Monday, November 24, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: West's Grid Warriors Still Reaching for a Hail Mary

Posted By on Mon, Nov 24, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The good news last Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is that the Memphis Tigers scored 21 points against the top-ranked defense in Conference USA. The bad news, of course, is that the U of M gave up 21 points to a UCF offense ranked dead last in C-USA. Add in a 26-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Knight linebacker Derrick Hallman and the result is a 28-21 UCF victory, leaving Memphis with a record of 5-6, this Saturday's game with Tulane being the Tigers' final chance at gaining bowl eligibility for the fifth time in six seasons.

"We helped them to 14 points in the first half," mused Tiger coach Tommy West after the game, "and that ended up being the reason we didn't win the game. I'm disappointed that we made the errors early in the game that put us behind."

The errors West spoke of were made by Tiger quarterback Arkelon Hall, who had been on the sidelines since breaking his thumb at East Carolina more than a month earlier. In fairness, though, Hall's first "error" was committed not with the arm that earned him a scholarship, but with his right foot. After Brent Sutherland shanked his first punt of the game, West entrusted Hall with the fourth-down duty, even with the Tigers deep in their own territory. The ensuing "pooch" kick met the backside of a Tiger lineman and deflected toward the Tiger end zone. Four plays later, Knight quarterback Rob Calabrese connected with Ricky Kay for a 7-0 UCF lead, one the Tigers couldn't close for the rest of the game. (Hall's second miscue of the quarter was that fumble that resulted in a 14-0 deficit, still not 10 minutes into the game.)

Other than a perfectly thrown 54-yard touchdown to Duke Calhoun (also in the first quarter), the game was entirely forgettable for Hall. With three 350-yard games already on his resume, Hall misfired on 20 of 35 attempts, compiling only 183 yards through the air. "I knew defensively that they're good," said West, "and yards were hard to come by. [Hall] made a couple of bad throws I was really disappointed in. And he missed [Earnest Williams] across the middle for a touchdown. Now, he certainly helped us running the ball. But I'm not going to sit here and act like that was his best game."

When asked if Hall's thumb had bothered him, West dismissed the notion as a possible excuse, and he rejected the thought of replacing hall with Brett Toney, the primary stand-in in Tiger wins over Southern Miss and SMU. "Brett's just not that kind of guy," said West. "When you have to start coming back in a game, I don't think that's Brett's deal."

UCF has become an annual nemesis for the Tigers. Sharing a home in C-USA's East Division with Memphis, the Knights have now won four straight over the U of M. And this was a team that entered the Liberty Bowl with a record of 3-7 and postseason eligibility an afterthought. The Tigers outgained the visitors, 305 yards to 194, and ran 74 plays compared with 59 for UCF. But Memphis converted merely four of 16 third-down plays, shortening drives on an afternoon when the ball quite literally bounced the wrong way for a home crowd that numbered but 18,836.

"We had plenty of chances," noted West. "We helped them a lot today. We spotted them 14 points. You can cut it any way you want to, but that's why we lost the game."

Back to the good news. Saturday's guest will be the 2-9 Tulane Green Wave, a team that has lost seven straight and given up at least 35 points in their last five contests (while scoring as many as 20 in only one of those). The Tigers have won four straight in this series, and a fifth would end their regular season at 6-6. Conference USA's bowl partners include the Armed Forces Bowl (Forth Worth, Texas), the Texas Bowl (Houston), and the inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl, each a destination that would be welcomed by a team that, after 11 games, is caught between the bad news of disappointment and the good news of opportunity.

Monday, November 17, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: The '08-'09 Tigers Are Off and Running!

Posted By on Mon, Nov 17, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The Memphis Tigers raised the lid on the 2008-09 basketball season Saturday night with a 90-63 victory over Fairfield (a team expected to contend in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) at FedExForum. As with any opening night, the game was packaged with first impressions. Some of these are worth noting -- and pocketing -- for the four months ahead.

• Seniors Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozer are the decorated leaders of this team, and freshman Tyreke Evans will steal many of the headlines with his ability to score, but if you want to trace the arc of the season ahead, you'd do well to follow the progress of juniors Willie Kemp and Shawn Taggart.

