do in an NCAA Tournament game, relying on eight players with Douglas-Roberts, Anderson and Dozier each logging 33 or more minutes.

In Saturday's 85-64 victory over UCF, however, Calipari used a true 10-player rotation with freshman Jeff Robinson playing 12 minutes on the low end and Rose playing 28 on the high end.

"It's a great feeling because we see a lot of players who don't usually play get in and get a lot of minutes," Douglas-Roberts said. "As a teammate, you want to see that."

Though the Tigers' starters would gladly sacrifice some minutes in the next four games, Memphis is more likely to be pushed hard by its upcoming opponents. After that, the schedule is far friendlier for the two weeks leading up to the C-USA Tournament on March 12-15. If all goes according to plan, the Tigers will then enter the NCAAs with as much pep as last year, when they were able to out-last Texas A&M; in a physical Sweet 16 battle.

"That last stretch of the season, coach rested the starters and through the conference tournament we kind of coasted," Dozier said. "It made it easier for us, and hopefully we can do that again and be fresh for the tournament."

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at

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