MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Only minutes after his team’s 61-59 upset win against Missouri on Saturday, Memphis coach John Calipari was in the hallway between locker rooms in The Pyramid, discussing the outcome with reporters. Calipari gushed about his team’s performance, suggesting his team could go far if it “battled” as a group.
He found time to compliment Missouri as well.
“They’re so talented and they’re such a good team,” he said. “They’re growing right now. By the end of the year, that team has the ability to be a Final Four team. They really do.”
Calipari led Massachusetts to a 35-2 record and the Final Four in 1995-96, so he knows about the talent needed to reach the last weekend of the NCAA Tournament. If Missouri can’t find a way to pull together soon, it may find itself in a different Final Four, the one in the NIT.
Many of the problems Missouri grappled with in its 71-70 loss to Illinois on Tuesday in St. Louis resurfaced Saturday. Memphis jumped out to an early lead and had a nine-point advantage at halftime. Missouri’s shooting in the first half was dreadful (24 percent), then improved decidedly in the second. Turnovers cost Missouri possessions. Sixteen giveaways (11 in the second half) against Memphis followed 18 against the Fighting Illini. Both games ended in a tight, hard-to-swallow loss for the Tigers (4-3).
Center Arthur Johnson said the Memphis loss was not as heartbreaking as Tuesday’s defeat. Losing to Illinois came with the extra difficulty of falling to a regional rival in a split arena. Neither were factors in Memphis. Johnson said he sees improvement, if just a gradual one.
“It’s a loss, but it’s a different kind of game,” he said. “We’re getting better.”
The improvement continues on the defensive end, but Missouri still found a way to lose to a Memphis team that shot 24 percent (7-of-29) in the second half. After finding ways to wiggle out of halftime deficits against Coppin State and Indiana earlier this month, the Tigers have found it more difficult to complete the comeback against tougher competition.
“Those points at the top of the game just put us behind and we feel like we’re digging out of a hole again,” guard Jason Conley said. “(The Memphis loss) actually wasn’t as bad as the Illinois game, but as you can see we’re progressing a little better.”
Some bad luck aided the slow start offensively against Memphis: Missouri made 6-of-25 shots under the basket. Eight of those misses were Johnson’s, whose strong low post game often creates high percentage shots. The ball bounced Missouri’s way in the second half, as the Tigers made 6-of-8 close-range shots.
Missouri’s offense ran through Johnson early, a strategy that usually leads to success on the scoreboard. Those shots would not fall against Memphis.
“In the first half, we had a ton of opportunities in the paint and we couldn’t convert,” coach Quin Snyder said. “That shows you where we need to get better…our half-court execution needs to get better.”
Memphis defenders double- and even triple-teamed Johnson, but he still finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds. This is the second season Johnson has been the focus of defensive pressure and he said the extra attention does not overwhelm him.
"I see that every night,” he said. “It’s just something I have to deal with, I guess; being who I am, that’s what they’re going to do. But it’s not bothering me.”
The pressure forced Johnson into three turnovers, but he was consistently able to pitch the ball back outside. Hitting that shot, though, is never a guarantee: Missouri made 6-of-18 3-pointers against Memphis.
“If AJ is drawing a double and kicking it out, he’s doing his job,” Snyder said. “We have to be more efficient converting when it does come out.”
Forward Travon Bryant said the team remains confident in its offensive capabilities. Bad shooting nights will come and go, but Bryant said he knows the offensive game plan will work.
“We know we’re a team that, if we run the offense right, our shots will fall,” he said.
Getting the offense to run smoothly may take longer than Missouri hoped. Big 12 Conference play opens in nine days at Iowa State.
“Of course we’re doing things wrong, but we’re doing a lot of things right,” Johnson said. “It’s just going to take time, that’s what I think. I’ve been around, and I know it takes time.”