Rank Behavior 

Can the Tigers win enough to overcome their weak schedule?

While watching the Tigers dismantle another unimpressive team this weekend, my thoughts quickly turned to the question: Why aren't the Tigers ranked in the Top 25? Cincinnati is and hasn't played anybody. I don't think Memphis is getting the respect it deserves!

The Houston game proceeded like so many others this year and provided fans with a microcosm of the Tigers' woes with the AP and ESPN/USA Today coaches' polls: It was another win against a nobody.

The Tigers (17-4) are currently ranked 44th in the latest RPI ranking, with a strength of schedule (SOS) ranking of 147. It should be taken into account that the RPI only counts games against Division I opponents so the Tigers' win against CBU doesn't count. Only one team ranked ahead of the Tigers in the RPI, Marquette (#37), which has a worse SOS rank (156), but the Golden Eagles are 17-3 in Division I on the year. Three teams ranked in the Top 25 have at least four losses. For example, Georgia and Mississippi State have four losses, but due to their conference games, their SOS rankings are 20 and 57, respectively. Michigan State has eight losses but plays the 29th-hardest schedule in the country.

But let's forget about the numbers for a second and take a look at what got the Tigers where they are.

Games against Wofford, Old Dominion, Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana, CBU, Eastern Kentucky, Austin Peay, and UT-Martin didn't help matters, especially when you are playing in Conference USA and can't rely on conference games to give you wins against highly ranked teams. Only one C-USA team (Cincinnati) is ranked in either Top 25 poll.

Tiger opponents Iowa, Alabama, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Temple, and Arkansas seem strong on paper. Unfortunately, only Iowa and Alabama are ranked in the Top 25; the others are having down-years. The Tigers went 2-4 against that group, the two wins coming against Tennessee (8-10, 67 RPI) and Temple (6-12, 106 RPI).

Media and fans complained about how easy the schedule was when it was made known to the public on August 9th. Coach Calipari was quoted several times saying that he thought he did the 2000-2001 squad a disservice by making the schedule too difficult. Last year the Tigers started the season 2-6, with all six losses coming at the hands of Top 25 opponents. That 2000-2001 schedule also included five "buy" games -- games in which higher-profile schools (Memphis) pay lower-profile schools (anything with a compass point in the name) to come and play so that they do not have to return the favor of a home-and-home series.

So what happened? Calipari fixed the previous year's problem. Everyone complained about the difficulty of the schedule, so he did what most folks wanted. The result: more wins. But there was a catch.

Nobody counted on the schedule being this easy.

There is a bright side to all of this bickering over schedules and rankings. The Tigers have 16 Division I wins on the season thus far with nine more games before the Conference USA tournament in early March. Since those nine games feature only one ranked opponent, the Tigers should have no problem amassing 22 wins, which should guarantee them a spot in the NCAA tournament. Once a team is in the tournament, all that matters is what it does on the court. And that's the bottom line after all.


One On One

The Clippers came to town and couldn't match up.

By Chris Przybyszewski

In the human chess game that is NBA basketball, a player's relative position on the court is second only to that player's match-up. There are classic moments in the game when the Lakers' Magic Johnson faced off against the Celtics' Larry Bird or recently when the 76ers' Dikembe Mutumbo played the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal in their respective championship series.

But in addition to those marquee moments of human pyrotechnics and clashing wills, NBA players square up against each other, fighting for domination, on a nightly basis. Coaches must recognize their players' individual strengths and weaknesses and match those abilities with the strengths and weaknesses of that night's opponent.

Sometimes answers to these riddles are scarce. Superstars like the Lakers' Kobe Bryant or Toronto's Vince Carter garner superstar status because no one can match the skills and talent they possess. But, as evident in the Grizzlies' Monday night 119-115 overtime win against the L.A. Clippers, the Grizzlies are able to take advantage of key -- if not marquee -- match-ups.

For example, early in the game, Grizzlies head coach Sidney Lowe put Shane Battier on Clipper guard Eric Piatkowski. "Piatkowski is going to come off screens and we needed someone to chase him around," Lowe said. "Shane's going to be our guy." Battier, a natural small forward, also has a couple of inches and a few pounds of muscle on Piatkowski and was able to exploit him on the offensive end early in the game.

That mismatch of Battier-Piatkowski forced Clippers coach Alvin Gentry to insert guard Quentin Richardson into the mix. Lowe countered by placing forward Grant Long on Richardson. "Richardson is more of a post-up [player]," Lowe said. "He can shoot the three, but he's a strong two guard, so Grant can guard him." But the Grizzlies could not rely solely on Long, an offensive no-show (5.9 ppg), throughout the game. The Grizzlies needed firepower against the young and talented Clippers and so brought in shooting guard Rodney Buford for some minutes and good production with 22 points.

