Memphis Preview

UCLA will be in New York's Madison Square Garden tonight in the semi-final of the NIT Tip-Off, taking on a very talented and hyper-athletic Memphis team. It should be one of the best UCLA basketball games of the season...

I'm excited about this game. Can you tell?

The 18th-ranked Bruins take their new-found defensive prowess and reborn transition game into Madison Square Garden, where they'll be facing a super-athletic 12th-rated Memphis Tigers' squad which emphasizes: You've got it, intense man pressure defense and a killer transition game. It should be one of the most exciting UCLA games of the entire season, unless the Bruins make 20 turnovers.

John Calipari has averaged 23 wins per season so far at Memphis and won 22 games last season, but some talented head cases kept the Tigers from meeting lofty preseason expectations and sent them to a disappointing finish in the NIT. The head cases are gone, replaced by a raft of promising newcomers, and Calipari returns two starters who are among the best players in the country at their respective positions.

Darius Washington is a 6-2 200 SO PG who might average 20 points and 5 assist per game this season. He scores in transition and by breaking people down off the dribble; the weak part of his game is shooting the ball more than 17 feet from the basket. He's fast, quick and very strong and physical for a PG. Some of his shake and bake moves are breathtaking. There's no way Jordan Farmar guards this guy. I expect Arron Afflalo to get the assignment. Arron will try to stay in front of Washington and when he can't, use his size and physicality and intensity to ride Washington's hip and force him off stride in the lane. Washington does try to force plays a lot and will turn the ball over without much provocation from the defense, so the Bruins should be set to get their transition game going even if Washington is able to get into the lane and hurt them inside. Andre Allen, 5-10 SO PG, is a bullish little true point who will give Washington a breather now and then.

Rodney Carney, 6-7 SR SG/SF, is a unique player with a rare combination of skills. He loves to shoot the 3 and can get red hot from outside the arc (he was 7-15 from 3 in the Tigers' first two NIT games). He also has a legitimate 40-inch vertical leap and can throw down some of the most spectacular dunks you will see. In between the 3-point line and the basket, he has issues. He's an inconsistent ball handler, lacks a mid-range game and despite his leaping prowess sometimes gives out an indifferent effort on defense and on the glass, although he did grab 9 rebounds against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the NIT opener. Carney's inconsistencies of effort have been very frustrating for Calipari, so sometimes Carney starts and sometimes he comes off the bench. But, as you can imagine, if he gets out on the wing in transition and Washington gets him the ball, watch out! Cedric Bozeman will almost certainly be assigned to guard him. Ced has savvy, experience, size and length. He doesn't have a 40-inch vertical. This game could very well turn on this match-up. Ced has to be aggressive on offense in this game and make Carney pay for his defensive lapses. So, a lot will be riding on Ced.

Shawn Williams, 6-9 225 FR SF/PF, was rated a top 10 (and maybe a top 5) high school player last year. There was talk he could have turned pro and skipped college entirely, and most observers doubt he will spend more than 2 years in college. He seems to have all the tools, an outside shot, a mid-range game with good ball handling skills and a good power post game underneath. He's also a good passer. He's averaged 12 points and 3.5 rebounds per game so far for Memphis and no doubt is figuring out where he fits in exactly on a team with two big scorers like Washington and Carney. He will undoubtedly present Luc Richard Mbah A Moute with his toughest defensive assignment to date. Williams has the skills to burn a team for 20+ points at the drop of a hat, and he might be one of the few players in the country who is taller than Luc, yet can match him in athletic ability.

Calipari wasn't satisfied with bringing in one top freshman, he went out and recruited a handful of them, nabbing one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Antonio Anderson, 6-6 FR PG/SG/SF (5.0 ppg, 3.0 apg), played with Williams in high school and he's a Ced Bozeman in the making, a multi-skilled guy who can play multiple positions and be effective at every one. He plays extremely good defense for a freshman. His only weakness appears to be his outside shot. He's a good bet to start for Memphis, since Calipari seems to be favoring a smallish, very quick starting lineup this year. But Chris Douglas-Roberts, 6-5 FR SG/SF (6.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg), another very athletic big guard/wing with good strength, will also see a generous amount of PT.

Calipari brought in 2 freshmen big men to compliment a top returning reserve and they've all been productive off the bench for the Tigers in the early season. Kareem Cooper, 6-11 FR C (11.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg), weighs 280, but likes to play facing the basket and isn't a strong force on the offensive glass as a result. But his shooting range extends out to 17 feet or more. He, too, played with Williams in high school (in case you were wondering, Laurinburg Prep in North Carolina isn't your usual kind of high school). Still another Laurinburg alumnus, Robert Dozier, 6-9 FR PF/C (6.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg), is more of a traditional post player and very tough around the basket at both ends despite lacking great bulk (he's listed at 210). Joey Dorsey, 6-9 SO C (5.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg) is a baby bull at 265 and is also a very physical presence deep inside. He played at Laurinburg before Williams, Anderson, Cooper and Dozier got there. So, Calipari has a lot of options in the post. He might start Dorsey if Carney sits. The Tiger's big men lack experience, but they simply have a lot more talent than Bruin seniors Ryan Hollins and Mike Fey. Both Bruin post players will have to play their best games of the season if UCLA is going to win this game.

As I noted above, Memphis plays tough, in-your-face man defense and will also use a variety of full court and ¾ presses to speed the tempo and generate fast breaks in transition. They held Wisconsin-Milwaukee to 22.2% shooting from the field and forced 19 turnovers. Alabama shot 35.5% from the field and committed 17 turnovers. So, a key for the Bruins is whether they can play in a real up-tempo game without turning the ball over. They will also have to take the ball to the hole strong and try to take advantage of the Tigers' lack of experience inside. At the other end, defense is of course a team game, but Arron, Ced and Luc will have the key assignments and they must all be at the top of their game if UCLA is going to slow the Memphis onslaught.

Memphis lacks great experience and Carney can be inconsistent, but I love their talent and athletic ability. Memphis matches up well with the Bruins at their key positions, and unless Jordan Farmar is really healthy UCLA seems to lack the firepower to hang with Memphis for the full 40 minutes. The Bruins will keenly feel the loss of Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya in this game, and Darren Collison and Mike Roll will face a test of fire the likes of which they‘ve never experienced in their brief college careers. The Bruins have played great defense so far this season, but they haven't faced a squad with all the tools like Memphis.

My prediction: Memphis 84, UCLA 76.

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