By Chris Gadd
The door is ajar. You enter the Larry O. Finch Center. Immediately, your eyes are drawn to the wall-enveloping poster showcasing a nameless, faceless Tiger player, hand over heart, ostensibly reciting the University of Memphis basketball pledge.
Then you notice a large board on which are seven hurriedly written commandments under the heading "To Be a Part of Our Team You Must:" Underneath these, a single question is written: "Are you willing to sacrifice?"
That is the question for this 2003-'04 Tiger season. If they are willing to work for it, then a 20-win, NCAA tournament season is again possible. At least that's the consensus among media, coaches, and fans.
But that query, as preseason prognostications often do, raises more questions:
Will the Tigers be able to sustain the torrid pace they displayed in their 116-70 exhibition victory over the Universal All-Stars?
Tiger fans, players, and coaches would love to think so. But reality will likely set in Thursday in Madison Square Garden when Memphis plays Wake Forest. U of M head coach John Calipari admits as much.
"I think that other teams will be in better shape, and I don't think we are going to shoot 64 percent every game," Calipari says.
Still, the Tigers will want to run and press more this season. Transition drills have been prevalent in practice, with Calipari colorfully critiquing them all. The coach hopes to utilize the strengths he sees in his starless, enigmatic squad: "Speed. Athleticism. Shooting ability. Guard play. Depth."
Is that the Memphis Grizzlies' Mike Miller on the Tiger sidelines?
No. It's his brother.
Ryan Miller, 28, is the Memphis assistant director for basketball operations, and though he shares both the Miller name and a slight resemblance to Mike (he lacks his brother's 6'8" height), the elder South Dakotan already has established his own reputation as player and coach.
Miller played in the Continental Basketball Association and in the Australian Basketball Association after graduating from Division II Northern State in South Dakota. He still holds the single-game scoring record (55 points) for his alma mater. Miller has also worked as an assistant for various minor-league basketball teams and was head coach of the Xtreme Basketball Association's Dakota Lightning.
Miller says he couldn't ask for a better learning situation to achieve his dream of coaching in the NBA.
"It's worked out well," he says, "having my brother here and working for one of the best coaches in the country."
How will the always-animated Calipari's surgically repaired hip hold up?
Calipari has displayed a noticeable limp through preseason. But it hasn't stopped him from getting on the court during practice to demonstrate plays and won't likely keep him off the court when "assisting" the referees.
"I've just got to do a better job of rehabbing and weight training," Calipari says. "Believe me, I cannot run now. And, it's kind of hard to stomp."
Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Southern Mississippi, and Missouri all boast 260- to 290-pound players. How will the Tigers' smallish post players match up?
Calipari: "We'll do what we've done in the past. We will double-team that guy. We'll play some zone. We'll front him. But we need work and we need to find someone who can go in there and compete at a high level. And I think we have some guys that have an opportunity to do that."
Who is the new, well-dressed, 6'9" guy on the sidelines?
It's Simplice Njoya, a transfer from Duquesne and a Cameroon native who won't play until next season per NCAA transfer rules. His reason for leaving Duquesne is as simple as his name. "I did not like Duquesne anymore," Njoya says. "I do have a lot of good friends there, and it is a good school, but I did not like it anymore."
Who is the other new guy on the sidelines giving Calipari a run for his Armani?
It's Ed Schilling, Calipari's former assistant at UMass and the NBA New Jersey Nets and most recently the head coach of Wright State. A devout Christian with his own Web site (edschilling.com), Schilling was a record-setting point guard at Miami (Ohio) and is adjusting to Memphis -- and another seat next to Calipari.
"The quality and the tradition is the biggest difference [between Wright State and Memphis]," Schilling says. "Memphis has been a basketball power for many years. The only thing that has been hard has been the time. Now, I'm on [Calipari's] schedule."
By Chris Herrington
The Memphis Grizzlies played one of the finest games in franchise history Monday night in defeating a Los Angeles Lakers squad that starts four future first-ballot Hall of Famers.