Taking Long out meant that Lowe had to pick his poison: the fast Piatkowski or the strong Richardson versus Battier or Buford. Lowe put Battier on Richardson and let Buford take on Piatkowski. Battier has more bulk than Buford and could bang with the physical Richardson. And Buford's athleticism allowed him to keep up with Piatkowski. The result? Piatkowski scored only five points and Richardson only 11.

That meant that the bulk of the Clippers' scoring load fell elsewhere, namely to forward Elton Brand (26 points) and center Michael Olowokandi (27 points). When Brand fouled out late in the game, the Clippers found themselves in a bad way. Forward Pau Gasol alternately guarded Brand and Olowokandi, and while the Spaniard had four blocked shots, the Clippers obviously won that match-up on their offensive end.

With starting point guard Jason Williams sitting out with repaired ingrown toenails (of all things) on both feet, back-up point guard Brevin Knight got the starting nod.

Lowe said that the change brought a new flavor to the game. "Brevin can control the game, call the plays, get the balls to the right guys. Jason is a different kind of player. He can go one on one, he's more up and down [the floor]." And a slow, more deliberate style of play fit against the Clippers. "[L.A.] picks up the tempo and tries to force you into playing their style of game, which is getting you up and down the floor first and then pounding inside to their big people," Lowe said.

However, like Williams, Knight has speed to burn. And with the lightning-quick 5'5" Clippers guard Earl Boykins in the game, Knight had his hands full. But instead of trying to outrun his opponent, Knight instead used his speed to match Boykins on defense. "We had a nice counter with [Boykins'] match-up with Brevin, to match his quickness and his toughness. Brevin might be a little bit stronger," Lowe said.

Knight also plays under control, more like a surgeon, in strong contrast to the slashing, flashy Williams. He scored 19 points, passed out 15 assists, and had only one turnover. The result was six Grizzlies with double-digit scoring. And, most important, a win.

In one critical possession in the fourth quarter, the 5'10" Knight drew the 6'8" Brand in a rebounding situation. Lowe certainly didn't draw up this particular match-up, but Knight managed to box out Brand, grab the defensive rebound, and then draw the foul as Brand tried to strip the ball away. Knight earned a sizable bruise for the effort, but the lesson is that despite the carefully crafted match-up plans a coach may make, the game is a fluid thing and ultimately it comes down to players making smart plays.

Small dramas like this one happen every night in the NBA. Everyone looks forward to big names banging against big names, but games often turn on the small victories at other positions. Just ask the Clippers, who came to Memphis and found no answers to the puzzles the Grizzlies put on the floor. The game wasn't Magic against Bird, but with this team, any winning combination is a masterpiece.


The Score

NOTABLE:

Those who followed the "NBA Now" versus "No Taxes NBA" debate will remember the rhetorical question: How many people will actually show up to a week-night game when the Grizzlies play the L.A. Clippers? Here's the definitive answer from Monday night: 11,278.

The two top Grizzlies vote-getters for the 2002 All-Star game in Philadelphia are guard Jason Williams (170,807 votes) and center Lorenzen Wright (65,263 votes). Both players are in the Top 10 for their respective positions in the Western Conference, though neither is likely to be invited. The Grizzlies do have three players participating in the rookie game, with Pau Gasol and Shane Battier playing on the rookie squad and Stromile Swift playing on the sophomore team. The Grizzlies' Chuck Daly will coach the rookie squad.

Pau Gasol has scored in double figures in 12 straight games and has scored 25 points or more six times during that span. He shot 60 percent (98-of-164) in his last 11 games. Gasol has not shot under 50 percent in a game since making 2-of-5 shots in a loss to Atlanta on January 4th.

Tigers senior forward Kelly Wise leads the C-USA in rebounding with 11.6 rpg. Freshman guard DaJuan Wagner ranks second in scoring with 21.2 ppg.

QUOTABLE:

"My job is to get wins. I look at what that score says. If the score is going good, then we're going good and I'll keep doing what I've been doing. If the score is going bad, then we're in trouble." -- Brevin Knight downplaying his 19-point, 15-assist, one-turnover effort against the Clippers. n

"We did do some things at the end of the game that I didn't care for, but I told the guys we would talk about that tomorrow. I don't want to take anything away from them." An uncharacteristically forgiving Coach Sidney Lowe after the win.

"That's what the game comes down to, a silly play. It doesn't make any sense, this game, sometimes." A very un-zen-like Lakers coach Phil Jackson, on the officiating in the Lakers 93-87 loss on January 27th.

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