City Sports 

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Taps For the Tigers

A disappointing U of M season nears an anticlimactic close.

By Frank Murtaugh

It's not such a great time to be John Calipari. You might say the honeymoon has faded from memory -- along with all the preseason hype that had Tigers fans and media planning itineraries around the Final Four in Atlanta. Having spent a good portion of the season arguing his team's case, first for a Top 25 ranking then for a position in the NCAA tournament, Calipari was every bit as wrong about his team as the pundits (Sports Illustrated had the Tigers ranked seventh in its season preview). To begin with, the U of M was not nearly as deep as originally thought. Seven Tigers averaged more than 20 minutes per game; the other four players on the roster averaged fewer than 10. Conventional wisdom says a team needs to go eight deep to even begin harboring championship thoughts.

The Tigers weren't nearly as tough as forecast either. Despite the imposing front-court troika of Kelly Wise, Earl Barron, and Chris Massie, Memphis never muscled up the way a team must in battling the likes of Alabama, Ole Miss, and, as it turns out, Houston. (Ironically, the closest we came to seeing a truly tough Tigers squad was in the March 3rd overtime loss at Cincinnati.) The nadir had to be at UAB February 8th when the Tigers (minus an injured Wise) were out-rebounded 43-33 by a Blazer team that had no starter over 6'8". Even when Memphis beat UAB in The Pyramid two weeks earlier (with Wise), UAB won the rebounding battle.

When his team struggled early -- the Tigers were 6-3 after losing to Ole Miss December 7th -- Calipari told anyone who would listen not to worry about his young team, that they'd turn things around. "Games outside your league are not significant," he said. "Games within your league -- games for first place -- those are significant." He changed his tune after a 17-point loss in The Pyramid to Arkansas January 2nd, saying he wished the defeat had been by 25. All part of a season's plan, one was left to assume.

When Memphis did indeed pull a 180-degree turn and reel off 10 straight wins to open Conference USA play, Calipari seemed vindicated. He knew it all along, right? Then came five losses in seven games, including a dispirited spanking at the hands of Houston in the C-USA tournament. What a few weeks earlier had appeared to be a coach's unique handle on the personality of his squad now looked like a man merely trying to figure out the components of his team, its strengths and weaknesses -- just like the fans and media were. End result? The NIT lands in The Pyramid Thursday night. Whether it was Kelly Wise's knee injury, a lack of heart and motivation, or simply being overrated, the 2001-02 Tigers weren't nearly the team we expected last fall.

It goes without saying a coach deserves more than two years to build a program. And say this for Calipari: He has the national spotlight back in the Bluff City after the dreadful Tic Price scandal cast such a cloud over the program. But he's shown some chinks in the armor, not so much with his work on the sidelines as with his stewardship of the basketball program.

Most troubling is the public stance Calipari has taken with the possible jump to the NBA by Dajuan Wagner. In late February, the star freshman spoke openly of returning to the U of M campus, at least for his sophomore season. As a national TV audience watching the Tigers play Cincinnati March 3rd can attest, Wagner's coach felt like the comments were premature. In an interview with ABC, Calipari said Wagner should wait to see if 1) the Tigers make a run in the NCAA tournament and 2) if Wagner's role in such a run would vault him into the upper echelon of potenial NBA draftees.

This is nothing short of academic heresy and a black eye for the University of Memphis being taken seriously as an institution of higher learning. I have no problem with Calipari being honest with Wagner regarding the player's potential standing in the NBA draft. If Coach Cal genuinely feels he should advise Wagner to leave school early, fine. But -- and this is important -- do it privately, behind closed doors. When a basketball coach making $1 million a year publicly supports the idea of one of his student-athletes leaving school early, he is making a mockery of the university for which he toils. Calipari has a track record for this kind of thing: He attended the press conference at UMass, where star forward Marcus Camby announced he was leaving a year early for the NBA, and said it was a decision he encouraged.

