By Jake Lawhead
For most teams striving for a spot in the NCAA tournament's field of 64, 20 wins is the milestone that can make or break you. Twenty wins gets you in as long as your team belongs to a respectable conference and your nonconference foes don't all sound like points on a compass. But due to the U of M's lack of schedule strength, 22 wins has been the magic number most sports junkies have been pointing toward all year.
For those of you who quit counting somewhere between UAB and TCU, the Tigers have six games left, are undefeated in conference play (10-0), and are just two wins shy of post-season utopia. But if the team wants to do more than just get into the tournament, some tweaking is in order. Here are some needs to be addressed before tournament time:
Become a deeper ball-club. One of the main concerns coming into this year was getting the players to reach their potential individually and to learn to play together as a team. That seems to have happened, especially in the last couple of games. Only one problem: The goal has been achieved with basically seven guys. Teams that go deep into the tourney are often the deepest teams in terms of their roster.
Role players coming off of the bench need to start getting more minutes now, while conference play is still going on. If guys like Modibo Diarra, Duane Erwin, and Nathaniel Root are not battle-tested, the Tigers' depth will be suspect. Diarra and Erwin have both proven in the last couple of games that they can give quality minutes when needed.
Continue to improve team chemistry both on and off the floor. Team chemistry means so much more than what goes on while the team is on the floor. Dissension can keep teams from reaching their potential, and unfortunately it has a tendency to creep in late in the season, when players and coaches are mentally fatigued. Team leaders need to emerge with a newfound sense of purpose.
Chemistry on the floor can be improved as well. Big men need to continue to work down low, allowing guards to easily get them the ball. Guards need to handle pressure more effectively to give the team more chances for scoring. Little things can be important too: listening to each other in the huddles rather than just pumping each other up; reinforcing the goals that coach Cal and his staff have addressed in the locker room or in timeouts.
Shoot higher percentages. Sounds simple, but basketball still comes down to putting the ball in the basket, and better looks mean better percentages.
Lately, some of the Tigers have been in something of a slump. In his last three games, Scooter McFadgon has been ice-cold -- 7 of 26 from the field and 1 of 11 from behind the arc. The rest of the guards haven't been exactly lighting it up either. This can be attributed to a lot of things: rushing the shot, opposing defenses paying more attention to the Tigers' perimeter scoring. Better offensive possessions mean better opportunities to score. The team needs to focus on making each possession a good one.
Follow the game plan. Whether it's coach Cal or a member of his staff, players need to realize their coaches have been there before and they haven't. Good teams listen to their coach and believe he is guiding them in the right direction. Big games are nothing new to Calipari and his staff, and their preparation will be thorough.
By Chris Przybyszewski
Over halfway through the season, the Memphis Grizzlies seem to have little left in the tank. Multiple injuries, young players, constant losing, daily practice, and travel have worked together to create a squad that is struggling to finish games.
At the beginning of the season, head coach Sidney Lowe had trouble getting his players to execute down the stretch, which led to botched plays, missed defensive assignments, and general confusion. Those problems still exist but to a lesser extent. Now the problem is that the Grizzlies can't keep up physically with other teams in the fourth quarter.
After the Lakers game on February 1st, Lowe said, "I thought we played well for three quarters, or at least two quarters and 10 minutes. In that third quarter, we let them back into the ballgame. We were up nine points, had momentum going. But we made some substitutions and they got back into the ballgame quickly."
One of the key substitutions was for point guard Brevin Knight, who has been playing steady basketball, averaging 6.8 points and 5.4 assists per game with only 2.6 turnovers, since starter Jason Williams went down with minor toe surgery. "Brevin was tired in the third, that's why I took him out of the game," Lowe said. "I was going to play him the entire game. But he needed to come out."
In the two-and-a-half minutes Knight was out the Lakers eliminated a nine-point deficit, due mostly to back-to-back threes by Lakers back-up guard Derek Fisher. Fisher's defender, guard Willie Solomon, left Hunter wide open each time. Lowe said afterward: "The word was don't leave Fisher and we left him open a couple of times. I don't want to use that word 'frustrating,'" Lowe continued, "but you count on that guy you put in."
