Thursday, April 3, 2008
Tigers can win slowdown games, too
By Andy Glockner ESPN.com
Memphis is one of the two most balanced teams in this Final Four (along with Kansas), finishing in the nation's top five in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Much has been made of the Tigers' dribble-drive motion offense and how explosive they can be on that end of the floor, but they also can defend as ferociously as any team in the land.
What we learned from games against comparable foes
Memphis has played three games against teams that are relatively close to the caliber of its Final Four opponents -- home games against Georgetown and Tennessee (the Tigers' only defeat) and the Elite Eight matchup with Texas. They hammered the Hoyas and Horns offensively, breaking the elite 1.20 point-per-possession barrier in both games, and it was that same offense that let them down against the Vols, when the dribble-drive portion degenerated into a flurry of 3s. Defensively, the Tigers were pretty consistent in all three games and performed well enough to win all three. Only Georgetown (1.02) even scored a point per possession.
Memphis' Big Picture
vs. RPI Top 50 Average
vs. RPI Top 50 Median
Tempo is the amount of possessions per game. PPP is points per possession.
Looking at the Tigers' performance against all RPI top 50 opponents, both trends hold. Since the hard-to-watch overtime win over USC at Madison Square Garden in early December, Memphis has played seven games against top 50 teams and averaged 1.17 PPP on offense. Defensively, only four of the Tigers' 10 top-50 opponents broke the point-per-possession plateau, and only one of those four -- Mississippi State in the second round of the NCAAs -- did so in a game that was legitimately in doubt down the stretch. Though Memphis didn't play a road game against an opponent of this caliber, six of those 10 games were played at neutral sites, so this isn't a product of home cooking, either.
Bottom line: Ignore all the talk about how Conference USA softens the quality of the Tigers' overall performance and 37-1 record. They consistently showed against the best teams they played that they were very good at both ends of the court.
What we learned from losses/close calls
Yes, Kevin Love is the best offensive post man Memphis will have seen this season, but the Tigers' closest calls all seem to have been triggered by big performances from opposing guards. JaJuan Smith and J.P. Prince were instrumental in the Vols' win. Memphis escaped UAB with a one-point win despite 27 points from Robert Vaden. The Tigers were taken into the final minute by UTEP thanks to 27 points from Stefon Jackson. The USC win was ugly, but O.J. Mayo still scored 16 points. In the close win over Mississippi State, the Tigers ate a 21-point, 11-rebound and 5-assist performance from Jamont Gordon.
With scoring options at a premium for UCLA, and with Memphis having a lot of athletic bodies to throw at Love, guards Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook could be primed for big scoring games.
The other consistent issue (besides the free-throw shooting that helped cost the Tennessee game) was that Memphis shot an unusually high number of 3s in these games, and often at a very poor rate. The Tigers ended up 8-for-27 against the Vols, 1-for-17 against UTEP and 5-for-22 against USC. Chris Douglas-Roberts makes 41.6 percent of his 3s, but the team's three primary shooters -- Doneal Mack, Willie Kemp and Antonio Anderson are all 37 percent or worse. Getting to the rim is the better plan.
Trends to note
• The Tennessee loss was the only game in the past seven against RPI top 50 foes in which Memphis scored fewer than 1.09 points per possession. They have shredded three straight quality NCAA teams.
• The battle on the backboards should be fierce. UCLA is seventh in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, while the Tigers are 18th on offense and 30th on defense.
• Memphis' big day from the free-throw line against Texas improved the Tigers to the ninth-worst team in the nation. That's more or less irrelevant at this point, though. They just need to be at least passable for two more games.
Interestingly, despite opponents ranging from Georgetown and Michigan State to Arizona and Tennessee, the Tigers' past seven games against top 50 foes had between 66 and 69 possessions. Given UCLA's relatively few offensive options and projecting Memphis' seasonlong capabilities on this game, you figure 65 points might very well be enough to win. Can the Tigers get there? They have had three clunkers this season against resolute defenses, and Ben Howland's crew held the Tigers to 45 points in the Elite Eight two seasons ago. If Derrick Rose can win his individual battles with the UCLA guards, Memphis stands a much better chance of using its depth and length inside to eventually wear down the Bruins and hurt them like other opposing frontcourts have at times.
This season, UCLA saw opponents take fewer 3s as a percentage of their total shots than all but 36 teams in the nation, and the Bruins defend the 3 very well (32.9 percent allowed). The Tigers don't fare as well when they get jump-shot happy, so a perimeter-based game suggests a lower-scoring game, which suits the Bruins. Defensively, Memphis should make sure that Josh Shipp doesn't find anything easy early. If he remains in his shooting slumber, UCLA will need to get extremely good games from Love, Collison and Westbrook to score enough points to win.
[Editor's note: Season stats and rankings courtesy of kenpom.com]Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.