You gotta wonder how John Calipari enjoyed today’s broadcast of the Tigers and UMass from Boston. The timing couldn’t have been better. Two days after Hall of Fame coach Bobby Knight called into question the integrity of college sports — the focus of his ire on Calipari being employed at Kentucky after putting two programs “on probation” — the two programs Calipari led to the Final Four faced one another on the floor normally occupied by the Boston Celtics.
With all the discussion of Calipari’s impact on the two teams — each now coached by former assistants of his — you’d think he brought the sport to UMass and Memphis, that he was to the Minutemen and Tigers as Gene Bartow is to UAB. But a guy named Julius Erving played at UMass before John Calipari first wore a tie. Larry Finch and Penny Hardaway did their thing in Memphis before local fans could pronounce Calipari’s name properly.
And the programs live on in his aftermath, however soiled.
A few observations from tonight’s heartbreaker, lost when a loose-ball wound up in the hands of Massachusetts forward Terrell Vinson, whose bucket with under a second to play was the game’s 19th and final lead change.
• On the subject of moving on — pay attention to this, Cal — the Tigers were in this game solely because of their free-throw shooting. They shot 36 percent from the field, were more than doubled in interior scoring, and missed 17 of 25 three-point attempts. But Memphis made its foul shots. Will Coleman(!), Willie Kemp, Elliot Williams, and Wesley Witherspoon were a combined 18 for 18. Tough loss to take, but this is an area that can and will win games for a team as lacking in depth as the Tigers.
• Bad news on the offensive end was Elliot Williams’ first sub-par game of the season (only 3 of 12 from the field, 2 of 8 from long distance). Good news, though, was the emergence of Doneal Mack: 23 points (which tied his career high) and four treys. Among the team’s three seniors, Mack can be the biggest difference-maker if his shooting can gain consistency. A performance like tonight’s — on national television, in hostile territory — may be the launching point for Mack’s final college season.
• If there was any doubt left about the Tigers’ Achilles heel, tonight’s game swept them away. It’s interior scoring. Coleman and Pierre Henderson-Niles were limited to 16 minutes each by foul trouble, but when they were on the floor they managed a total of four shots (and only one make, by Henderson-Niles). With the Minutemen’s Vinson, Sean Carter, and even former Tiger Hashim Bailey filling space down low, the Tigers’ were unable to get any easy buckets, on drives from their perimeter players, but especially from the two big men who will play the most minutes in the post this season. If you want to lose some sleep tonight, consider the missed chances — however few — that would have made the difference in the Tigers’ favor. (Willie Kemp’s blown layup just before halftime and a miss from point-blank range by Henderson-Niles in the second half will appear between the sheep I’m counting.)
• The final score won’t bother coach Josh Pastner nearly as much as the rebounding totals: UMass 39 (17 offensive), Memphis 22. Size has much to do with rebounding ability, but so does effort. Reduce an opponent’s second-chance points and you’re a step closer to a victory. Even from the comfort of his living room in Lexington, a certain coach with his imprint all over TD Garden tonight would admit as much.