Back in the starting lineup after a one-year apprenticeship under Derrick Rose, Kemp played 20 minutes Saturday night (after averaging under 14 as a sophomore). He dished out five assists (with only one turnover) and picked up four steals. As for Taggart, the Tigers' starting center played 26 minutes (after averaging 17 a year ago), scoring 14 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.

Elevated play from Kemp and Taggart will raise the Memphis ship in ways the more known variables can't. Particularly on defense, Taggart will combine with Pierre Henderson-Niles as a tandem replacement for Joey Dorsey in the pivot. Henderson-Niles wasn't as active on the boards against Fairfield as he'll need to be (only two rebounds), but he ran the floor better than he ever has, at one point putting a charge into the crowd by sprinting back to deflect a fullcourt pass that might have otherwise been an easy Stag layup.

"Shawn's longer than I am," noted Henderson-Niles. "He blocks shots, but I'm stronger on the inside. We just have to work together, doing what we do. I think we can hold it down." weighing in at 300 pounds, Henderson-Niles says he has three more to lose in an effort to reach the preseason goal established by Tiger coach John Calipari.

"For Shawn and Pierre," emphasized Calipari after the game, "it's about sustaining the effort for 40 minutes [between them]."

• The most anticipated debut of the evening was that of Tiger swingman Evans, this year's "freshman phenom." Having missed 10 of 12 workouts (including the team's only exhibition game) with an ankle injury and stomach ailment, Evans rose from the bench three minutes into the game and was welcomed to the floor by a roar from the 17,741 in attendance. For the record, Evans' first Tiger points came on a slashing layup a minute-and-a-half later, following a fastbreak feed from Antonio Anderson.

Evans went on to lead Memphis with 19 points in 24 minutes of action. But it was a quiet 19, with nary a dunk or three-pointer. Particularly near the basket, Evans showed an acumen for finishing, converting seven of 12 field-goal attempts (and five of seven from the free-throw stripe). His endurance was compromised by the recent time away, with cramps forcing him to the bench at one point in the second half. Calipari explained after the game that he brought Evans off the bench because he was convinced he'd exhaust himself if exposed to the quick pace of a game's start.

Look for Evans to be in the starting lineup in the very near future, with closer to 30 minutes on his postgame stat line. In size, appearance, and scoring ability, Evans calls to mind Bernard King, the former Tennessee All-America who had a long and successful career as a scorer in the NBA.

• I asked Kemp and Henderson-Niles about the impact of the new three-point line (a foot deeper than it was a year ago), and if the extension might actually help the Tigers' motion offense, as zone defenses -- like the one played by Fairfield -- might have to stretch further to contest Memphis shooters. While Kemp emphasized that this will be the case only if shooters are on target, Henderson-Niles added some perspective from the interior. "We have great shooters," he said, "so if defenses pressure them, it opens the middle. They can flash to the middle, or it could leave the lane wide open and they can dump the ball off to a big man."

Sophomore guard Roburt Sallie -- a rookie in the Tiger program - drained two three-pointers early in the second half. If he can complement the long-distance shooting of Kemp, Anderson, Evans, and Doneal Mack (three treys Saturday night), the Tigers may well embrace that extra foot for the interior elbow room it ultimately provides.

Monday, November 10, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Tiger Basketball 2008-09 -- Back for More

Posted By on Mon, Nov 10, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Well, it took me precisely one sentence in writing about the 2008-09 University of Memphis basketball team to consider the impact of losing three stars from last year's Final Four squad.

As I've pondered angles for John Calipari's ninth season in Memphis -- one where he will officially become the most decorated and successful coach in the program's history -- the losses of Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Joey Dorsey (a trio that played fully 40 percent of the team's minutes a year ago and scored virtually half the points) continue to whisper in my brainstorming ear.

Because however you choose to forecast the season ahead -- one with a better than decent chance of another march through the NCAA tournament - those three missing pieces play a part. Here are four factors to chew on before the Tigers open the new campaign Saturday night at FedExForum. (And once the ball is tipped, last year's stars are indeed history.)

