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Friday, March 07, 2008

Cal: Loss will get Tigers' attention

Cal: Loss will get Tigers' attention
Coach says pre-game hype may have 'paralyzed' some
By Dan Wolken
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The University of Memphis took a team picture before Monday's practice, but when the photographer encouraged players to smile, nobody's expression changed.

"I'm not over it," junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. "It's obvious I'm not over it at all, but somehow I have to put it in the back and move forward."

The "it," of course, is last Saturday's 66-62 loss to the Tennessee Volunteers, who snatched the Tigers' No. 1 national ranking and ruined their undefeated season.

Though the fallout wasn't particularly damaging -- Memphis, after all, was still ranked No. 2 in Monday's Associated Press poll and No. 3 in the ESPN/USA Today poll -- the atmosphere at the Finch Center was unlike anything the Tigers have experienced in quite a while.

After losing a regular season game for the first time since Dec. 20, 2006, the Tigers were noticeably quiet but certainly businesslike in their approach. Afterward, Calipari said he was pleased with their effort under the circumstances and hopeful they would be in a more positive frame of mind heading into Wednesday's Conference USA game at FedExForum against always-pesky Tulsa.

"This is a hard game coming up," Calipari said. "I'm surprised I got what I got out of these guys (Monday) because you could tell, they're still (hurting). Hopefully this practice got them by some of that feeling. We haven't lost in so long, we don't even know how to react to losing. What are you supposed to do?"

Though the Tigers didn't want to learn how it felt to lose this season, especially to an in-state rival on such a public stage, Tennessee may have ultimately done them a favor. At least, that's what several colleagues told Calipari, including former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, whose 1991 team lost in the national semifinals after entering the NCAA Tournament undefeated.

Only through the prism of a loss could the Tigers truly grasp what happens when they don't scrap for rebounds, when they don't run their offense and when they don't make intelligent decisions down the stretch.

In other words, if the Tigers had pulled another Houdini escape -- and really, they were one Robert Dozier putback away from a likely victory -- it would have been difficult for Calipari to convince his team that they did not play at a championship level.

"If Robert makes that shot and the fadeaway that (Tyler Smith) shoots doesn't go in and we win the game, I couldn't have talked to these guys," Calipari said. "The issues we're having with rebounding, the issues with intensity of play and scrappiness, the issues with execution, they wouldn't have listened to me. No way."

Where Calipari expects his players to use the loss as a learning experience was how they reacted to the pressure and hype of a game that was unlike anything they had been through before. The buildup, he said, was even more extreme than a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight game, where the national focus isn't quite as intense on one game as it was for a week leading up to the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup against Tennessee.

Calipari said the hype may have "paralyzed" some players, and he saw the trouble right from the start. Just 10 seconds into the game, in fact, Smith got a step on Dozier and drew a foul. When his second free throw clanked off the back of the rim, the 6-9 Dozier failed to box out 6-foot-2 guard JuJuan Smith. Then, after Dozier blocked a follow-up shot, three Memphis players missed on securing the loose rebound. Eventually, the ball was kicked out to the corner, where Smith buried a 3-pointer and forced Calipari to use a quick timeout.

Still, the Vols got the majority of loose balls after that and had 19 offensive rebounds, indicating they were the more desperate team. Meanwhile, on offense, Memphis never got into second, third and fourth drives within its offense. Taking 20 shots from 3-point range in the first half was not part of the gameplan, but the Tigers had no motion away from the ball, and it became a one-pass-and-shoot offense.

"We know we got out-scrapped a little bit," junior guard Antonio Anderson said. "We got out-worked a little bit, out-hustled to balls, and coach told us it was going to come down to who scraps more, and they did it.

"It's tough. You win almost 50 (home) games in a row, and you don't know what losing feels like. That's just how it is. We're definitely not used to it, and it hurt us a little bit."

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365.

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