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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Calipari of Two Minds on Tigers

Calipari of two minds on Tigers

By Dan Wolken
November 2, 2006

Catch John Calipari in certain moments these days, and he's going to give you The Speech. The one about losing his top three scorers, about how his Memphis Tigers of 2006-07 won't physically and athletically dominate like the Memphis Tigers of 2005-06, about how winning 30 games is something only three of his 14 previous teams have done.

But catch Calipari in other moments, and he can't help but gush. About his team's depth. About its personality and coachability. About how its energy and hunger reminds him of his 1996 Massachusetts team, which went to the Final Four.

There is a gulf of uncertainty between those two characterizations. And though the picture certainly won't be much clearer tonight after the Tigers' exhibition game at FedExForum against LeMoyne-Owen, at least the journey will have begun.

"We're going to have to do it different," Calipari said. "When people watch us play, it will not look like what last year looked like. It won't. It'll be a little different. Hopefully, it'll be a different that people enjoy."

And perhaps that's the best way to sum up a month in which Calipari has been admittedly perplexed about the preseason accolades his team has received, from being picked to win Conference USA to being voted No. 14 in the preseason ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll.

Though Calipari could have used those polls to validate his contention that Memphis has arrived as a national program, he instead has attempted to manage expectations, pointing out that only support players were left over from his 33-4 squad that was one bad shooting night away from the Final Four.

His favorite talking point? The Tigers lost 56 percent of their scoring in Darius Washington and two first-round NBA Draft picks, Shawne Williams and Rodney Carney.

"He doesn't want that much on us because we lost three pros," sophomore guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. "That's what he's trying to do, but we're a pretty good team; I know that. Our practices have been great. Every one."

Little by little, however, Calipari has brightened the forecast.

On the Tigers' scrimmage last Sunday night: "It almost scared me. I cut practice like, 'That's it, stop.' We're not supposed to be that good this early. And I don't want us to be that good this early. You don't want them playing like it's January 28."

On attitude: "I had a guy call me last night and say, 'This may be the best group of kids you've had here.' They are. That's not to say any other group are bad guys, but I'm just saying, this is pleasurable. Every day I come in, I'm like, I'm having fun. I know what I'm going to get from the guys."

On effort: "This is one of those teams; I had one in 1995-96. They want it for themselves collectively as bad as I want it for them. I don't know what that means, but I will tell you, I think they'll max out."

Regardless of the predictions -- both internal and external -- there has been a palpable buzz, an excitement about the start of this season felt on campus and around the city.

And though tonight's game against LeMoyne-Owen won't count in the final standings, the season is indeed here.

"There's always going to be a buzz," sophomore guard Antonio Anderson said. "Here, everything's big, especially with the basketball program. They expect something big out of us again, and I hope we can give it to them."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

Tigers vs. LeMoyne-Owen
When, where: Today, 7 p.m., at FedExForum
TV, radio: No TV, WREC-AM (600)

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