By Chris Przybyszewski
With only 10 seconds left in game seven of the 2007 NBA finals, the Grizzlies are down by a point to the Chicago Bulls. Griz guard Jason Williams steals the ball from Bulls forward Eddy Curry, sprints up court and finds his favorite target, NBA regular-season MVP Pau Gasol ...
Hey, we can dream, can't we.
A rash of Grizzlies injuries has pushed guard Williams and rookie forward Gasol to the fore, and for the most part they've responded admirably. Some are even daring to wonder if they could be the second coming of Utah's John Stockton and Karl Malone.
That's certainly a stretch at this point, but there is some merit to the optimism. Gasol is paying off in a big way already, leading the league's rookies in a number of statistical categories. This while the 21-year-old is just beginning to learn the NBA game. He still misses defensive and rebounding assignments and his 220-pound, seven-foot frame looks more suited to replacing light bulbs on the Pyramid ceiling than playing power forward. But the guy is already a force on this team. That could mean big things for Memphis' NBA future.
Also encouraging is the way Williams seems to be maturing. He has cut down on his three-point attempts and toned down the fourth-quarter passing pyrotechnics that landed him on the bench in Sacramento. Williams has been instrumental in the Grizzlies' five wins this season, and that's a good thing, especially with the team missing injured starters Michael Dickerson, Lorenzen Wright, and Stromile Swift.
The Williams/Gasol combination is an odd one, though. Williams is defiant and stand-offish. His sometimes brilliant, sometimes erratic play-making abilities contrast with Gasol's seeming innocence.
Gasol's performance would be considered solid for any player, much less a rookie. Still, the All-Star break is still two months away. There is a lot of basketball to be played and Gasol will need to show he has the endurance to handle the rigors of an 80-game schedule. There's nothing to indicate that he can't, he just hasn't. Yet. And the Spaniard will have to adapt to remain a threat, as teams begin to double-team and adjust defenses to his style of play. Once the secret is out, Gasol will need to raise his game even more to progress.
With Williams, consistency is the key. The Grizzlies turned heads when they signed the guard to a six-year, $43 million extension while he still had one year left on his original contract. But that price isn't out of line for the NBA and he remains movable if the team should change its plans. That could be as soon as one poor season for Williams and a draft full of good point guards. In fact, the upcoming draft features a number of excellent candidates at the point, including another Jason Williams, Shane Battier's former Duke teammate and the current leader of the country's number-one college team.
Back to now. So what do Gasol and Williams have to say about each other?
Gasol speaks in terms of getting his game up for Williams each night. "We're doing pretty good," he says. "I'm looking for him, he's looking for me. The guy is a bullet, his passes are so fast." So fast that only a few games ago Williams' passes were bouncing off of Gasol's hands and Williams was telling head coach Sidney Lowe that he wouldn't throw anything Gasol's way. That attitude has since changed, but Gasol still seems somewhat hesitant about everything.
Williams is more direct. "I don't buy into that learning-how-to-play bullshit," he says. "We're in the NBA. We should be able to play with anyone in the world." For Williams, it's all about playing basketball. If he makes a pass, he expects his teammate to catch it. Period. Gasol is just another target, not a touchy-feely soulmate.
But for the faithful, there's always the dream ... Williams and Gasol, life-long friends and teammates, embrace at center court. The championship is theirs at last.
by Jake Lawhead
Regardless of the reason -- lack of execution, poor coaching, the alignment of the stars -- some teams just simply don't get it done. Local fans didn't have to look very far to find two teams who simply didn't get it done this past weekend.
John Calipari and his U of M Tigers had mixed reactions to the preseason expectations that surrounded their team. Some were excited that the program was receiving recognition for last year's accomplishments and a great recruiting class. Others knew that with the Tigers' tough out-of-conference schedule, potential would have to be realized quickly.
"I don't like the word 'talent,'" said Calipari. "Talent gets rebounds and scores baskets. What we have is potential." John Calipari had used a variation of those words earlier this year. He repeated them Friday night after a heartbreaking 71-67 loss to Ole Miss in Oxford.
