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Sunday, April 06, 2008

SI.com's Luke Winn - Once Again, Behold The Memphis Machine

4/05/2008 11:31:00 PM
Once Again, Behold The Memphis Machine

SAN ANTONIO -- Kevin Love was knocked backward, 271 pounds of UCLA All-American tumbling to the ground, as Chris Douglas-Roberts soared over him, 200 pounds of Memphis All-American throwing down a back-door, baseline slam in a Final Four duel that was getting out of hand. Awe-inspiring athleticism, for the umpteenth time on Saturday, was winning out over grit, and Douglas-Roberts screamed as Love picked himself up off the floor. The score was 61-52, with 4:52 left on the clock, and Tigers forward Robert Dozier said he thought to himself, "The game's over."

This one, which finished 78-63, was over long before Douglas-Roberts finished with 28 points and Love just 12. It was over long before Memphis' Derrick Rose and Love, two likely one-and-done freshman, met near the end of the handshake line, one of them moving on to a title-game date with Kansas, the other moving on toward his fate in the NBA Draft. No matter who has been in the way over the past three games, they have seemed helpless in the face of the Memphis machine. Rose, who had 25 points of his own, said after the game that the victory had not yet sunk in, but it didn't need to: "Going into the game, we knew that we was gonna win," he explained, "So [there] ain't too much to say."

There are a few important things to know about this Tigers team: They weren't this good in February, when they lost their only one of 39 games this season, at home to Tennessee, and sat sulking in their locker room afterwards. They weren't even this good at the beginning of March, when they let a bad Southern Miss team play them to within nine in Hattiesburg. And they weren't even this good in the second round of this NCAA tournament, when they let eighth-seeded Mississippi State take them to the wire in North Little Rock, Ark.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has a saying, which he used after losing to Louisville in the Sweet 16, that "the cream rises to the top at tournament time." And whereas Memphis' cream -- its peerless point guard (Rose), its slippery wing scorer (Douglas-Roberts) and its enigmatic board-cleaner (Joey Dorsey) -- was still mixed up in the middle when it suffered its one blemish against the Vols, it rose upon reaching the Sweet 16 last week. In Houston the Tigers made Michigan State look like a 16 seed rather than a five; they made Texas look not like the Big 12 regular season co-champ, but like a bubble team from Conference USA. And in San Antonio on Saturday, they made a fellow No. 1 seed, UCLA, look not like an equal but rather just another team that did not know what hit them.

"At this stage," said Love, "I feel like Memphis is definitely the best team we've played."

Dropping 28 points on UCLA had to be especially sweet for Douglas-Roberts, who had one of his worst games as a freshman in Memphis' Elite Eight loss to the Bruins. Coach John Calipari had said of the then-180-pound CDR, "Physically, he couldn't play [in that game]." In this Final Four he not only stayed on the court for the second-most minutes of any Tiger (35), he had four more points than Bruins guards Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook combined.

Rose, who has been the most unstoppable player of the entire dance, actually made Collison look slow on Saturday -- and considering that UCLA's point guard is the son of two Guyanese track stars, this was no small feat. It was almost as if Rose was toying with the entire Bruins team; he said he could see they were "fatigued" because "I just keep pushing the ball."

Collison fouled out with 2:53 left in the game and just two points to his name, which would be a sad end to his college career if he chooses to turn pro later this month. Rose was not the nation's best point guard as of even three weeks ago, but in his past two games, he has 46 points and 13 assists. Against him, the two point guards on most All-America teams, Texas' D.J. Augustin and Collison, finished with 18 points and seven assists combined.

Glue guy Antonio Anderson has been peaking along with Rose, but in far quieter fashion. Anderson was the one responsible for cutting off UCLA's head on the defensive end. "We put 'Tone on [Collison]; he's been locking all the great point guards in this tournament," said Douglas-Roberts. "We wanted to make it hard on Collison, because he's the key to their team. He gets Kevin going, he gets Shipp going, he gets all of them going."

Extreme pressure on Collison meant that Love -- who carried UCLA here in much the same fashion that Rose did with Memphis -- didn't even get his hands on the ball enough to make a game-changing impact. Dorsey, who finished with 15 rebounds to Love's nine, was a physical force inside, but he played only 27 minutes; while he was on the bench, Shawn Taggart and Robert Dozier employed a swarming, double-teaming tactic that gave Love fits.

"I guess [Love] had never played against a team as athletic and long as us," said Taggart. "He was frustrated. ... I've seen him play [in games] when he got the ball 20 times, and I think he only got it about six today."

Dozier admitted that Memphis' game plan had been not even to guard auxiliary big men such as Alfred Aboya, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute or Lorenzo Mata-Real. The Tigers' post defenders were strictly assigned to the task of keeping Love uncomfortable.

Calipari has required that Dorsey, his sometimes-headcase-of-a-big-man, write stories before every game since Senior Night on March 8, in order to envision a positive outcome before he takes the floor. The one Joey wrote -- or at least said he did -- before Saturday's game was titled No Love For UCLA. In it, Dorsey said he addressed Memphis' loss to UCLA in the 1973 title game -- and more importantly, the fact that he wanted to hold Love below a double-double. "He got it, though," Dorsey half-lamented as he strode down the hallway away from the Tigers' locker room.

Love actually didn't get it -- he was one rebound short -- but those were just details. The real story was that Memphis would be playing in the title game on Monday night, and that the favorite coming into the dance, UCLA, was bounced from the Final Four for a third straight season.

It was still shocking, in the aftermath, to consider just how little the Bruins' defense had done to slow down the Tigers in a 15-point loss, by far UCLA's worst of the season. It took until well after the game for the Bruins to do any real damage, and only when the golf cart that Dorsey, Rose and Douglas-Roberts were riding in away from their press-conference came upon one carrying Love and Collison, going the other direction.

The NCAA official driving the Memphis cart veered off the carpeted path to make room, and in the process slammed Dorsey's right knee into a pole. He cried out in pain, half-jokingly, but the Bruins players were not amused. They, as the real victims of a Saturday-night rout, rode off silently down the hall.

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