At the very least, Calipari owes it to the thousands of University of Memphis students who are on campus for learning purposes to carry the banner for completing an education. The reality of big-time college sports is what it is. Tigers boosters and fans are savvy enough to understand a player of Wagner's talent seriously considering the millions that await in the NBA. But Calipari gains nothing by publicly endorsing a player's leaving school early -- unless it's in the eyes of the player involved. Wagner must feel Calipari is putting aside his own best interests to objectively assist in what amounts to an educational and career choice. But again, why not keep it private?

Whether or not Wagner returns for another season, there is reason for optimism for next year's team -- and for the future of Tigers basketball. The hope here is that Calipari remains firmly in place to continue a process far too many of us -- including Calipari himself -- were ready to fast-forward. The best thing about a young team, after all, is that it grows up.


Star Power

The Grizzlies demonstrate that there's hope for the future.

By Chris Przybyszewski

In his pre-game interview before Monday's game with the Utah Jazz, Grizzlies head coach Sidney Lowe looked a happy man. No, he had no premonitions of the "divine powers" (his words) that helped his team to a 79-78 win and a 3-1 season edge over a playoff-bound team. He was just happy that he had some players healthy enough to play.

The Grizzlies found themselves in the middle of an eight-game losing streak a while back, mostly because the team could not field enough talent to win. In some games the team was forced to start rookie Will Solomon and a couple of 10-day contract players (Elliot Perry, Eddie Gill) at guard. Williams and Brevin Knight nursed injuries and center Lorenzen Wright had not regained his form from his extended injury absence.

But then both players found their health and their game. The result? Three competitive matches against three playoff contenders: the Indiana Pacers, the Miami Heat, and the Utah Jazz. The game against the Pacers -- a win -- saw a franchise record 122 points scored by the Grizzlies. In the game against the Heat -- a loss -- the Griz offered a gritty performance against one of the NBA's hottest teams and best defenses. And against the Jazz -- another win -- there was a combination of solid offense and good defense.

Williams gives the Griz the ability to attack. His speed and skill in transition pressures defenses and allows the team to run -- the original plan for the season. Williams' propensity to make perimeter shots helps the outside game. It also gives forwards Grant Long and Shane Battier breathing room from defenses concentrating on shutting them down behind the arc.

"I'm just getting tougher than I was earlier in the season, and so I don't get the free looks I did get," Battier says. "Having everyone back allows me to roam. I don't feel the burden to score like I did when everyone was hurt."

Inside, Wright forces defenses away from rookie forward Pau Gasol. Teams were double-teaming Gasol and forcing him away from the basket. With Wright back, there are more opportunities for Gasol near the basket.

"Lorenzen's going to bang," Lowe says. "You have someone in there to take the pressure off you. Pau needs a player in there like that. 'Ren gives us an aggressiveness."

Just as important, Wright's rebounding fills a huge need for the Grizzlies. In the Utah game, Wright pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds, including three on the offensive end. When your team shoots only 41 percent against the tough rebounding Jazz, you need every second chance you can get. And since the Grizzlies won by a point, Wright was arguably the difference in the game.

Divine powers? Probably not. But Coach Lowe at least has some healthy NBA talent on the floor. That, for this team, can be considered holy.


The Score

Notable:

Pau Gasol has led the Grizzlies in scoring in 25 of the team's 63 games and in rebounding for 32. Shane Battier has led the team in scoring 14 games, in rebounding five games, and in assists six times. Jason Williams has led the team in scoring nine times and in assists 27 times. Center Lorenzen Wright has led the team in scoring four times and in rebounding 17 times.

Gasol is the only member of the 2001-02 Grizzlies to play in all of the club's 63 games this season.

Quotable:

"That was a foul." -- Grizzlies coach Sidney Lowe on the no-call collision that took place between Memphis' Tony Massenburg and Andrei Kirilenko of Utah, whose coach, Jerry Sloan, became so incensed that he garnered two technical fouls and an ejection for arguing the call.

"If he was going to win it, he was going to have to go over me." -- Grizzlies center Lorenzen Wright on his block of Utah's John Stockton's last-second shot attempt. Memphis won the game, 79-78.

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