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 Years Day, during which a teams 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 nations 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 Sundays victory over
Winthrop) and ranked among the countrys top ten, the Tigers have some areas to
improve during their 14-game conference season (interrupted January 18th with a
home tilt against Tennessee). Heres a cheat sheet for John Calipari and his
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 teams
instinct when it falls behind by 10 or 12 points is to shoot the trey to quicken
the comeback. But an easy fix doesnt 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.
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 theyd
provoke. His shot-blocking ability and size on defense are now established
character traits for this team, and its 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 Coopers
back and a little more weight than he needs to carry are all thats holding him
TLC for D-Wash. Washingtons thigh bruise has
come to play far too prominent a role in this teams 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 hes
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 Washingtons 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
Keep an eye on the carrot. From rec leagues to
the NBA, the primary role of a head coach remains that of a motivator.
Caliparis 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 its
what this team does after conference play concludes that will cement its place
in Tiger basketball history.