When Georgetown and Memphis met last season in a pre-Christmas collision of undefeated top-five teams, the Hoyas entered the game concerned with the Tigers’ backcourt length and penetration prowess. A year later, the stars and stakes have changed, but the challenge remains the same.
Though Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts now play in the NBA, the 17th-ranked Tigers (5-1) will invade Verizon Center on Saturday once again boasting a backcourt brimming with potential mismatches.
While the 19th-ranked Hoyas (6-1) feature traditional-size starting guards in Chris Wright (6-foot-1), Jessie Sapp (6-3) and Austin Freeman (6-4), the Tigers counter with a trio larger than many of the other backcourts the Hoyas have faced thus far in Wesley Witherspoon (6-8), Antonio Anderson (6-6) and Tyreke Evans (6-6).
“We have size and length,” Memphis coach John Calipari said. “We’re young in the backcourt with [freshmen] Tyreke and Wesley, but I think we have a group that can hurt teams in a lot of different ways.”
Last season, the Hoyas struggled with the size-speed combination of Douglas-Roberts and Rose. The Memphis guards combined for 42 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in an 85-71 victory over Georgetown at FedEx Forum. After a brilliant freshman campaign, Rose became the top pick in the NBA Draft. So this season, Calipari has turned the offense over to another freshman in Evans, who has a 7-3 wingspan.
Though his production (16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists) seems to suggest otherwise, Evans hasn’t adjusted to the college game quite as quickly as Rose. Evans is an outstanding slasher and finisher, skills that made him a McDonald’s All-American and consensus top-10 recruit, but he lacks Rose’s halfcourt savvy. The Chester, Pa., native struggled when Xavier backed away and dared him to shoot in Memphis’ loss to the Musketeers in the finale of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Nov. 23.
“I was thinking too much,” said Evans, who finished 4-for-16 from the field in the 63-58 defeat. “I didn’t have any confidence. I have to get back to catch and shoot. When guys sag off, let it go. Then when they start playing me, my ability to get to the rack, I can do that any time.”
The Tigers responded to the loss by obliterating Marist 100-61 in their last outing, with Evans connecting on 10 of 13 shots to score a game-high 24 points.
“I liked how Tyreke played tonight,” Calipari said afterward. “He messed with the ball about three of four times, as opposed to every time. The rest of the time he scored, got to the rim.”
That performance against the Red Foxes doesn’t change the book on how to defend Evans and the long, athletic Tigers. The Memphis halfcourt offense might best be described as slash-and-crash. Evans and his fellow guards penetrate, attempt to draw help and then either shoot or pass to forwards including Robert Dozier (12.0 points, 6.5 rebounds) and Shawn Taggert (11.3 points, 10.0 rebounds).
What the Tigers haven’t done so well this season is make opponents pay for defending them with a sagging zone. Evans shoots 20 percent from 3-point range, and Memphis shoots 29.5 percent from behind the arc as a team (248th in the nation).
“[Other teams think] they have an idea of what bothers us,” Calipari said. “One of them is: Give us open shots and pack it in and hope we don’t make them. My issue with that is it’s a heck of a thing to tell your team that we can’t play with these guys, so just stay in the lane.”
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