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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Fox Sport's Mark Kriegel - Memphis makes statement by handling UCLA

Memphis makes statement by handling UCLA
by Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

Updated: April 5, 2008, 11:12 PM EST 160 comments add this RSS blog email print

SAN ANTONIO - A couple years ago, Memphis lost to UCLA in the regional final 50-45. This time, with a chance at the championship at stake, Memphis led by 50-45 with 13:35 still to play.

Truth is, it didn't seem nearly that close by then. Five points didn't begin to describe the disparity between these two teams. For most of the night, it felt as if all that stood between UCLA and a brand of ignominy unaccustomed to most Bruins fans was a sophomore named Russell Westbrook.

By both reputation and proclamation, Westbrook is the best defender in the Pac-10. The day before, on a Southwest flight from Los Angeles, I asked his father how that had happened. Russell Sr., whose own career never advanced beyond pickup games at Compton's Ross Snyder playground, spoke of his son's capacity to punish himself with endless sets of dips and chin-ups at the same park.

"The boy built himself up," the elder Westbrook said.

There was a proud father, and nothing his son did — or didn't do — in Saturday's 78-63 defeat should diminish that pride. Darren Collison, UCLA's point guard and second leading scorer, had a night he'll try to forget. Kevin Love, the first-team All-American center, had a difficult time getting the ball on the blocks. Josh Shipp seemed absent for long stretches. But Westbrook kept attacking the basket, trying his best to remain undiscouraged in the face of increasingly severe odds.

He'd finish with 22 of the Bruins' 63 points. But with 3:44 remaining, he drove right at Memphis' Joey Dorsey, who goes roughly the same size as the Cleveland Cavaliers' Ben Wallace. Dorsey threw the shot away.

Not long after that, I thought I saw the slightest slouch creep across Westbrook's shoulders. It was as if he had finally come to understand that nothing he could do — certainly no amount of dips or chin-ups — would change the outcome.

Derrick Rose, probably the most talented player in this tournament, promptly ran the ball up court and converted a spectacular scooping layup.

"Every time we took quick shots, they got fast-break baskets and hurt us," Westbrook said. "Great players. They were getting to the ball faster than we were."

Rose and his backcourt mate, Chris Douglas-Roberts, scored 25 and 28 points, respectively. Together, they were 20-for-23 from the line, taking all of Memphis' foul shots. To watch them was to wonder how many NBA teams have better backcourts. Throw in Joey Dorsey, and it was as if UCLA had been spanked by the Detroit Pistons.

"I feel like they're the most athletic team in the country," Love said. "Definitely the most athletic team we've faced."

"I have a good team," said Memphis coach John Calipari, displaying his little known talent for understatement.

The theory that Memphis was overrated, racking up the bulk of its 37 wins in an inferior conference, can now be put to rest. Conference USA might not be so tough, but Calipari's squad most certainly is. Actually, they made the Pac-10's best team look like another league opponent.

Going into the game, it was assumed that Memphis was the deeper team. It was also supposed that UCLA had an advantage in coaching, as Ben Howland teaches team defense as well as anyone in the country. When asked about that Saturday night, Calipari deadpanned: "I don't think Ben is that bad."

Calipari is one of the great hustlers in college basketball. But give him and his team their respect. To this point, they've had a better run through the tournament than any of the collegiate aristocracies to have arrived here for the Final Four. They didn't need lucky calls, or as was the case with UCLA and Texas A&M, non-calls. They didn't grant underdogs false hope. Rather, in their last three games they beat Michigan State, Texas and now UCLA by an average margin of 16.

"Going into the game, we knew that we was going to win so there isn't much to say," Rose said.

"Every game, we expect to win," Douglas-Roberts said. "A lot of teams try to run on us because they can't prepare for our athletes in practice."

You don't have to like Memphis. But you have to like their chances Monday night against Kansas. Don't take my word for it. Ask Russell Westbrook.

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