If we were to compare a college basketball team to an automobile, December would be a month for test driving, for kicking the tires and getting a feel for how she handles the road. Having played four games over this month's first nine days, the University of Memphis is developing a sense of what makes its engine hum . . . and starting to focus attention on a knock here, a rattle there.
Last week opened with the start of conference play, the Tigers establishing that the Thundering Herd of Marshall will not be a challenger for Conference USA supremacy. The week's next two contests were chances to, well, rev the engine against Mid-South SEC competition. A chance to capture some national attention in front of big crowds at either end of the state of Tennessee. It's one thing for the U of M to come up short against Tennessee and Ole Miss on the gridiron, but on the hardwood?
In watching the Wednesday-night drubbing in Knoxville, two thoughts occurred. UT's Chris Lofton is a lock for All-SEC honors, but he's unlikely to make 12 of 18 field goal attempts again this season. Secondly, the Tigers have some serious shooting shortcomings, but are unlikely to again see Jeremy Hunt, Willie Kemp, and Antonio Anderson combine to make merely 5 of 35 shots (a hideous 14 percent). If they do misfire so regularly, consider it a blown engine for this squad. Combine these two factors at Thompson-Boling Arena, and you have the recipe for an 18-point loss that really could have been worse.
Saturday afternoon, back in the comfort zone of FedExForum, the Tigers were able to put things on cruise control against Ole Miss, jumping out to a 21-8 lead on their way to an 82-70 victory. Particularly on the defensive end, Memphis was simply too quick for the Rebels, Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey deflecting entry passes while the U of M's six-guard rotation cut off any driving lanes to the Rebel basket. As for the U of M shooting, it was improved. The Hunt/Kemp/Anderson trio made 12 of 28 shots (43 percent) in the matinee. More troubling was the team's 50-percent mark at the foul line. Miss free throws consistently and you can count on wrapping up your season before St. Patrick's Day.
When the Tigers extend to the three-point stripe, their shooting doesn't get any better. Put Hunt's three-of-five day aside and Memphis missed 13 of their other 15 attempts from downtown. This will be a compelling element to watch as the season grows. With the penetrating skills of Kemp and Andre Allen, along with the offensive-rebounding talent of Chris Douglas Roberts, the Tigers are best served by shots taken in and around the paint. How long will coach John Calipari tolerate the rim-bending attempts from beyond the arc?
Having drag-raced through five games in 11 days, Memphis will now take what amounts to a Sunday drive, hitting the floor only twice in 13 days (though a December 20th trip to Arizona will be a hairpin turn, to say the least). Some keys for Calipari between now and the return to conference play next month? First is finding a rotation pattern to accommodate the return of backup center Kareem Cooper. Joey Dorsey is the team's most valuable player when at his best (read: not in foul trouble). But having Pierre Niles (who didn't play Saturday, Cooper eating up 15 minutes as a reserve) and Cooper behind Dorsey should give Memphis an interior presence that will be the envy of most teams nationwide.
The other key to the 2006-07 season is as important to a driver as it is a basketball team: focus. Memphis has a young team, with but one senior (Hunt) in its rotation. Cruise control can be harmless in a game against an overmatched foe. On the broader scale of a 30-game regular season, though, cruising can lead to bruising.