Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Thabeet on SI's Octuplet Cover

Here's the story by Phil Taylor and Mark Beech that appears in this week's Sports Illustrated that talks about the intensity of this year's Big East and how UConn is one of three teams from the conference (along with Pitt and Louisville) that the magazine picks for the Elite Eight.

Oh, and a pretty cool cover photo, too.

In a season in which it seems every team but your Thursday-night rec-league squad has tried and failed to hold on to the No. 1 ranking, there's a simple reason Memphis coach John Calipari and his players never worry about how they would handle the top spot in the polls. They're absolutely certain that the voters will never let them get there.

Never mind that the fifth-ranked Tigers had a 20-game winning streak through Sunday, the longest in the country, or that they advanced to last year's NCAA title game and to the Elite Eight the two seasons before that. Their status as the powerhouse of Conference USA, in which they haven't lost a league game since March 2006, counts little in the eyes of some pollsters. One voter ranked Memphis 12th in last week's AP poll.

"Those guys will give up a kidney before they put us Number 1 in the country," says Calipari. "Maybe two kidneys. We aren't allowed to lose a game."

If the 26-3 Tigers seem more amused than irritated by their treatment in the polls, maybe it's because they realize the voters are doing them a favor. Ever since North Carolina's seven-week run at No. 1 ended with a loss to Boston College on Jan. 4, the throne has come equipped with a whoopee cushion. Pittsburgh (twice), Wake Forest, Duke, Connecticut (twice) followed the Heels as the top-ranked team, none of them for more than three weeks. Four times, teams that were voted into the top spot lost their very next game.

"My only prayer at night is 'Please don't let us move up,' " says Louisville coach Rick Pitino of the No. 1 ranking.

The constant shifting at the top is the last thing anyone expected when the season began. The Tar Heels were widely considered to be the kings-in-waiting, blue bloods advancing toward their inevitable coronation. What we have instead is a big, juicy hamburger of a season, deliciously messy and hard to get a grip on, with No. 1 teams dropping like plops of ketchup, unpredictably and often.

There is still the very real possibility that North Carolina will have the mess all mopped up by the end of the championship game in Detroit four weeks from now. But the 25-3 Tar Heels, like every other elite team in this marvelously competitive season, have been bloodied a bit, more than was expected last June, when three key players, guards Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson and forward Danny Green, ended their flirtations with the NBA and decided to rejoin reigning Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough for another season at Chapel Hill. That meant all the major contributors to last year's 36–3 Final Four team were returning, and the only issue for the Tar Heels seemed to be who would hold the ladder when they cut down the nets in the Motor City.

But the uberteam that remains head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd all season only arises about once a decade in college basketball. There's a reason, or, rather, multiple reasons, that the 2006-07 Florida team with NBA-bound big men Joakim Noah and Al Horford is the only one in recent memory to maintain an aura of invincibility from Midnight Madness all the way to March Madness. The wide distribution of talent, the distracting dreams of NBA dollars, the unpredictable rate of improvement among still-developing players, and two ever-threatening wild cards -- injuries and the referees' whistles -- all conspire against wire-to-wire dominance.

These days it's almost impossible for a team even to establish control of its conference. The lone exception is Memphis. Through Sunday, the Tigers' average margin of victory in their 14 league wins was 17.1 points, and only two teams, Tulsa and UTEP, had lost to Memphis by less than double digits. But Calipari's team hasn't exactly been a pushover outside the conference, either, with victories over Gonzaga and Tennessee. Their defense is one of the stingiest in the nation and certainly seems capable of carrying the team deep into March. Memphis ranks ninth in scoring defense (58.6 points per game), second in field goal percentage defense (37.1%) and fifth in blocked shots (6.3). In a 68-50 romp over then No. 18 Gonzaga in Spokane last month, the Tigers held the Bulldogs 27.9 points below their season average.

Against Southern Miss last Saturday, playing their second game in less than 48 hours, the leg-weary Tigers gave up just 14 points in the first half and held the Golden Eagles to 29.4% shooting from the field for the game in a workmanlike 58-42 win. "When we shut people down, we can stay in any game," says senior guard Antonio Anderson. The Tigers' defensive prowess is primarily due to their remarkable length. Lanky forwards Robert Dozier (6' 9") and Shawn Taggart (6' 10") both have wingspans in excess of seven feet.

Calipari, a devotee of man-to-man defense, has begun to take further advantage of their size and speed by periodically switching to a 3–2 zone, with stringy 6' 8" freshman Wesley Witherspoon disrupting things at the top. Last Saturday, the scheme thoroughly crippled the Golden Eagles, who struggled to advance the ball inside the three-point line and went 9:45 without scoring.

"They're so long, you can't turn any corners on them," says Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy. "There are no good shots."

A soft conference schedule certainly didn't hamper the Tigers in the tournament last season, when they fell to Kansas in the championship game. It could work even more to their advantage this season, when some of the traditionally strong conferences, like the Big East and the ACC, are particularly loaded. The intensity of the competition could leave some of those teams burned out and bruised by tournament time.

"The question is, Have we paid too great a price in the regular season?" says UConn coach Jim Calhoun of the Big East grind. "Are we going to be fit enough, is Louisville, is Pittsburgh going to be fit enough to be able to win next month? That is the concern I have."

For some teams, the season seems like one long war of attrition. Michigan State, a presumed title contender last fall, dealt with injuries to center Goran Suton (both knees) and forward Delvon Roe (left ankle), and Raymar Morgan's mononucleosis. Purdue, picked to win the Big Ten title, lost forward Robbie Hummel to a back injury, and went 2-3 in the games he missed.

