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FROM MY SEAT: On the Other Hand...Some Second Thoughts on the Tigers



We sportswriters will risk a major shoulder injury patting ourselves on the back when we correctly forecast a game, championship, or even trade-gone-bad (or well). But when we get things wrong? We're very skilled at changing the subject.

Well, I got some things wrong in analyzing how the 2008-09 Memphis Tigers would take shape, and I'm here to share those preseason misperceptions. After all, a team that goes from unranked to 5th in the country over five weeks has earned some reconsideration.

• Misperception #1: Without Joey Dorsey in the middle, the Tigers will suffer a drop at the defensive end of the floor. In 2007-08, the Tigers allowed 61.9 points per game and allowed their opponents to shoot 39.1 percent from the field. Through their first 26 games this season, Memphis gave up 59.0 points per game and allowed its opponents to shoot 37.2 percent. Much of the credit for this defensive improvement goes to Shawn Taggart and the shot-blocking, rebounding presence he's provided in the void left behind by Dorsey. Robert Dozier has been a carry-over, of course, and his rebounding is steady from a year ago (just under 7 per game).

The 2008-09 Tiger defense, though, is winning games on the perimeter, where the starting trio of Tyreke Evans (6'6"), Antonio Anderson (6'6"), and Doneal Mack (6'5") is bigger, longer, and quicker than most opposing backcourts -- and every backcourt in Conference USA -- can handle. With Wesley Witherspoon (6'8") back from knee surgery, the Tigers have a guard rotation that can negate an opponent's offensive attack or, at the very least, prevent the kind scoring binges that win games.

• Misperception #2: Willie Kemp's return to starting point guard will make or break the Tigers' postseason chances. Memphis coach John Calipari has enjoyed joking about the "smart guy" who moved the freshman Evans to point guard for the Tigers' game with Drexel on December 22nd. The U of M entered that contest with a record of 6-3, having fallen out of the Top 25. In his second game at the point (against Cincinnati), Evans scored 14 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and dished out 8 assists in the Tigers' win. Memphis is now 18-0 with Evans running the show.

Sometimes the best moves a coach makes aren't complicated, and the shift of Evans to point guard -- with Kemp now coming off the bench -- is such a move. After the Tigers beat Houston on January 31st, Calipari essentially called

out his most talented player: "This Freshman of the Week stuff, who cares? When are you going to be Player of the Week? Play at a pace that’s faster. Get in shape, do what you've got to do. That's why I'm on him, and I'm not going to stop.”

Kemp's play has been inconsistent, and Calipari is convinced it's a matter of confidence, because the junior has been working as hard as any of his teammates. "He's making shots in practice, then he gets in the game and can't hit the rim," said Calipari after the win over SMU last week. "It's all mental. Just go in there and shoot the ball." Kemp won't make or break this season after all, but he could still make a big difference offensively if he finds his shooting touch.

• Misperception #3: The Tigers having lost three starters to the NBA, Conference USA will close the gap with its longtime front-runner. Houston came to town in late January with major upset among the pre-game story lines. The Tigers won by 15. Having lost to Memphis at the buzzer on January 13th, Tulsa visited FedExForum on February 11th in what was supposed to be a C-USA "showdown." The Tigers won by 26. Last Saturday at UTEP, Miner fans wore shirts that said, "The Run is Done, 53-1." The Tigers left El Paso with a 54-game winning streak in C-USA play.

This Thursday, Memphis visits UAB, four days shy of the three-year anniversary of its last conference defeat. On March 2, 2006, the Tigers lost ... at UAB. That gap is as wide as ever.

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