Memphis is undefeated and on track for a No. 1 seed, but its coach frets that his charges haven't earned their stripes
MEMPHIS IS 7--0, is ranked second in the AP poll and appears destined for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That should be enough to make Tigers coach John Calipari sleep easy at night, but he can't stop looking for monsters in the closet. "The players like to say I'm seeing the bogeyman again," Calipari said last week while sitting in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel. "We're doing well now, but my question is always, What would hold us back from the growth we're going to need to play through March?"
A few hours later, during the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, Calipari experienced a mini nightmare: a junked-up, triangle-and-two defense concocted by USC coach Tim Floyd. The strategy worked well enough to hold the Tigers' top two players, junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts and freshman point guard Derrick Rose, to a combined 19 points on 7-for-22 shooting. "I've never played against a defense like that," Douglas-Roberts said after Memphis's 62--58 overtime victory. "It was an ugly game, but at least we got the win."
December 17, 2007
If nothing else, Floyd's tactic reinforced Calipari's message that Memphis's status as a championship contender isn't guaranteed. Previously, Calipari had seen enough bogeymen in Memphis's 84--63 home win over Arkansas State on Nov. 20 that he canceled a scheduled day off before Thanksgiving and put his players through one-on-one workouts. "We acted like we didn't want to be out there," Calipari says. "If you accept mediocrity, you'll get it every time."
Calipari had already held a team meeting to defuse the issue of whether his players were jealous of the media attention that has been heaped on Rose. He underscored his point by asking them to raise their hands if they had won 33 games last year and reached the Elite Eight. Rose was the only starter who couldn't do so, but his teammates thought the subject was moot. "We're not worried about the media," Douglas-Roberts says. "We're a family here."
Calipari also flew in renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella over Thanksgiving weekend to watch practices and meet with players. Douglas-Roberts was so taken with Rotella's presentation that he sought him out for some more one-on-one time. "He told me that I'm a top-tier player and I should act like it," says Douglas-Roberts, who at week's end led the team with 20.1 points per game. "[In practice], if I miss a shot, instead of worrying about it, I'm thinking I'll make the next one."
Rose doesn't hurt for confidence, but that certitude is belied by his quiet demeanor and unselfish attitude. So Calipari is trying to get him to be more aggressive. "Every drill we do, if he doesn't shoot, I'm on him," Calipari says. "I try to tell him, If you don't take an open shot, that's being selfish." Rose needs to be quick on the uptake. The Tigers have two daunting nonconference tests at the end of December against Georgetown and Arizona, and they're also hosting Gonzaga on Jan. 26 and Tennessee on Feb. 23. While Calipari takes the long view, his players are staying in the moment. "Coach Cal, he's a worrier," senior forward Joey Dorsey says. "We keep telling him, We got it. Just prepare us to play, and let us get out there."
ONLY AT SI.COM Get more Hoop Thoughts from Seth Davis.
1 Don't expect Lute Olson (right) to retire. Yes, Arizona's longtime coach, who announced last week that he will sit out this season after filing for divorce from his second wife, Christine, is 73. But he is still competitive and proud.
2 Kentucky is in crisis. It's hard to tell which was more symbolic of the Wildcats' disarray: freshman guard Alex Legion's decision (and apparent reconsideration) last week to transfer, or that anemic offensive performance in a 19-point loss to Eric Gordon--less Indiana last Saturday.
3 Michigan State is on the mend. In notching quality wins at Bradley and BYU last week, the Spartans demonstrated that the problems behind their exhibition loss to Grand Valley State and collapse against UCLA are behind them.