By Cub Buenning
I will be honest with y’all. My hoops attention and focus this season has strongly wavered from the professional side of things to the collegiate game. Usually, I have attention and time for both (punctuated by excessive postseason viewing) but this season I was hooked on the NCAA from the start, thanks largely to a preseason SLAM assignment.
This past fall, I was fortunate enough to spend two days in Memphis, TN chronicling the upcoming season for the local college side. Yes, they were already being hyped up as one of the country’s top teams, but no one could have imagined where the season would have taken them.
Last Saturday was a game I had circled on my viewing calendar (yes, I actually have one) as a big rivalry game between two cross-state rivals. Memphis v. Tennessee. Before the season had started, I surely underestimated how large this game would become, as the teams entered the contest as the nation’s top ranked teams. The Worldwide Leader fed us endless pre-game build-up about how rare this occurrence (1 and 2 from same state) was, how poorly Memphis shoots free throws, and the gaggle of celebrities that would be in the Bluff City for the game.
Did the game live up to the hype? Sure, in terms of end-of-game excitement, but not relative to how I saw the game unfolding. I relate it somewhat to the St. Louis Rams/ Tennessee Titans Super Bowl of a few years ago; kind of a garbage game, until the end. Yes, it is already an “instant classic,” but this was not the game I was hoping for. Scores in the 60’s, huh? I wanted a track meet (which it was for the first ten minutes) and I got a sloppy, if not somewhat riveting chess match.
I’ve got points to make, that are mainly about Memphis.
1.) Derrick Rose was fabulous in every sense of the term. He was aggressive from the opening tip and had his way with an extremely quick and defensive Tennessee backcourt. Rose ended the game with 23, 5, and 5, but even more importantly hit some big shots down the stretch which gave the Tigers a chance to win. The freshman (who I would take 3rd in this year’s draft-behind Beasley and Gordon) also shot 40% from behind the arc!
2.) Speaking of which, why the hell were the Tigers so in love with the long-ball? Their early game success aside, the 3-point shot is just not their thing (34% as a team) and to attempt 27 in a game of this magnitude is a coaching error. Even after it was obviously not working, Coach Calipari failed to reign in his gunners. Yes, the Vols played a suffocating, packed-in zone-like defense, but this is a team built around dribble penetration and attacking the offensive glass. The situation is almost to akin to the Phoenix Suns running a four-corners stall or the Pittsburgh Steelers throwing it 50 times a game. It just ain’t gonna work.
3.) The game’s two best players were relatively MIA. Tennessee’s Chris Lofton was never able to get going after picking up some early foul trouble and Memphis’ Chris Douglas-Roberts also was unable to take control of the game. I think the world of CDR, and although his final line was still solid, in a game of this magnitude, I expected more. In last season’s contest, both guys led their team in scoring; Douglas-Roberts had 19/5/2, and Lofton killed the Tigers to the tune of 34 points.
4.) Joey Dorsey was a HUGE disappointment. Against a short and thin frontline, I looked for the senior forward to a have a large game. He didn’t. He was non-existent on both sides of the glass (where he usually makes a killing) and he was not a defensive force blocking/altering shots. As a 10 board a night guy, Dorsey was paramount in limiting the Volunteers chances. Tennessee finished the game with 17 offensive boards, you do the math.
5.) I will mostly ignore the free-throw shooting issues. This was not why Memphis lost this game. Better touch from the line would have helped seal a win possibly, but the strange offensive game plan and inconsistent defensive intensity were largely to blame.
Overall, the Tigers do have something positive to take from the 4-point loss. Despite their bizarre play, they were holding a one-point advantage with under 30 seconds remaining on the nation’s 2nd-ranked team. They forced Tyler Smith to hit a tough, guarded, turn-around shot that was ultimately the game-winner. I am not one of those guys who think, “It’s better to get a loss now.” A loss is a loss. Losers lose. While I still have faith that the Memphis Tigers (and quite possible the Volunteers) will be battling for a trip to the Final Four come late March, their quest for perfection has ended.
Image courtesy of Joe Murphy/Getty Images