Memphis' potential was regarded so favorably that they began the year ranked 13th in the country by the media and 12th by the coaches. Before Friday night, they had sunk to 22nd in the country after two losses to ranked opponents Alabama and Iowa.
Ole Miss was a team with no national ranking and had already suffered unlikely home losses to George Mason and Bowling Green.
But Calipari's demeanor in the postgame news conference was surprisingly upbeat. "This is the hardest my team has played," he said. "This is the most we have competed; this is the most intensity we have shown. I am ecstatic. I am mad we lost. But I'm not mad at how we played."
But what happened? Why did the Tigers fail to hold on to an eight-point first-half lead? "We just didn't get it done in the end," said DaJuan Wagner, who led the team with 25 points on 6-of-20 shooting. "We need to learn how to finish teams off."
More importantly, the Tigers need to fulfill their potential. And soon. The U of M now has three losses on the year, two of which came against ranked opponents. Looking at the schedule ahead, it is unlikely the Tigers will face another ranked opponent again until conference play begins.
Tennessee (December 15th), Temple (December 20th), and Arkansas (January 5th) are currently unranked. Marquette is the only Conference USA team ranked in the Top 25. Even if the Tigers win every other non-conference game, a weak schedule could hurt come tournament time.
Speaking of hurting ... Ever wonder what it would be like to have to cancel reservations in Pasadena and post your newly puchased Rose Bowl tickets for sale on e-Bay? Just ask some Vol fans. UT surprised everyone and did exactly what they were not supposed to do: They overlooked LSU in the SEC championship game and gift-wrapped a trip to Pasadena for Nebraska, single-handedly making the BCS look like the largest conspiracy since J.F.K.
Tennessee lost a 17-7 halftime lead and gave up 24 second-half points to -- get this -- Matt Mauck and Domanick Davis! Unless you are an SEC football junkie or a member of the media, you would have probably never heard of the LSU backup quarterback and running back. But the Vols won't soon forget either one.
"I don't think we executed well the entire game. We had flashes or streaks, of being ourselves, but we catch or throw or run, or do anything well," said coach Phil Fulmer. "We just couldn't get it done."
Even knocking quarterback Rohan Davey and All-SEC tailback LaBrandon Toefield out of the game couldn't help the Volunteers win their third SEC championship and a chance for their second national championship of the Fulmer era. The Vols sabotaged themselves with turnovers from veterans Travis Stephens and Donte Stallworth, which LSU converted into 15 points.
Okay, okay. But what really happened?
Said Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen -- who finished with 27-of-43 passes for 332 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions -- "We just couldn't get it done."
"I can't believe it. We just didn't do the job." -- Tennessee running back Travis Stephens on his team's 31-20 loss to LSU in the SEC championship game.
"I was a little nervous at first but just tried to remain as calm as possible and not lose the game for us." -- LSU backup quarterback and freshman Matt Mauck on his performance after starter Rohan Davey went down with injury. Mauck would end the game with 67 yards passing, 43 yards rushing, and two rushing touchdowns.
"I am just for a little more integrity in the system we have now." -- Colorado coach and BCS proponent Gary Barnett on his squad's being left out of the national championship game with Miami. In Colorado's place is Nebraska, a team Colorado beat 62-36.
The Memphis Grizzlies have entered the world of the bobble-head! The oddly persistent sports marketing phenomenon debuts at The Pyramid on January 19th, when 4,000 young fans will receive a Lorenzen Wright bobble-head doll. Bobbles for Stromile Swift, Jason Williams, Shane Battier, Pau Gasol, and Michael Dickerson are scheduled for various games later in the year.
Here's a daunting stat. Under John Calipari, the U of M Tigers have compiled a record of 1-9 against non-CUSA opponents from the country's "power conferences" (ACC, SEC, Big 10, A-10, Pac 10, Big 12). Their lone win? Last December against Kansas State.