By Adam Fleischer
For a college basketball season that’s had its share of newsworthy off the court headlines—from the slew of players who have been suspended at multiple universities to Kelvin Sampson’s recent buyout and Bob Knight’s sudden retirement—it’s also had its share of fantastic games. If you ask me, we witnessed one of those Saturday night as number two Tennessee upended previously unbeaten in-state foe Memphis, 66-62. These are two of the country’s most exciting teams and, in turn, two of my favorites to watch, so I was especially excited that the game went down to the wire.
From the first minute, there was no doubt that this was gonna be a dope game. The refs whistled Memphis for a foul ten seconds in and it seemed that both teams were about to bring the energy and intensity that would be needed to take down a top team. It then became a question of execution. Both squads came out firing, as five of the games first six makes coming from beyond the arc, with Derrick Rose of Memphis and JuJuan Smith of Tennessee responsible for two a piece. And then Memphis knocked down another triple. And then another. And another, and another, and another, until suddenly eight out of their first nine baskets were threes. With a start like that, you would expect that they would’ve formed a nice cushion, but Tennessee held tough during that stretch and came out only down 24-29 with nearly nine minutes still left in the first half.
What Memphis was doing was jaw-dropping. And it became even more astounding as I sat there and thought about the high level of defense that the Vols had been playing through those first eleven minutes. But Tennessee was by no means in a bad position. They had been playing relentless D, rebounding, hitting some shots, and hustling. Memphis’ shots had been falling, but there was nothing that Tennessee could do about that—something that Bruce Pearl was able to recognize. As he explained in his interview during halftime, the odds of the Tigers continuing to shoot so well in the second half was unlikely, so if his team could pick up with what they started in the first twenty minutes, then they’d have a real shot at coming away with the W.
The second frame saw Tennessee holding on to a relatively slim advantage most of the way through, wavering between one and six points. The Vols were playing well—sharing the ball, rotating on defense and cleaning up the glass. And although it was obvious that falling in love with the three early on hurt them, Memphis had some things going for them, too. The Vols’ main man Chris Lofton, who torched the Tigers for 34 last season, was held in check all night; forward Chris Douglas-Roberts had some buckets at points when the Tigers were struggling; and the team continued with their focus on the defensive end, preventing the game from slipping out of reach. And then there’s also the fact that, as my boy Corey perfectly worded it as he turned to me at one point during the game, “Derrick Rose is a f***ing problem.” There’s been no doubt in my mind about the truth of that statement for a while now, but his showing on Saturday reaffirmed it. With a combination of crisp passes and ridiculous off the glass leaners, the freshman put up 23, 5 and 5 and was a huge part of Memphis hanging tough on a night when they couldn’t seem to get much going offensively, especially in the half court.
The Tigers’ struggles in the half court brings the topic of coaching to mind. Both Bruce Pearl and John Calipari are great coaches, no doubt, but I think that Pearl out-coached Calipari on this night. Both sides came ready to play so in no way am I questioning preparation, focus, or effort. When it came down to the decisions that needed to be made as time winded down, though, Calipari left me scratching my head a couple of times. One of those times came after a Tennessee make, as Memphis got the ball back with a little under thirty to go, down 62-61; Calipari elected not to call a timeout. Ok, I get it. Let the number one team get up the floor and see what they can do; I agree here. But there soon came an obvious moment in the possession when Rose had not been able to create anything on the break and nothing good was brewing in their half court set, so why not take that timeout here? Get your team set up and get a good shot off instead of ending with Antonio Anderson feeling forced to throw up a difficult, off-balance jumper.
Seconds later, when also faced with a dilemma, Pearl made what proved to be the right move. Memphis had the ball back with about eight seconds to go and still in it, down 64-61. Despite announcer Dick Vitale’s stance that, because of the limited amount of time left, there was no need to foul but, instead, Tennessee should let Memphis (a poor shooting free throw team) shoot a three to tie instead of sending them to the line. Pearl elected to go a different route, immediately causing Dickie V to tell us that this, in actuality, was the right call, probably hoping that no one had really been paying attention what he had just said, which was the complete contrary. Blessings of Dick Vitale or not, Tennessee sent Rose to the line with five to go. He hit the first, but intentionally missed the second and Lofton, one of the smoothest shooters in the land, grabbed the defensive board. I thought that there was enough time to hit that second free throw and then give a quick foul to try to squeeze another possession out the last five. Maybe there wasn’t enough time for this, but I thought it could have happened.
Maybe this was a “good loss” for Memphis. I actually don’t think that I really believe in “good losses,” but this is as close as they come. The pressure is off to complete an undefeated season, which is also fine with me because there was enough of that dominating the sports world during the NFL season. Also, the team got some more crunch time experience, again saw some things that clearly need work (although I don’t know how much they’ll improve that awful free throw shooting), and shouldn’t lose a number one seed come March as long as this remains as the only blemish on their record.
Of course, the win is great for the Vols. They still have a tough stretch in the SEC as the season comes to a close, but they have the ability to play with anyone and, like a handful of other teams.
As I have been since the summer, I’m still riding with Memphis come tourney time, but props to Pearl and the Vols for pulling out the hard fought win.