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Top of the Arc - December 13, 2008

Dec. 13, 7 p.m.: I'm still in Verizon Center, where Georgetown finished off Memphis a few hours ago. It is clear that both programs remain works in progress, but Georgetown is further ahead in the process than Memphis. The Tigers have some talent, namely Tyreke Evans, but this team will have some ups and downs as it navigates a tough non-conference schedule. Georgetown beat writer Liz Clarke will have the Hoyas covered in tomorrow's paper, but here is the sidebar I wrote from the Memphis locker room:

John Calipari had just watched his Memphis team score 28 second-chance points against Georgetown because of tenacious offensive rebounding. But Calipari walked into the Verizon Center’s visitors’ locker room yesterday, following a 79-70 overtime loss, and wrote one word on a grease board: Tough.

Despite dominating the rebounding battle, Calipari watched Georgetown outrace the Tigers to loose balls late in the game and outhustle them down the stretch. He also made clear that he had witnessed another work-in-progress team show it is on a much quicker learning curve than his revamped Tigers.

“We are not ready for this kind of game,” Calipari said.

The matchup of two teams that each won more than 25 games last year produced a big-game atmosphere. Amid the crowd of 15,238 were Dikembe Mutombo, the former Georgetown center, Tom O’Connor, a member of the NCAA tournament selection committee, and William Wesley, one of the most powerful figures in college basketball.

But without Derrick Rose, who was picked first in June’s NBA draft, and Chris Douglas-Roberts, Memphis is connected to last year’s national runner-up team in school name only. The Tigers (5-2) should still win the Conference USA title, but they are expected to have a slimmer margin for error than they did during last season’s blitz through the regular season.

“I am trying to learn about my team,” Calipari said. “I don’t have my team figured out yet. Sometimes I am really happy, sometimes I’m like, ‘oh, my gosh.’ We haven’t been like this for three years. We knew our team. Now we have no idea.”

Throughout yesterday’s game, Memphis’s best offense was a missed shot. The Tigers collected 25 offensive rebounds and sent the game into overtime when Shawn Taggart followed a Tyreke Evans miss with a tip-in with four seconds left in regulation.

Memphis led by one point at halftime, but forward Robert Dozier said Memphis should have been up 10 or 15 points if not for poor shooting and 10 turnovers. The Tigers finished with 20 turnovers and a 34.6 shooting percentage from the floor.

“They wanted it more than we did,” Memphis forward Pierre Henderson-Niles said. “All we had was rebounding.”

Memphis won the rebounding battle, 53-36. But while Georgetown Coach John Thompson III acknowledged, “that number 53 is huge, we got a couple key rebounds where we had to.”

That frustrated Calipari, who saw his team wilt in critical moments. At one point, Calipari let his team play through a difficult stretch, rather than call a timeout. He said that strategy worked with last year’s ultra-talented team. Not this season.

“My veterans have to play better,” Calipari said. “We can’t count on freshmen. You’re not going to win what we are trying to win.”

Evans, one of the nation’s most dynamic freshmen, scored 20 points but made just 8 of 24 shots. Calipari said he “showed signs of ‘wow’.” But Calipari said he also took an ill advised three-pointer late in the game because he didn’t know any better.

“He is used to AAU ball,” Calipari said.

After his first road loss in nearly two years, Calipari now faces the task of finding ways to win and figuring out his team even as the Tigers navigate a difficult non-conference schedule that still includes road games at Tennessee and Gonzaga.

“We have got some guys, if they don’t play rougher and tougher, we’re not going to be as good,” Calipari said, “and they are going to be nice college players. It will be over.”

By Eric Prisbell  |  December 13, 2008; 7:00 PM ET
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