Commentary

Calipari trying to figure out his talented Tigers

Updated: November 22, 2008, 4:21 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The all-blue uniforms are fitting. Memphis keeps coming with the same regularity as the waves crashing outside the Coliseo de Puerto Rico.

[+] EnlargeTyreke Evans
AP Photo/Andres LeightonStar freshman Tyreke Evans is just one of the many talented players at Memphis.
Talented veteran after hyped rookie, shooter after scorer, fast break after dunk, it's an endless sea of blue that had Seton Hall calling for the Dramamine in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. The undermanned and exhausted Pirates were no match for the Smurfs on Red Bull as Memphis romped to an 84-70 win that wasn't even that close.

The Tigers are now 4-0 and have won by an average of 18.8 points per game this season.

But John Calipari didn't come to the Caribbean to sit back and admire the view. Calipari came here to find out what he's got. He has talent, a sickening largesse of it; he has speed, track meet style speed, and he has hard workers.

What can it all add up to? That's what Calipari is trying to figure out, which is why he won the game inside the game against the Pirates, narrowly beating Bobby Gonzalez in the Insane-O-Meter with a foot-stomping, voice-cracking coaching job that continued even as his Tigers stretched their lead beyond 20 points.

He might get a good gauge on Sunday night. In the title game, Memphis will face Xavier, the best team the Tigers will have faced in this young season by a country mile.

"The next game will say a lot about our team," Calipari said. "The guys are challenged. They know a lot of people aren't talking about Memphis. It's like we're not even on the radar."

That might be a slight overstatement. The off-the-radar Tigers are ranked 12th.

But the shoulder chip is as much a part of the Memphis uniform as the numbers on the jerseys, and it's eerily similar to the one Xavier totes around, each fueled by a coach still entrenched in his blue-collar roots.

Calipari and Sean Miller grew up in Pittsburgh, where a shot and a beer is the way to order a drink for yins. Calipari hung out in Miller's grandmother's house and even recruited Miller to Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesJohn Calipari knows Xavier will be his toughest challenge of the season so far.
Both now stand atop programs that are elite in statistics, records and in every numerical way you measure success, but still banging at the door of perception.

The Musketeers have won 20 or more games in 11 of the past 12 seasons, made two trips to the Elite Eight in the past five years, and still had to spit out the mid-major tag two seasons ago.

The Tigers, in the meantime, remain the gypsies at the palace, the interlopers of last year's Final Four. Similarly dogged by a non-BCS conference, they believe they have as many detractors as they do fans.

"We always feel like the underdogs," junior Willie Kemp said. "No matter what we do in the NCAA tournament or how many games we win, people wonder if we're good enough. I think it's the same for Xavier, but they're a really good team and we are, too."

Gonzalez will attest to that. His Seton Hall team got mowed over and plowed under by the Tigers' relentless defense and whiplashed by their frighteningly unselfish offense. For a team stuffed with a two-deep of talent, Memphis is stunningly generous. The Tigers dished 19 assists on 25 made field goals, to complement the 45 rebounds and only 11 turnovers despite a pace that would generously be described as blistering.

"They come at you like they were shot out of a cannon," Gonzalez said. "If they're not an elite team, they're pretty darn close."

About the only thing Memphis didn't do well was shoot. Continuing a chronic under-performance from beyond the arc, Memphis went 4-of-19 on 3s, making them 20-of-84 (23.8 percent) for the season.

"We lead the nation in missed 3s," Calipari said.

While Memphis coasted into the championship game, Xavier clawed. The Musketeers survived Missouri's exhausting and frenetic defense with steady and calm success at the free-throw line and rallied from 10 down in a semifinal against Virginia Tech that would have been better suited to a weekend in March.

[+] EnlargeXavier
AP Photo/Andres LeightonThere was a little March magic in November when Xavier beat Virginia Tech at the buzzer.
Dante Jackson finally put an end to a game that no one wanted to see end with a shot right out of the "One Shining Moment" archives. Even a host of adjectives doesn't adequately describe the drama: half-court, buzzer-beating, overtime 3-pointer. Buried by his teammates, who celebrated as if they had just punched a ticket to the Final Four, Jackson and the Musketeers were later greeted by a raucous Xavier crowd chanting on the steps of the team hotel.

"Any coach would have been happy with our effort," Miller said. "We're a work in progress on offense but I like our toughness level. I like the way we compete."

Now the two clash in what should be an even match. Xavier doesn't have the speed that Memphis does. Save the Jamaican track team, few squads do. But the Musketeers showed against Missouri that they could handle an up-tempo game and survive.

The Tigers and Musketeers play to a draw on the boards and in the backcourt. In the former, each team averages just under 42 rebounds per game. In the latter, each is young and prone to mistakes. Antonio Anderson is settling into what remains the unnatural point guard position for him, while Terrell Holloway is growing into the spot for the Musketeers.

As Calipari and Miller pointed out, neither is particularly good offensively. They each create opportunities off their defense and rebounding rather than launch beautiful works of art from the perimeter.

The difference?

Cover your eyes, Memphis fans. Xavier quite literally won its game against Missouri at the charity stripe. The Tigers missed 16 freebies against Seton Hall.

"Don't miss free throws, that's the key," Calipari said. "They missed seven and we missed 16. That's nine points, so we better beat them on the floor."

Otherwise, shoe repairmen in Memphis rejoice -- more shoes to resole.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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