Maybe this is a mark of what John Calipari's been able to accomplish at Memphis. When his Tigers entered 2008-09 ranked 12th in the pre-season ESPN/USA Today Poll, this was widely viewed as signaling a "down" year. Never mind that there are 300 or more Division I coaches that would love for their team to be as "down" as that. Still, that pre-season perception was understandable. After all, how do you not take a step back when you lose Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Joey Dorsey? That's your point guard, leading scorer, and glass-cleaning workhorse right there. Surely the Tigers would feel the effects of all those departures, right?
Not so much. Look at Memphis now: they're 24-3 overall, riding some truly gaudy win streaks (18 wins in a row this year, and 54 in a row in Conference USA spanning four seasons), and still very much in the hunt for a one-seed in next month's NCAA tournament.
The Tigers are winning games by some notably lop-sided margins and, of course, part of that is a function of the competition they face in C-USA. Still, whatever you might think of the conference, C-USA hasn't changed dramatically in quality since last year. Nor, for that matter, have the numbers that Memphis is posting in conference play. It just turns out that a team led by Tyreke Evans can perform almost exactly as well in per-possession terms as one led by Rose and CDR.
There is however at least one interesting difference between last year's team and the 2009 version: pace. This year's team clearly operates at a somewhat slower tempo. Averaging four fewer possessions a game might not seem like a big deal, but it's a rather telling deceleration. Moreover, the new tempo isn't a function of Memphis running fewer fast breaks off opponents' turnovers-this year's team is generating more takeaways in conference play. It seems apparent, then, that Calipari has made a conscious decision to go a little bit slower with this group of personnel, and that appears to be working out well for them. As seen here, the Tigers' offense this season has been every bit as good as, and perhaps even a hair better than, last year's star-studded group.
Conference games only, 2009 figures through 2/24
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession
Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)
Memphis: Just as Good as Last Year?
Games Pace PPP PPP EM
2008 70.4 1.13 0.84 +0.29
2009 65.8 1.15 0.87 +0.28
Evans is clearly one driving force behind this year's offense. After starting the year as Calipari's shooting guard, the freshman shifted over to point guard in late December, a move that's been hailed as having ignited the Tigers' surge. We'll never know whether Memphis would have struggled on offense if Evans had remained a shooting guard. There are two things we do know, however: first, that the Tigers show all the characteristics of an offense that's being led by excellent guards, and second, Evans' individual performance did indeed improve dramatically when he changed positions.
This may come as a surprise to anyone who envisions Memphis as a team of long athletes who get out in transition and dunk on overmatched opponents, but this offense happens to be very good at three-point shooting and ball control. The Tigers attempt an average number of threes, but when they pull that trigger their accuracy has been above-average against C-USA opponents. Only Rice and East Carolina have bettered the 38 percent three-point shooting posted by Memphis in league play. By the same token, Calipari's team is excellent at holding onto the rock, committing turnovers on just 16 percent of their possessions in C-USA games.
As his team's point guard and a frequent shooter of threes, Evans can take much of the credit for both of those stats. It's not easy filling the shoes of a Derrick Rose, but the freshman from Chester, PA has progressed to the point where those particular Nikes are actually fitting pretty well. Rose was more adept at getting himself to the free-throw line, but otherwise the numbers put up by Calipari's last two point guards are surprisingly similar-and where they aren't, say in defensive rebounding and especially steals, the difference is sometimes in favor of Evans.
Naturally Evans hasn't brought Memphis to these heights all by himself. Senior Robert Dozier and junior Shawn Taggart give Calipari highly effective length at both ends of the floor, length that has paid off in excellent offensive rebounding and lights-out interior field-goal defense. Antonio Anderson has functioned a little like an auxiliary point guard, one who can both dish assists and get himself to the line. Doneal Mack's most vital contribution might be the hardest to see-almost literally. The junior doesn't turn the ball over, as it has happened just 17 times in 701 minutes. All in all, the Tigers have benefited not only from the performance of a high-profile freshman but also from the vital contributions made by battle-hardened veterans with Final Four scars.
Of course, winning streaks can create a misleading sense of invincibility. We'd do well to remember that Memphis has had some close calls, even after Evans' reputedly year-changing move to point guard. See for example the Tigers' one-point win at Tulsa on January 13, their two-point win at Tennessee 11 days later, or even their most recent game, a seven-point victory at UTEP on Saturday. The long win streaks don't mean Calipari's team is unbeatable. Nevertheless, it would appear that the difference between Memphis 2009 and Memphis 2008 is much smaller than any of us anticipated last November.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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