It's just a short ride to Little Rock from Memphis, but, on Good Friday, it was long enough to wonder that if the number 1 seed University of Memphis Tigers were to lose to number 16 seed University of Texas-Arlington -- an upset of such magnitude that its never happened before in NCAA tournament history -- would Tiger coach John Calipari be crucified?
And, on the other hand, if Calipari were to win the national championship two-and-a-half weeks from now, would he be the write-in winner in the next Memphis mayoral election?
Friday was a gorgeous day in North Little Rock, the site of the South Region's opening round games. An airplane dragging a banner reading "FreeWestMemphis3.org" circled the blue sky above Alltel Arena. Inside, Tiger blue predominated, though there were a goodly number of Bulldog fans and even some Oregon Ducks there, too. Maybe the second-most represented team there was the Arkansas Razorbacks. Beautifully recalcitrant Razorback fans sported their colors and logos and called the Hogs when Arkansas clinched their win over the Indiana Hoosiers, a game played in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the same time Memphis was playing UTA.
It was a star-studded affair in North Little Rock Friday night. First Tennessee Bank president Charles Burkett was there. And I overheard someone say that they saw Jeremy Hunt's sister. Memphis played the second game of the night, versus the University of Texas-Arlington Mavericks. The first game of the night featured the Mississippi State Bulldogs against the Oregon Ducks. If the MSU/Oregon game -- a timeout-filled, foul-prone bout -- was like watching amber petrify, the Tigers game was like watching good porn. The Bulldogs and Ducks played like there was no tomorrow. The Tigers and Mavericks played like they didn't want to keep anybody from a night of partying in Little Rocks River Market District.
Nobody on the floor this weekend in Little Rock can match Memphis guard Derrick Rose's speed, ability with the ball, and vision of the floor. Memphis' other premier guard, Chris Douglas-Roberts, can shoot like the devil; I'm not great at gauging how basketball talent will translate to the NBA, so I'm in no position to comment on CDR's pro prospects. But, I feel confident in saying that Rose is going to be a superstar on the next level. It's as plain as the smirk on Joey Dorsey's face.
In Friday's Memphis game, the Tigers were playing a completely overmatched opponent they were expected to blowout, and the team responded with a fairly sloppy performance, winning by 24 when they could've doubled that, easy. In other words, Friday night's game was just like another regular-season conference game for the U of M.
Give credit to UTA's defense, which was swarm-esque at times. Conversely, the U of M had a number of significant defensive breakdowns, especially on fast breaks and in-bound plays. The Tigers were average on that side of the court, and they were routinely out-hustled for loose balls.
Tigers coach John Calipari's substitution patterns were sometimes based on exasperation over his players' lack of effort or committing mental mistakes, and, in those instances, the frustrated coach would jerk his hand to wave the new guy in. Calipari apparently has to resort to operant conditioning to get his team to play how he wants them to. This is coaching when you've got the best talent in the tournament region and you can beat anybody in the country on any given day, but the guys still won't get their heads on straight.
The Tiger faithful on hand seemed happy to help Calipari in that regard, particularly with forward Joey Dorsey. The crowd enthusiastically cheered every little good thing Dorsey did, shouted for him to shake it off when something didnt go his way, and cursed under their breath when he did something egregiously bad. In one sequence, Dorsey bricked a dunk, then went after his missed ball and tipped it to a teammate. The Tiger crowd hollered in appreciation at his effort, never mind that he missed on an easy shot.
On the other hand, every one of Tiger forward Shawn Taggart's miscues was followed by someone in the crowd uttering the expletive "Taggart!" The first game of the night -- Mississippi State versus Oregon -- was a preview of the Tigers opponent in the second round on Sunday.
Oregon led for most of the first half and was up by 10 at halftime. Diminutive Oregon guard Tajuan Porter -- 5 foot 6 inches according to the tournament program, so he's probably really 2 inches shorter -- showed off some good ball-handling skills, and Duck guard Malik Hairston poured it in from the outside, but the main reasons Mississippi State trailed were self-inflicted.
Oregon big man Maarty Leunen couldn't handle Mississippi State's primary big, Charles Rhodes. But, during most of the first half, MSU all but abandoned the inside game, throwing up one errant 3-point attempt after another. The Bulldogs guards weren't very good with the ball, either, negating their size advantage there, too.
The second half was another story. MSU stopped over-thinking the room and finally just fed the ball to Rhodes. He ended the game with 34 points on 10-12 shooting, and 9 rebounds in 37 minutes. Oregon was the team taking too many 3-point attempts rather than working the ball around, and Mississippi State pulled away and won 76-69, a score that sounds closer than it really was. Worst of all, Oregon got red ink on my beautiful office-pool bracket. Unforgivable.
All week long, analysts looking ahead to a possible second round University of Memphis/Mississippi State contest have said MSU's inside strength could provide a matchup problem for the Tigers. Let me tell you: Memphis won't have a matchup problem; theyre going to have a Charles Rhodes problem.
Rhodes is gigantic, good with the ball, and aggressive. He begs for the ball when he doesn't have it, and he puts it in the basket when he gets it. He makes his free throws. Plus, he only committed 2 fouls in the Oregon game, the second one a cheap pickup with 7.3 seconds left and the game well in hand.
In other words, he's everything Memphis center Joey Dorsey could be and is not. Theres a very real threat hes going to drink Dorsey's milkshake on Sunday. Throw in good team defense from Mississippi State, and the Easter tilt could be a tough one for the Tigers.
If both teams play as well as they can on Sunday, the Tigers will still win by double digits. Conventional wisdom has been that, for Memphis to win the national championship, Dorsey will have to play 6 solid games in a row. Well, he didn't have one Friday, and now there's just 5 games left. Oregon's Leunen had a decent stat line against Rhodes -- 13 points, 7 rebounds, 27 minutes, fouled out of the game --and he looked like a child next to Rhodes. Can Memphis' man-child Dorsey do better?
The Tigers season may hang in the balance.
-- Greg Akers