• Willie Kemp revisited. There's not another junior point guard in the country who didn't start a single game last season but is expected to make the kind of impact Kemp should this winter. Having started all but one game as a freshman -- and those Tigers went 33-4, remember -- Kemp handed over playmaking duties to Rose last season, stomaching a drop in minutes from 21.4 per game to 13.8. (Let's not forget, though, that Kemp hit four of five three-pointers against Mississippi State in the second round of last spring's NCAA tournament, or there would have been no Final Four appearance.) With freshman Tyreke Evans -- the highly acclaimed McDonald's All-America -- sharing the backcourt, Kemp will be a supplementary scorer. But with the number of rookies on this year's squad, his presence as a ball-handler and court general will be invaluable to Calipari.

"I've got to go out there and try my best to run this team," says Kemp. "I've got to talk more, watch film more. I've got to know where all my teammates should be on the floor. Last year, as a two guard, I had to develop my shot, but this year, I spent all summer working on my ball handling."

• Two starters, six rings. In this year's media guide, each returning player has his photo above a certain number of rings earned during his career as a Tiger. Under the portraits of both Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier there are three shiny (if black-and-white) jewels: two with "Elite Eight" engraved on them and another with "Final Four."

No Tiger player has been a part of more wins than the 126 Dorsey enjoyed. But with 23 this season, both Anderson and Dozier would surpass that lofty standard. (And consider the number: an average of more than 30 victories per season.) But the roles of Calipari's most prominent supporting players must change this year to reach the heights to which they've grown accustomed. For three years, Dozier and Anderson have deferred on offense to the likes of Rodney Carney, CDR, and Rose. On the defensive end, Dozier has played a critical role as a rebounder and shot-blocker, but he's always had Dorsey behind him as a goalkeeper of sorts. Having tested the NBA draft waters last spring, Dozier has a handle on what it will take for him to join his former teammates in the pros, and becoming a difference-maker -- at both ends of the floor -- will be essential.

As for Anderson, he'll join Dozier as a 1,000-point scorer before his final season is complete. But it's the little things -- big, in the eyes of his coaches -- that make Anderson the rudder of the Tiger ship, or the "glue" in modern hoop parlance. Anderson will guard the opponent's top scorer (unless he happens to be a center), he'll handle point-guard duties in a pinch, and he'll knock down open jumpers when teams sag into a zone defense. The statistic that speaks volumes about Anderson's value over the last three years is his assists-to-turnovers figure, which is well over two-to-one (371 assists to 161 turnovers). Perhaps the most significant preseason variable for this team is Anderson's health. Shin splints can be murder on glue's adhesiveness.

• Another one-year wonder. The most unfair comparisons you'll hear about this year's Tigers will be between Evans and Rose. Like Rose, Evans comes to Memphis with plenty of time in the national spotlight, and from a metropolis (Philadelphia) well beyond the reach of garden-variety regional recruiting. Like Rose, Evans is likely "one and done" as a college player. But while Evans is a gifted scorer, he's not the otherworldly athletic specimen Rose embodies, and not being a natural point guard, he won't impose himself on a game in as visible a manner as Rose so often did. If parallels are to be drawn, it would be more appropriate to view Evans as CDR's successor for this year's Tigers: a midsize (6'6") wing player who can score inside or outside, with the quickness and versatility to force turnovers on the defensive end.

• New blood, new energy. If there is any quality in running his basketball program that Calipari truly loathes, it's complacency. Nothing will land a player more firmly on the Memphis bench than body language that says "neutral." The sheer number of rookies in uniform for the 2008-09 Tigers should play a significant part in eliminating complacency, even when dry periods on the schedule -- the Tigers still play in Conference USA -- might otherwise lead to coasting by veterans who've seen brighter lights. For all its success over the last three seasons, the Tiger program is new to Tyreke Evans. It's virgin territory for C.J. Henry and Wesley Witherspoon, for Matt Simpkins, Roburt Sallie, and Angel Garcia. That's virtually half of Calipari's roster that has never so much as practiced at an NCAA tournament site. With apologies to William Faulkner, the past -- however glorious for the Memphis Tigers -- is indeed past.