But it's not just fallen stars who can quickly shift the balance of power. Injuries to key role players and defensive stoppers have diminished several teams. Jerome Dyson of UConn, North Carolina's Marcus Ginyard and Dominic James of Marquette -- fine perimeter defenders in addition to their other talents -- are all injured and lost for the season, and their teams are more vulnerable as a result.

While some teams have been weakened by injuries, others have been strengthened by the emergence of key players. Sixteenth-ranked Washington (22-7) rose from a probable middle-of-the-Pac-10 team to a conference champion largely because senior guard Justin Dentmon improved from a role player into the league's sixth-leading scorer.

"That's what makes it so hard to predict who the best teams are going to be," says Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar. "These are 18- to 22-year-old kids who are still growing and learning. A kid can be a completely different player in February than he was in November, and that can make a huge difference."

All of which is why it seems so foolish now to have thought that North Carolina, or any other team, would waltz through the regular season. But if we drank the Carolina Kool-Aid, at least we were in good company.

"In the beginning of the year, I thought that North Carolina was just in a class by itself," says Pitino, whose sixth-ranked Cardinals (23-5) beat Marquette 62-58 on Sunday to remain in contention for the Big East regular-season title. "Now, as it shakes out, you see it's one of quite a few teams. Look at Memphis or Kansas. It wouldn't shock you to see them in the Final Four. It wouldn't shock you to see Clemson [there]-- or Arizona State, Michigan State, Gonzaga. I thought it was just going to be a bunch of us chasing North Carolina. I guess I've changed my opinion."

That's because the best teams keep beating each other up, sometimes quite literally. Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin, who has replaced Hansbrough as the favorite for Player of the Year, saw his Sooners blow a chance at the No. 1 perch after he suffered a concussion in a physical game against Texas. Oklahoma was beaten by the Longhorns and, while Griffin was out, lost to Kansas (which had to replace all five starters from last season's championship team but beat Missouri 90-65 on Sunday and needed just one more win to clinch at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title).

After Hansbrough had what coach Roy Williams called "one of the worst games he's played all year," with eight points in a 69-65 win over Miami on Feb. 15, it was reported that he too had suffered a low-grade concussion from a blow to the head during the game.

Extending the three-point line this season by a foot, from 19' 9" to 20' 9", was expected to help open up the game and reduce the physical contact, but it hasn't always worked that way. The longer three has encouraged some teams to play more zone defense, packing it in and daring opponents to shoot threes. Players who try to penetrate into the paint or score in the post are met with lots of bodies.

It's hard to quantify the pounding, but it does appear that the Big East and Big Ten's bruising style is spreading to the rest of the country, with the referees' permission. Hansbrough, for instance, attempted 11.4 free throws per conference game last year. This year that average is down to 8.1, and he shot just four free throws in the Tar Heels' 88-85 overtime loss to Maryland on Feb. 21, the fifth straight game in which Hansbrough attempted fewer than 10 in a game.

The officials' willingness to condone some of the banging surely helped Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair, who's 6' 7", in his memorable low-post beatdown of UConn's 7' 3" Hasheem Thabeet on Feb. 16. Despite his height disadvantage against Thabeet, the 265-pound Blair dominated the 250-pound UConn center with his bulk, finishing with 22 points and 23 rebounds compared with Thabeet's five and four in a 76-68 Pittsburgh victory that knocked the Huskies out of the top spot in the polls.

"That was the most physical game I ever played in," Blair said afterward, clearly of the opinion that it was a good thing.

But one referee's no-call is another one's foul, which the Panthers were reminded of last week after they had moved up to the top ranking. They dropped an 81-73 decision at Providence on Feb. 24, largely because Blair was saddled with two early fouls.

"We wanted to go right at Blair and get him on the bench," says Providence coach Keno Davis. "I saw on film that when teams were successful against Pitt, Blair wasn't on the floor."

Variations in opponents' styles of play also work against establishing overall dominance. A college schedule might call for a team to handle Syracuse's matchup zone one game, followed by Louisville's up-tempo game the next, followed by Pittsburgh's physical style the next.

"It's all about matchups," Pitino says. "In conference play, in the tournament, you can't play the same way every night. You've got to adjust because you've got to understand who you're playing against."

That also works to Memphis's advantage, because Calipari is nothing if not flexible. In addition to modifying his defensive philosophy to fit his players' strengths, he also made a crucial offensive change.

In December, after a 6-3 start that included losses to Georgetown and Syracuse in successive weeks, the coach shuffled his lineup by moving freshman Tyreke Evans to point guard.

Calipari, desperate to find a replacement for the departed Derrick Rose, made the move after consulting with director of basketball operations Rod Strickland, who played the position for nine teams in 17 NBA seasons. Strickland helped convince the coach that it was O.K. to have his best scorer running the point. The move was an instant success -- Evans is the team's best ball handler --making everybody more comfortable in the offense, particularly Anderson, who had been struggling as the point guard early in the season. Both he and Evans immediately began scoring more and shooting better, and so did the rest of the team. The Tigers have even committed fewer turnovers per game with Evans at the point than they did with Rose there last season.

"I've always had the ball in my hands," says Evans. "It's opened everything up."

The race for those four coveted spots in Detroit is equally wide-open, and the Tigers seem quite capable of making a run. Maybe they can't win over the pollsters, but winning the tournament might be a different story.


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