And it was an especially gratifying victory not just because it came on the heels of a winless road trip and ended a season-long team shooting slump, but because it was the first game this season where the reality matched the theory, where "Hubie Ball" was on display -- pressure defense forcing turnovers, the team pushing the ball and converting in transition, and 10 guys all playing and all contributing. "Tonight is the first time you've seen us put the whole thing together," Coach Brown said after the game. But the glow of the win obscures the instructive struggles of the road trip, which should be examined before they're forgotten.
Heading into the Laker game, the Grizzlies were 2-4, which is a huge improvement over the 0-8 and 0-13 starts in the team's first two seasons in Memphis and a decent start considering the schedule. But fans weren't happy, seeming more despondent over the way the team was playing -- the poor shooting, the horrid rebounding, Brown's substitution patterns, and the disappointing production of Pau Gasol and Mike Miller -- than relieved by the early wins. The only real positive was the reemergence of the sole entertaining side effect of the Grizzlies' struggles: Apoplectic broken-English rants from Spanish fans on the team's Web site message board. My recent favorite was a thread titled: "Is this a Hubbie [sic] Brown's joke or something?"
The team's play through the season's first six games provoked several questions, among them: If Brown's 10-man, two-unit system is such a good idea, why doesn't anyone else use it? Can Mike Miller really be a consistent 16-18 point scorer? Can Pau Gasol ever be even adequate on the defensive end?
But the start inspired only one conclusion: That a combination of Gasol and Stromile Swift in the middle isn't going to work. With slim, seven-footer Gasol at the power forward and the dramatically undersized 6'9", 225-pound Swift at center, the Grizzlies knew that interior defense would be a problem, but the thought was that the tandem's quickness would create as many mismatches on the offensive end (and especially in transition) as it gave up on the defensive end.
But it hasn't worked that way. The Grizzlies have been out-rebounded every game this season, with the problem reaching crisis proportions on last week's three-game road trip.
In Portland, the Grizzlies' starting front-court was out-boarded by its Trailblazers counterparts 35-16. And in Utah, the Grizzlies gave up 17 offensive rebounds (14 to Utah's starting frontline), many of them tip-ins, including seven to the Jazz's starting center Greg Ostertag, a 7'2", 290-pound behemoth who repeatedly went right over Swift.
Against a Laker team that boasts 7'1", 340-pound Shaquille O'Neal and 6'9", 260-pound Karl Malone on the frontline, Monday night's game looked to be another massacre inside. But with Swift sidelined by a minor eye injury, Brown went to preseason acquisition Jake Tsakalidis, a 7'2", 290-pound center who, over his short career, has matched up rather well against O'Neal. Tsakalidis proved a revelation Monday, logging 12 points and 9 rebounds in only 24 minutes and helping hold O'Neal under his season averages. More important, Tsakalidis' helped the Griz go toe-to-toe with the Lakers in rebounding, losing the battle of the boards by only one. And, with help from some aggressive penetration from the guards, the Griz outscored the Lakers 48-44 in the paint, surely one of the most unlikely stats the team will generate all season.
After the game, Brown said that no decision had been made about how the center position would be filled in the future, but he clearly seemed pleased with the physical presence a Tsakalidis-Lorenzen Wright tandem provided.
"The position that did it for us was the center position," Brown said. "Jake and Lorenzen combine for 27 points and 15 rebounds, and that's huge because of the guy that they had to play against."
Brown also noted the space Tsakalidis gives Gasol, whose big game might be lost in the hoopla over Tsakalidis. Gasol's 22-point, 11-rebound performance was impressive because of the guy he had to play against too. Over the course of his young career, Gasol has struggled mightily against Malone. His performance Monday night, not just scoring but on the boards and even defensively, was perhaps the most encouraging thing all season for this team.
With Gasol entrenched at the four position, it seems imperative to have a rugged and bulky defender at the other spot to take defensive pressure off of him and give him room to operate on the offensive end. The Tsakalidis-Wright combo provided that Monday night, and Gasol excelled. The athletic Swift might still make sense in the middle against undersized teams (like the team's next opponent, the Orlando Magic), but it seems clear now that he isn't the long-term answer at center, so fans shouldn't be surprised if trade rumors concerning Swift re-emerge as the season progesses.