"We're still looking for chemistry," says junior guard Doneal Mack, another veteran Calipari will be counting on to guide the way for the rookies. "We have people out there who are willing to work, but we break down more [than we should] defensively. We have players who don't know certain positions on the court and, being a motion offense, they have to know all the positions."

Calipari understands the challenges ahead are different from those he's seen in recent years. "I can't be telling everybody everything," he said after the November 4th exhibition against Christian Brothers University. "It's got to be somebody on the court doing it. It might be Antonio, it could be Willie. We're not going to be a team that's up 30 on people this year. We're gonna have to grind it out a little better, and be smarter.

"We have a good, an athletic team," he added. "They should be a great defensive team. Now, can someone lead, and give us that organization on the floor? That's where we have to get before February."

Monday, November 3, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Why Is this Man Smiling? Maybe Because His Griz Are Worth a Look

Posted By on Mon, Nov 3, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Whenever people have asked me about this year's Memphis Grizzlies, I've shared the same line: I'm not sure they'll be any better than last year's 22-60 squad, but they're already more interesting.

It's never fun seeing your team struggle, particularly over the course of a six-month, 82-game schedule, stuck in the crossfire of the NBA's Western Conference power elite. But there's nothing worse in sports than watching an aging team struggle, which is where the 2008-09 Grizzlies gain somewhat of a hall pass for the season ahead.

My colleague Chris Herrington did his usual bang-up job in forecasting what we might expect this winter from the NBA's third youngest team. (For one more dose of perspective, consider that the Grizzlies' entire starting lineup on opening night in Houston was younger than one Joey Dorsey, who sat on the Rockets' bench all 48 minutes last Wednesday.) With young athletes come expectations and, even better, hope. But not even the most optimistic of Griz fans could have expected double-doubles from both Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur in their professional debuts against one of the favorites to win this year's Western Conference title.

Then came Friday night at FedEx Forum. Thanks to some buzzer-beating trickery from Rudy Gay, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley received the sweetest treat he's enjoyed in at least two years. Down 10 points in the fourth quarter against an Orlando team bound for the playoffs, the Grizzlies -- vintage 2006-08 -- would have been dead and buried. But not on Halloween night, 2008. At the very least, the 16,000 fans who bought tickets to meet the likes of O.J. Mayo and Arthur are more inclined to do so again. And as for the team, let it be engraved in bronze that Rudy Gay is officially The Big Bear in these parts. (When Gay had an off night Saturday in Chicago, another old friend - Bulls rookie Derrick Rose -- stole the spotlight and helped his team pull away in the final quarter.)

When the Grizzlies arrived in Memphis for the 2001-02 season, there was excitement out of sheer novelty. But what made the team interesting that year were a couple of kids -- Pau Gasol and Shane Battier -- who managed to push aging vets like Nick Anderson, Grant Long, and Isaac Austin further down the bench. Those two rookies would later play central roles for three playoff teams. Here seven years later, there's another rookie Gasol in the mix, not to mention a first-year player (Arthur) who may grow into the same defensive presence Battier was for five years. Add these fairly unknown variables -- bursting with potential, based on their first weekend as professionals -- to the team's core of Gay, Mayo, and Mike Conley and this Grizzly squad becomes that much more, well, interesting than the inaugural Memphis team.

Beyond the starting lineup, these Grizzlies have what's come to be called "energy players" coming off the bench. Third-year pro Kyle Lowry is a push-the-pace point guard who won't allow opposing second units to take a breather when Conley sits. And Hakim Warrick may be second only to Gay when it comes to pure athleticism at either end of the floor. It's a team that is sure to struggle for stretches of the season (the upcoming four-game trip out west may be one). But it's also a team that appears to be energized by an us-against-the-world cohesiveness. Nothing bland -- nothing familiar, really -- about the 2008-09 Grizzlies squad.

You just have to wonder if the expectations -- heightened after the sizzling win in the home opener -- come with patience. Will these Grizzlies -- including second-year coach Marc Iavaroni -- get three years of support as they aim for playoff contention? Patience and youth, we all know, make strange bedfellows.

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