Memphis Underrated Heading Into Sweet 16
by Trevor Whenham - 03/25/2008
Two games into the NCAA Tournament and all four No. 1 seeds are still standing. North Carolina has rampaged through their games like Godzilla through Tokyo. Kansas has been only slightly less impressive. UCLA has won despite some concerning injury problems. And then there is Memphis. The Tigers also have two wins, but they haven't really dealt a knockout blow to either of their opponents, and they have given their critics all sorts of reasons to loudly doubt them. UNC and Kansas have covered both of their tournament games and UCLA is 1-1 ATS, but Memphis hasn't managed a cover yet. The question is, then, if Memphis is in real trouble and if, as it seems to many, they are really in danger of going down early.
I'll start off by saying that I am a big fan of the way Memphis plays, I love John Calipari as a coach, and I think that a lot of the criticism this team faces is just plain ridiculous. With that in mind, then, let's look first at what the critics are saying, and then at why I don't buy it.
It all comes down to one stat - 15-of-32. That would be pretty good if that were the numbers for field goal shooting, but unfortunately that is what Memphis shot from the free throw line against Mississippi State. That is below their season average, but not by nearly as much as it should be. Missing free throws in the last minute let the Bulldogs stay within three points and gave them a chance to tie it up at the buzzer with a three pointer that they missed. People not only look at the foul shooting as a problem, but they say that it is an indicator of bigger problems for the team - they are selfish, they play like they are on a playground, and they don't care about the little things. Based on that, it continues to be very popular to say that they will lose to Texas, if they can even get past Michigan State. There are a million reasons that I don't think it's time to give up on this team yet, and that we should at least let them play before we send them home. Here are five:
Free throws - Sure, they can't shoot free throws. They shot 59.6 percent from the line, which is better than just two of the 328 Division I teams. The only response to have to that is - so what? They also won more games than 327 of the 328 teams, and shot worse from the line on the season than every one of the 35 teams that they beat. The team hasn't shot well in any of the last three years, and the one guy who should be really worried about that, Calipari, couldn't care less. That's good enough for me. The fact is that as bad as they shot from the line they still sunk one more than the Bulldogs did. Part of the reason they shoot badly is because they shoot so often, and that's because the team is so ridiculously athletic that teams have no choice but to foul them. People are saying that foul shooting is the key to winning in the tournament. That's just plain lazy. The key to winning in the tournament is to do what you do well better than any other team does. If Memphis can do that then they will do fine.
Record - Not to dwell on a point, but this team has won 35 freaking games while losing just one. They beat eight tournament teams - Oklahoma, Connecticut, Austin Peay, USC, Georgetown, Arizona, Siena, Gonzaga. The mighty Tar Heels only beat six. Kansas played two tournament teams in the non-conference season to nine for Memphis. UCLA played three and lost to one. Memphis went out and challenged themselves against more top opponents than any of the other No. 1s, or any other team period. You can argue that the conference play wasn't strong in Conference USA. It wasn't great, but it had a few solid teams, and the ACC hasn't exactly eaten the tournament field alive, either. Again, saying that Memphis is in trouble because of the level of competition they have faced is just lazy and stupid.
Point guard - If one thing can win tournament games it is a point guard, not free throws. Is there a better point guard left in the tournament than Derrick Rose? A couple may be in the same conversation, but there are none that are notably better than the freshman. Rose was a beast against Mississippi State, and like all great players he elevates his play when his team needs it most. Rose led an offense that beat the two best teams in the country for defending the field goal - Georgetown and Mississippi State. He finds way to create offense where other teams can't.
Chris Douglas-Roberts - The junior shooting guard from Detroit is one of the most selfless, impressive, valuable players in the country and if you can't see that then you don't watch enough basketball.
Defense - Five of the top six teams in the country in rebounding margin are still alive in the tournament (as an aside, just think about the power of rebounding for a second - it's impressive. Twelve of the top 15 teams made the tournament, and seven of those 15 are still playing), and Memphis is among them. They are seventh in field goal defense, seventh against threes, and third in defensive efficiency. Joey Dorsey is among the most ferocious defenders in the country. The team had 11 blocks against Mississippi State. In short, this team plays filthy defense. Add a potent offense to that mix and you have a team that no one should take too lightly.