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Season To Savor, Day To Forget

The football Tigers fall to earth with a thud.

by KENNETH NEILL

Sorry, call me a party-pooper. But I just don't get it.

After decades spent following this star-crossed program, I've had it with the all-at-once hype surrounding these 2003 football Tigers. It's beginning to give whole new meaning to the word "overkill."

After recording one of the luckier wins in their not-so-storied history last week against Cincinnati, the U of M reverted to traditional form Saturday, shooting itself in the foot with a seven-turnover performance against South Florida. The defense as usual played mightily, but once again special-teams problems and a stuttering offense sank the Tiger ship. So there was deep gloom in the locker room after the embarrassment of this 21-16 defeat at the hands of a mediocre USF team?

Not on your life. In the aftermath, the success-starved local media were more than happy to help Coach Tommy West put his best foot forward. Almost in chorus, the TV reporters, radio commentators, and newspaper columnists chanted: "Yeah, Coach, it was a tough loss, but hey, what a fantastic season, eh? We're 8-4, and we're going to a bowl!"

I can't blame West for agreeing -- who doesn't prefer compliment to criticism? -- but excuse me while I barf. You lose a game you should have won by three touchdowns, gift-wrapping it for your opponent and handing it to him on a silver platter, and you get congratulated? I bet even Coach West, a straight-shooter if ever there were one, found it all a tad odd.

Pride of place in the hype sweepstakes must go to our friends at The Commercial Appeal. Never one these days to let facts get in the way of good news, the CA actually made the football Tigers' loss their lead story on page one, running Geoff Calkins' column and a monster photo under the banner headline "Season to Savor," in type-size usually reserved for moon landings and declared victories in faraway wars.

How confusing is this? Just ask my 85-year-old father from Boston, visiting us for the Thanksgiving holidays. When he picked up the paper Sunday morning and glanced at the headlines, he looked at me in puzzled fashion: "Son, I thought you told me they lost the game?"

They did, Dad, they did, but you wouldn't know it unless you were paying very close attention. I tried explaining to him how many years it had been since Memphis has been to a bowl and how after so many years in the desert, a glass of water looks like Lake Erie to football fans in these parts.

But I still don't get it. Are we still that desperate in Memphis that we continue to celebrate defeat as moral victory? Frankly, I was surprised to hear Coach West sounding so mellow after the loss to South Florida. Maybe he kept his disappointment under wraps, but I would have thought he was ready to chew the heads off of several individuals on his special-teams units and to take an extra-large bite out of his enigmatic quarterback.

Ah, Danny Wimprine. What can you say about a quarterback who, in his last two horrible games, threw more interceptions (seven) than he did in his previous 10 (six)? In my section of the Liberty Bowl Saturday there were quite a few of us who couldn't understand why West didn't give backup quarterback Bobby Robison a chance to run the offense at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Robison looked exceptional in spring practice but has been given little playing time in clutch situations this season. We've seen how even the greatest of stars can go down with injury (and Darron Parquet performed manfully in DeAngelo Williams' absence, all things considered); the end-of-game situation against USF seemed an ideal opportunity for Robison to get some quality reps. And an equally ideal opportunity to send Wimprine the message that he's getting way too close to a potential pro career to keep making bone-headed passing decisions.

The Tigers will be returning virtually all their offensive starters next season, a dubious prospect after Saturday, perhaps, but making 2004 an exciting season for fans to contemplate, as long as Williams fully recovers from injury and Wimprine figures out how to stop throwing interceptions. The future looks bright, but let's keep things in perspective. This year has indeed been a success -- by U of M football standards. But that's a bit like saying John Willingham was a more credible mayoral candidate than Prince Mongo.

Decades of football mediocrity do not a measuring stick make. Eight victories are a substantial achievement, but there are places (like Lincoln, Nebraska, this very week) where coaches get fired for going 9-3. Let's celebrate when we play good football, not because any single number is more magical than another. Let's celebrate when we go an entire season without beating ourselves.


