MEMPHIS SPORTS SCENE 

MEMPHIS SPORTS SCENE

While some of Memphis basks in the glory that is the NIT, allow one writer to express his complete disappointment in the University of Memphis. Disappointments are nothing new in college hoops. Duke lost to Indiana, Gonzaga lost to Wyoming, etc, etc, etc. But at least those teams got to dance. At least those teams accomplished some of the goals each set out to do at season’s beginning. At least both of those teams can honestly say that the talent on their squads was not the only highlight of the season. Contrast this idea to the Tigers. The squad, with -- arguably -- as much talent as any team in the country, did not qualify to dance in the NCAA. These Tigers couldn’t even make an impact on the Conference USA tournament before dropping to lowly Houston. What went wrong? Some say the injury to senior forward Kelly Wise was too much for the Tigers to overcome. I don’t buy that because teams lose top players all the time. Pittsburgh did just fine when their key man Brandin Knight was hobbled with injury. And Temple made the NIT final four with the squad’s best player in guard Lynn Greer sitting in street clothes due to injury. The problem is not the Tiger defense. The attacking man-to-man style works well for the athletic long bodies of the squad, and the style compliments the passion with which the team plays. But the same principles that lead to an excellent man-to-man are the Tigers Achilles heel: These guys can’t play team ball. Here’s a question. During the Tennessee Tech game that sent Memphis to NYC for the NIT final four: did anyone actually see a called play? I’m not talking about guard Dajuan Wagner pulling on his jersey and his four teammates standing around the perimeter. I’m not even talking about guard Antonio Burks throwing a wild three and forward Chris Massie tipping the ball in. I’m talking honest-to-god called plays like a fist, a flex, a flair, a weave, a catch and shoot. Anything? Spurts of team play happened, but most of the offensive sequences revolved around giving the ball to Wagner and watching him create. Other sequences featured the Tigers’ frontcourt pounding the ball inside. Tennessee Tech threw a simple old 2-3 man zone against the Tigers and so much for a blow-out on the Tigers home floor. Temple employed a similar plan in their funky new 1-3-1 zone, which is a big switch from Temple’s traditional match-up zone. The result was a one point game at Madison Square Garden. OK, the Tigers pulled out both games. But put these games into perspective: The Tigers needed all the talents of the college game’s best freshman in Wagner to beat two mediocre teams in the NIT. The Tigers did not beat the Cincinnati’s of the college b-ball world. The Tigers did not beat the Oklahoma’s or -- for that matter- any ranked opponent this season at all. The reason is that while Coach Cal might know a thing or two about getting players motivated, about conditioning players for a season, and about recruiting star talent, he has shown little ability in capitalizing on that talent in the form of big wins. Keep in mind that -- yes -- his UMass squad was an A-10 power and it did -- once -- hit the Final Four. But in the same way that a championship team needs talent and depth, it also needs a gameplan that works even when the team’s superstars are not playing, or are having a bad night. Coach, at the least, expressed some of his frustration in this regard after the team’s win over Tennessee Tech. “I did a poor, poor job on the game plan,” Calipari said. “We had a game plan that I thought was great. It was a game plan that called for us to really communicate, and switch, and talk with each other, something we haven’t done in two years here. I thought in two days I could get them to talk and communicate and play a certain way. Well, what it did was put us on our heels.” Cal’s problems with getting his team to play a decent brand of basketball started early in the season when coach told Wagner to open it up. Granted, Calipari needed to see exactly how good this kid is, and Wagner is plenty good. But in allowing his new blood to freelance, Calipari might have given up coach’s control in the name of Wagner’s superstar status. In other words, Coach believed the press packets and therefore didn’t sit Wagner for not playing team ball. Other members on the Tiger club have few concepts of running an offense. Barron is a junior and still cannot set a decent pick. Massie -- for all his strength and potential -- still has years to go before he achieves some sort of on-court acumen in terms of team play. Wise inexplicably sat himself during the Conference USA tournament. While each of these players can give brilliant performances over the course of a season, no team whose stars are bigger than the team will advance to the NCAA Final Four. This same sort of bug probably bit Duke as the bright lights shattered guard Jason Williams during those clutch free-throw moments against Indiana. Bottom line: The Tigers will probably win the NIT. The squad will probably start the year ranked, and Wagner will probably be playing in the NBA. But at the same time, Memphis -- if still lacking any cohesive offensive scheme -- will never progress past the “Big Time” of the NIT. Star power is all fun and games until the game is on the line. That’s when a team needs teamwork to win. (Care to respond? Write mailonthefly@aol.com.)

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