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March 6, 2009
Around the Rim
Memphis Defends Itself

by John Perrotto

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Memphis will attempt to pull off a remarkable feat Saturday when it hosts Tulane in its regular-season finale.

If Memphis, No. 1 in the nation according to the Pomeroy Ratings, beats Tulane, the Tigers will have gone undefeated in Conference USA during the regular-season for three straight years. Throw in conference tournament play and Memphis has won 57 straight in CUSA.

However, not everyone believes Memphis' run through CUSA is so remarkable. The Tigers take their share of criticism for being a major program beating up on mid-majors, the perception being CUSA is actually Memphis and the 11 Dwarfs.

Memphis coach John Calipari becomes perturbed when critics downplay his team's CUSA domination.

"People can try to minimize if they want but I'm not getting caught up in that," Calipari said. "There are 25 conferences below us. If what we're doing was so easy then somebody would be doing it, too. It's not easy. We've done it with three very different teams. We've had a lot of close calls. There have been a lot of games that were close with eight minutes to go, five minutes to go but we've always figured out ways to win."

Memphis has figured out ways to win in what looked to be a rebuilding season after the Tigers squandered a late lead in last year's national championship game and lost to Kansas in overtime.

Memphis lost three players to the NBA, including point guard Derrick Rose, who was the first overall pick by the Chicago Bulls. Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey also moved on to the pros. Furthermore, Calipari lost two assistants as Derek Kellogg became the head coach at Massachusetts, his alma mater, and Frank Martin became the head man at Marist.

Yet, Memphis is 27-3, 15-0 in CUSA. The Tigers' 21-game winning streak is the longest in the nation.

"We lost the No.1 draft pick in Derrick Rose, Lawrence Taylor in Joey Dorsey and Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe in Chris Douglas-Roberts," Calipari said. "You don't replace those guys, you just rework your team without them."

Which is what Calipari has done.

"The thing about Cal is that you know he's going to have a new team every year because he attracts the caliber of player who is ready for the NBA after a year or two," said Doug Wojcik, the coach at CUSA foe Tulsa. "The guy really knows to coach, though. He brings in new talent and figures it out. Look at the team he has this year. He's going to get them to the Elite Eight in the NCAAs, maybe even the Final Four. I certainly wouldn't rule them out from winning the national championship."

Calipari has built a program where success breeds success. When one group of players leaves, the next expects to keep the machinery humming.

"Our guys have taken ownership this year just like so many of our teams have," Calipari said. "Yet, these guys have built their own identity. They don't talk about last year's team and how we set the NCAA [single-season] record with 38 wins. This is a new team but it's a good team in its own right."

One reason Memphis is so good has been the play of freshman point guard Tyreke Evans. The Tigers' offense flows through him as he is 10th in the nation in percentage of possessions (33.4) and 40th in percentage of shots (32.3). Evans is also 44th in percentage of steals (4.2) and 113th in assist rate (29.3).

Memphis was 6-3 when Calipari moved Evans from shooting guard to the point and 21-0 since.

"Once the genius coach finally realized Tyreke was a point guard, we've been a different team," Calipari said with a laugh. "He's hit a bit of a freshman wall, which is natural for a guy getting used to playing a college season, but he's been good and the rest of guys are playing as well as they can possibly play right now. It's been fun to watch. I really believe if I would have been smart enough to play Tyreke at the point from the beginning of the season, we'd probably only have one loss and be No. 1 in all the polls."

Memphis, as usual, has been outstanding on the defensive end. The Tigers rank first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (81.0). Six-foot-ten junior Shawn Taggert (7.2) and 6'9" senior Robert Dozier (5.8) rank among the national leaders in block percentage as Taggert is 79th and Dozier is 114th.

"I'll put our defense up against anyone in the country," Calipari said. "Ultimately, how far we go will depend on our defense but I like our chances."

Spartans Clinch

Michigan State's celebration was quite subdued when it clinched the Big Ten regular-season outright title Tuesday night with a 64-59 win at Indiana. Even though Hoosiers coach Tom Crean graciously gave the Spartans permission to cut down the nets at Assembly Hall, Michigan State didn't ask for the ladders.

That is because Michigan State's goal since the first day of practice has been get to the home state Final Four in Detroit.

"I'm in the mood for frying bigger fish than the fish I just fried," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Nevertheless, Michigan State's title was impressive considering that it has had a string of injuries and illnesses this season, most notably star forward Raymar Morgan having his strength sapped for much of the winter by walking pneumonia.

"It's tough because you never sleep," Izzo said. "You just don't know what's going to happen. It's one of the greatest seasons we've ever had, but if you ask me, it's also one of the hardest."

Howard Leads the Bulldogs

Butler has gone 25-4 and won the Horizon League regular-season title in what figured to be a rebuilding season following the loss of four starters.

Not surprisingly, the Bulldogs swept the major Horizon League awards as forward Matt Howard became the first sophomore in 17 years to be named Player of the Year, freshman forward Gordon Hayward won Newcomer of the Year and Brad Stevens was picked as Coach of the Year.

Howard's 120.6 offensive rating is 70th in the country and he ranks ninth in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (7.2), 14th in free throw rate (79.7), 76th in true shooting percentage (62.5) and 94th in block percentage (6.6 percent). Yet he deferred much of the credit to his teammates.

"If we're not the No. 1 team in the league, I'm not getting some of these awards," Howard told the Indianapolis Star. "A lot of it has to do with what they've been able to accomplish and we've been able to accomplish as a team.

Hayward's 125.2 offensive rating is 30th and he also ranks 12th in true shooting percentage (66.7) and 35th in effective field goal percentage (62.0).

"Obviously, he's a very talented basketball player but it also speaks to his mind, his toughness, his competitiveness," Stevens said. "All those things that maybe aren't talked about as the fact he's 6'8" and can do everything with the basketball."

New Hall of Famers

Congratulations to the next three inductees into the U.S. Basketball Writers Association's Hall of Fame: Rick Bozich of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Gary McCann of The Herald of Rock Hill, S.C., and the late Pete Axthelm of Newsweek and ESPN.

Bozich is in his 31st year at the Courier-Journal, including 28 as a columnist. He has covered 27 of the last 28 Final Fours.

McCann has been a sports writer for 38 years, including the last 11 as the sports editor at The Herald. He has also worked at the Burlington Times-News, Greensboro News & Record and Bloomington Herald-Times. McCann has covered 17 Final Fours.

The trio will be inducted during the Final Four.

Games to Watch

The top five matchups for the final weekend of the regular season according to the Pomeroy rankings with all times Eastern:

No. 3 Connecticut (27-2) at No. 4 Pittsburgh (27-3), Saturday March 7, 12 p.m., CBS
No. 6 Louisville (24-5) at No. 9 West Virginia (21-9), Saturday March 7, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 17 Purdue (22-8) at No. 14 Michigan State (24-5), Sunday March 8, 12 p.m., CBS
No. 5 Duke (25-5) at No. 2 North Carolina (26-3), Sunday March 8, 12 p.m., CBS
No. 19 Clemson (23-6) at No. 18 Wake Forest (23-5), Sunday March 8, 6 p.m., Fox Sports Net

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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<< Previous Article
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<< Previous Column
Around the Rim (02/28)
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Around the Rim (03/13)
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From 344 to 65 (03/09)

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