By Jake Lawhead
"Defense Wins Championships." Regardless of the sport, the maxim is repeated over and over. From little league to the NBA, coaches and players will swear that defense is the key to winning games. To many of them it's merely lip service. Not at the U of M.
Coach John Calipari and his staff like to show players off the bat that their system is indeed centered on defense.
"What I'm trying to convince them of is that if we'll guard, we'll have a chance to win every game we play and the teams we're supposed to beat we'll beat," says Calipari. "If you don't guard and rebound, it's a crap shoot."
Practices have been suited for those who only want to play offense. After the routine shoot-around and team stretching, conditioning and defense commence. Offense doesn't factor into the equation unless it is combined with either defensive work or conditioning.
"The great thing about defense is that you don't have to be a skilled player; it's about what kind of condition you're in," Calipari adds. "The best defensive players end up playing for me. If you can't guard, then you're going to be a backup."
This might come as a bit of a surprise to some of the team's newcomers, especially those coming from the often offense-centered high school environment. As the consensus national high school player of the year, DaJuan Wagner was certainly more known for his offense, and he says he's had to make an adjustment. "The whole practice is based on defense, and in high school it wasn't anything like that," says Wagner. "I'm doing all right though, everything has been going well."
Newcomer Anthony Rice says that while he was looked to for scoring, defense was something on which he and his high school team placed a large emphasis. "I'm actually used to it. That's the way we used to do it at my high school. But it's different here because the players are so much taller and longer," says Rice. "Defense is all everybody talks about, and I think we're going to be real good defensively."
One doesn't have to look much further than a couple of last year's pivotal games to understand why this year's team is placing so much emphasis on defense. In the Tigers' 65-66 home loss against Cincinnati, defensive breakdowns allowed Steve Logan to score 18 second-half points. Another breakdown gave Kenny Satterfield the room to knock down the game-winning shot with one second remaining.
Against Marquette, poor perimeter defense was the Tigers' downfall. Cordell Henry and sharpshooter Brain Wardle combined for 40 points. Henry's penetrating drives enabled him to get to the foul line twice in the closing minute to seal the win for Marquette.
"Last year our defense was pretty good, but we weren't where we needed to be physically, so oftentimes we broke down," says Calipari.
Have the Tigers learned from last year's mistakes? Can they be in good-enough condition to play the kind of defense needed to win the conference? If not, it certainly won't be for lack of practice.
"I think we are going to be pretty good defensively," says Calipari. "But I still want to know when we have 20,000 people in the seats and the game is on national television and people are yelling, 'Shoot it,' how are they going to play then?"
By Chris Przybyszewski
Last Saturday's University of Memphis homecoming game was special to me. Not because I am a Memphis alum but because Dennis Freeland -- longtime beat writer for the Tigers and former captain of the Flyer -- took a trip out of his house after weeks of radiation therapy to see his favorite team play. The best part is that Dennis sat right next to me in the press box.
Now understand that Dennis knows something about Tiger football, to put it mildly. He digs out all the little things about a team and he is always right. He takes a thousand individual events and pulls them together with an insight that explains a winning streak, or why a coach should or should not be fired, or why a team might win. Or lose.
As Dennis settled down in his chair to watch the Tigers play UAB, he nonchalantly handed me a small pouch with a Velcro fastener. "Use these if you want to," he said. The request was akin to Joe Montana saying to a rookie, "Hey, maybe you should tie your cleats." Inside the pouch I found a pair of binoculars about the size of my palm. The glasses didn't really have that much power, but the double magnification allowed the viewer to get up close and personal with a player or two on the field.
I first thought I might miss the forest for the trees. Football is a full-field game. Watching a couple players at a time won't do, I thought. That's why God created those big windows in the press box. However, this was Dennis, and arguing seemed like a bad idea. Not because he's a mean guy; Dennis is just always right.
The Tigers had a first and 10 in the second quarter. Through the binoculars I watched UAB defensive tackle Rodney Jones blow through Tiger offensive lineman Joey Gerda. Jones then proceeded to knock Memphis' star tailback, Dante Brown, on his rear for a one-yard loss. That Jones tackled Brown is no big deal; such things happen. That Jones shrugged off Gerda like a child was downright troubling.
I know Coach Tommy West saw the play as well. He saw that play and many more like it as UAB's defense, ranked second in the nation against the rush, stopped Memphis' running game cold. And Dennis' binoculars showed me why.
UAB had defensive linemen who shrugged off the U of M offensive line and went after the ball. This led to a pivotal decision late in the fourth quarter. The Tigers were on UAB's 23-yard line and behind by three points. It was fourth down and little more than a yard to go. The Tiger offense and reserve quarterback Neil Suber had just moved the ball 77 yards on 14 plays for a touchdown only seven minutes earlier.
But -- because of what I saw through those simple little glasses -- I knew that Coach West wouldn't go for the first down. He had to settle for hoping that Memphis' kicking team could tie the game, giving the chance to win it in overtime. I knew, because I saw what West saw all game long: His offensive line just couldn't stop the UAB defense.
West spins the situation like this: "It was fourth and more than one. We had really not struggled in the field-goal area. You've got to give your guys a chance. As a head coach I am never going to do something crazy and not give our team a chance to win." The choice, of course, was a "chance" to win on a 41-yard field goal or trying to punch the ball for a yard and change for a first down.
"I had already gone for it at fourth-and-two and we got thrown for a loss," West says of an earlier situation. "Hindsight is 20-20, but I think the right thing to do was kick the field goal." And West was right. The field goal attempt at least gave the Tigers a chance. Granted, the special teams blew that one too, but West couldn't have seen that one coming. No one could have.
Except maybe Dennis.
Apparently University of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino and local activist Heidi Shafer have been talking. According to the AP, Pitino favors a referendum for getting Louisville the NBA Charlotte Hornets. "If that's what [voters] want, I'm behind it 100 percent," Pitino said. "It's going to hurt us, but so be it." Pitino says a professional basketball team just won't work with a nationally prominent college squad in a city the size of Louisville. "You're going to spend about $5,000 [on NBA season tickets] for two seats, not including playoffs,'' he said. "What happens? You're going to have to make a choice and somebody gets hurt ... ."
Who was that tall guy wrapped in the stars and stripes at the big outdoor Halloween party on Stonewall last Saturday night? If you guessed Grizzlies rookie Shane Battier, you're right. Battier waited in line for keg beer, too, just like everybody else. Too bad no one told him it was a costume party.
The U of M has sold out its 2001-02 basketball season. Memphis sold 17,432 season tickets, breaking the record of 14,500 set in 1991-92. The remaining 2,572 tickets are allotted to students. This means the waiting list that was so prevalent in the 1970s has now been reactivated. Obviously, the Grizzlies haven't affected Tiger basketball too much. Yet.
Former Hamilton High star and Vanderbilt Commodore Billy Richmond has decided to transfer to the U of M and join the basketball Tigers as a walk-on. Richmond was dismissed from the Vanderbilt team by Coach Kevin Stallings for unspecified reasons. Richmond will begin practicing with the team when he enrolls in January and will become eligible in December 2002.
"This hurts. This hurts a lot." -- Memphis Tigers football coach Tommy West on his team's loss to C-USA foe UAB. The Tigers still have an outside shot at a bowl bid this year. If TCU, UAB, and Southern Mississippi all lose out, Memphis can make the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl. Talk about high aspirations.