Lowe contends finishing a game is a matter of mental toughness. "[The Lakers] know what it takes," Lowe said. "They can get over even when they are tired because they are so strong mentally. They've learned to do that. With young teams, you're still learning to do that."
Knight took a different perspective. "It's a numbers game," he said. "We just don't have as many people as we would like to cut down on minutes and keep people fresh." However, Knight was not making an excuse. "The injuries we've had, we've had for a while," he added. "We need to make those adjustments."
In the other locker room, Fisher put the responsibility for the win on the Lakers, saying that offensive switches caused the Grizzlies to work harder to guard center Shaquille O'Neal, leaving holes in the defense. "I took advantage on offense when they were double-teaming Shaq down low," Fisher said.
In part, everyone is right. With injuries, the Grizzlies must rely too often on undeveloped talent in critical situations. That gives teams with deeper, more talented, and more experienced benches a tremendous advantage.
But all isn't bleak. Rookie forwards Shane Battier and Pau Gasol lead the squad in minutes played, and the two flourish on a nightly basis. Gasol was recently named the January Rookie of the Month for the Western Conference, his second such honor. Battier received the honor in December. Gasol has become the team's unlikely star, leading the squad in points per game (17.1) and ranking second in most rebounds per game (8.7).
Also refreshing are the attitudes that Battier and Gasol bring to the floor every night. As Battier said earlier in the season, "I'm 23 years old. I have no right to be tired." But 80-plus games can wear down the youngest bodies and exhaust players mentally.
Lowe hinted at just such a thing after the Grizzlies matchup with the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday at The Pyramid. The home team played terrible basketball, allowing the Hornets free rein on offense. Lowe wondered aloud whether players' extracurricular activities were involved. "Maybe we left it on the dance floor," Lowe said. "I would hope not." Asked to comment on their coach's remarks, Battier and Gasol showed wisdom far beyond their years and kept their mouths shut. Maybe the coach had mentioned his suspicions in the locker room or maybe the coach knew and the players didn't think that he knew. Or maybe the coach was just frustrated and needed a scapegoat.
At any rate, there is some relief in sight. Williams and center Lorenzen Wright look ready to make a return after the All-Star break. Fresh legs and veteran leadership will mean much to this team. The break, while only for a weekend, is critical, allowing tired players to get away from seeing the same faces and practice facilities day after day.
The road ahead doesn't get any easier. The Grizzlies still have over 30 games to play and this part of the season separates playoff squads from mediocre teams -- and mediocre teams from lottery-pick teams. Chances are that this squad will find its second wind and win a few more games, but only if Lowe can continue to keep the attention of his troops.
Grizzlies rookie Pau Gasol was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for January. The seven-footer averaged 20.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.87 blocks per game over the past 15 games. Gasol was also named Rookie of the Month for November. Both Gasol and fellow rookie Shane Battier will represent Memphis in the rookies game during All-Star weekend in Philadelphia.
What says love better than a cheap date? The Grizzlies will host "buck night" on Valentine's Day to lure couples to The Pyramid to watch the team play the Denver Nuggets. Popcorn, drinks, and programs are a dollar apiece. Oh, and at halftime, one lucky couple will win the opportunity to get married or renew their vows on the arena floor.
Southwest Tennessee Community College's head basketball coach Verties Sails is still flirting with history. The coach needed only 13 wins this season to reach his career 500th, but the Salukis have struggled, compiling only an 11-9 record thus far.
Grizzlies fan to Lakers forward Rick Fox: "Rick Fox, play nice. We play nice." Fox to fan: "That's why you're in last place."
"I thought Earl Barron, in the second half, was the difference. And he was not really where he needed to be in the first half; the second half he was unbelievable. He really played well."
-- Tigers coach
"I'm supposed to go out there and dominate the other team on both ends ... [and] just try to give the team whatever I can to help us win." -- Earl Barron