To the Point

Jason Williams' play has been key in the Grizzlies' early success.

by CHRIS HERRINGTON

By avenging their opening-night home loss with a 96-89 win in Boston Monday night, the Memphis Grizzlies improved their season record to 8-8, the first time in franchise history the team has had a .500 record this late in the season. The win also marked the team's fifth road victory on the young season, a feat not reached last season until March 8th. And the Grizzlies have done this against perhaps the most difficult early schedule in the league.

There are a lot of heroes who have helped spur this surprising early success, but one player in particular whose contribution shouldn't be forgotten is point guard Jason Williams. His play has been key even though the team has just won two straight games without him.

How exactly have the Grizzlies been so competitive this season? Take a close look at team statistics and a pattern emerges. The Grizzlies are dead last in the NBA in rebounding differential, getting out-boarded by more than five a game. Yet their record stands at 8-8. The team ranks only 19th in field-goal percentage and a horribly disappointing 22nd in three-point shooting, yet they're fifth in the league in scoring. How do you explain what seems to be a pair of statistical anomalies? Well, the scoring partly has to do with the quick pace at which the team plays (they give up a lot of points too), but the biggest key to the Grizzlies' effectiveness has been their ability to create shots and scoring opportunities for themselves while denying them to opponents.

So far this season, the Grizzlies are in the league's top 10 in each of the following statistical categories: assists, steals, turnovers, assist-turnover ratio, and turnover differential. The result is that the team takes more shots (sixth in the league) than it gives up (18th) despite consistently getting out-rebounded. And though opportunistic defense is a big part of that, Williams' point-guard play has been the catalyst.

Much has been made of how Hubie Brown has reined in Williams' game over the past year, about how Williams no longer "throws behind-the-back passes into the fourth row," as lazy national scribes who don't really watch many Grizzlies games like to put it. And everyone points to Williams' gaudy assist-turnover ratio (where he leads the league so far this season) as a reflection of this. But that's a misleading stat, one that too often reflects offensive timidity rather than production.

What makes Williams a special point guard now isn't just that he doesn't turn the ball over but that he takes care of the ball without playing conservatively. He still turns on the jets in the open court. He still completes passes most point guards wouldn't attempt. He still flings the ball behind his back and over his head because those aren't difficult passes for him. He still pushes the envelope to create opportunities other basketball players can't see. And, for the Grizzlies to succeed, it's imperative that he do this.

Without a dominant one-on-one scorer (Pau Gasol can become this, but he clearly isn't there yet), it's crucial to have a point guard who can consistently create scoring opportunities for his teammates. That Williams does this while hardly ever turning the ball over might be the most important aspect of the Grizzlies' success.

You want to see how important Williams is, watch him run a few fast-breaks then watch his backup, Earl Watson, perform that same essential point-guard duty. Williams is supernatural in the open court, with sixth-sense court vision and an arsenal of subtle flourishes, such as his penchant for altering his speed on the break to create the spacing that sets up his teammates for clearer paths to the basket.

Watson, by comparison, while a gritty player and excellent defender, is largely ineffective in the open court. With his more conservative mindset and lesser court vision, he passes up opportunities that Williams seizes. With Watson at the helm, the Grizzlies get fewer fast-break chances and are as likely to convert the attempts they do get into turnovers as made baskets.

This deficiency was made crystal clear against Boston on Monday, when Watson's mishandling of three consecutive breaks -- dribbling too deep into the paint, setting up a streaking James Posey to commit a charging foul rather than convert a layup, and forcing a long pass to a well-covered Gasol --led to turnovers rather than points.

This is why, with Williams sidelined by a back injury, the Grizzlies have been more effective the past two games with swingman Mike Miller at point rather than Watson. Miller shares Williams' penchant for just-short-of-reckless open-court forays and his flair for finding the open man. Miller has been a revelation at the point, garnering 23 assists in two games, but it's not a long-term fix. Brown has said he expects Williams back in the lineup sometime in the next week. For the Grizzlies' sake, Williams' injury better not linger. They've held up well without him so far, but they need him back to have any shot at keeping up this current pace.

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