Monday, January 9, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: The Second Season

Posted By on Mon, Jan 9, 2006 at 4:00 AM

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Your typical college basketball season has an easily recognizable pattern. A team opens with soft competition in mid-November (maybe a made-for-TV showdown thrown into the mix), then builds steadily toward the opening of conference play after New Year’s Day, during which a team’s mettle is established (or lack thereof). In looking at the 2005-06 campaign for the University of Memphis, though, there is nothing typical about this season.

Having already played three teams that opened the season in the nation’s top 10 (Duke, Gonzaga, and Texas) as well as major-conference headliners like Alabama, Cincinnati, and Providence, the Tigers -- featuring four freshmen playing heavy minutes -- have cut their fangs before conference play starts and, with a watered-down Conference USA lineup between Wednesday night (when they open at East Carolina) and March Madness, the U of M now aims to fine-tune, sharpen, and build a team worthy of its lofty ranking to date.

Yes, even at 13-2 (through Sunday’s victory over Winthrop) and ranked among the country’s top ten, the Tigers have some areas to improve during their 14-game conference season (interrupted January 18th with a home tilt against Tennessee). Here’s a cheat sheet for John Calipari and his staff.

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De-emphasize the three-point shot. A valuable weapon for a team with shooters like Rodney Carney, Darius Washington, and Shawne Williams, the trey is just too easy an out for Tiger opponents. With the considerable skills near the basket of the aforementioned three, along with Chris Douglas-Roberts and the jump-hook of Kareem Cooper, Memphis must force its opponents to work on defense, to sweat for their next possession. A team’s instinct when it falls behind by 10 or 12 points is to shoot the trey to quicken the comeback. But an easy fix doesn’t often come with the heaving. (Remarkably, the Tigers managed to erase a 14-point lead against Texas January 2nd despite shooting 6 for 32 from behind the arc for the game. Alas, the one-dimensional attack fizzled and Memphis lost by 11.) The fact is, the U of M is too versatile offensively to allow the lure of three points to dampen its gunpowder. Penetration by Washington, slashing by Williams, gritty work from CDR . . . these make up the offensive foundation that will open spots on the floor for, yes, the three-point shot. Horse, then cart.

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Develop the Dorsey/Cooper combination. It would be hard to argue against Carney in selecting the Tigers’ first-half MVP, but a few votes for Joey Dorsey are at least worth the conversation they’d provoke. His shot-blocking ability and size on defense are now established character traits for this team, and it’s critical he avoid silly fouls as the season unfolds. Dorsey has become a much-improved outlet passer, which only intensifies the pressure Memphis can put on its opponent in transition. As for Cooper, his lefty jump-hook is already a scoring option Calipari utilizes. Health is the issue with this “fifth freshman.” A stress fracture in Cooper’s back and a little more weight than he needs to carry are all that’s holding him back.

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TLC for D-Wash. Washington’s thigh bruise has come to play far too prominent a role in this team’s scouting reports. Calipari will have to decide over the next two months just how much to baby his star point guard. The trick will be keeping Washington in game shape for when he’s most needed, while at the same time finding the necessary rest that is the only true cure for his ailment. Andre Allen has proven to be a capable backup, largely because he recognizes his role as a peripheral scorer (though he had 11 points off the bench Sunday), in contrast to Washington’s integral shooting and driving talents. If Allen can hold the fort as Washington strives toward full health, the mutual benefits at the point guard position come March will be invaluable.

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Keep an eye on the carrot. From rec leagues to the NBA, the primary role of a head coach remains that of a motivator. Calipari’s biggest challenge will be keeping his troops sharp when the spotlight dims this winter. How does he get his young squad fired up on a Wednesday night in Tulsa? A Saturday afternoon in Huntington, West Virginia? The Tigers will likely be tripped once or twice in conference play, but they must “trend upward” as the pundits like to say. Fourteen games from a C-USA championship. But it’s what this team does after conference play concludes that will cement its place in Tiger basketball history.


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