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Monday, December 04, 2006

Memphis, Marshall Both Hunt for C-USA Opening Win

Memphis, Marshall both hunt for C-USA opening win

By Dan Wolken
December 4, 2006

Though it may sound obvious, Marshall coach Ron Jirsa sees a potential benefit in opening Conference USA play tonight against the University of Memphis.

"If you win," Jirsa said, "you're 1-0 in the league."

So if you're looking for stakes at FedExForum tonight, the earliest league game in C-USA history will provide either Marshall or No. 14-ranked Memphis the chance to get a jump on the competition before conference play begins in earnest the second week of January.
That could be especially important for the Tigers, given that their next conference game could theoretically be their toughest, Jan. 11 at Houston.

And sitting on an 0-1 league record for more than a month isn't something that particularly interests Tigers coach John Calipari.

"Oh, man," Calipari said, responding to that scenario. "But one of us is going to lose, and we just want to be prepared to put ourselves in position to do what we do.

"I would hope there's a big importance to every time we play a league game and especially a home league game. We'll figure out if these guys know."

If you're wondering why Memphis is playing Marshall so early, it's a product of C-USA expanding the league schedule from 14 to 16 games, something Calipari grudgingly went along with.

Memphis had already agreed to play at Gonzaga on Feb. 17, a Saturday that would normally be reserved for an open date during a 14-game conference schedule.

Marshall was in a similar predicament because of its game with in-state rival West Virginia on Jan. 24. Thus, when the league schedule went to 16 games, the C-USA office paired up the two teams to play a December game and avoid a scheduling conflict.

That provides an unusual challenge for Memphis, given that the Tigers were able to sleepwalk through victories over Arkansas State and Manhattan last week. Things probably won't be so easy tonight, given that the level of intensity usually goes up in league games, especially those involving Memphis.

For Marshall, beating the Tigers could be a season-maker, as it almost was last season when the Tigers got down by 11 points early in Huntington before sweating out a 91-81 victory.

"We're ranked and they're not, so we know they're going to be ready to play and try to give us their best effort and I'm pretty sure they will," senior guard Jeremy Hunt said. "Marshall is one of those teams that can easily beat you any kind of way."

Though Marshall is 2-5, it has been playing conference-style games all season. Its wins have come by a combined three points. Its five losses have been suffered by an average of 3.8 points.

Jirsa said playing so many games down to the wire is something his team can draw from as it moves into the league, where close games will probably be the norm.

"There's two sides to every game, and you have to stay focused on learning," Jirsa said. "We have to learn from our effort."

Marshall got the attention of Memphis players with a 72-70 loss to California in the Great Alaska Shootout, a game that the Thundering Herd had several opportunities to win.

"I know it's early for a conference game, and normally it's after New Year's, but it's early this year and we've got to be prepared," sophomore forward Robert Dozier said. "We saw Marshall lose a tough game to Cal, so we've got to come out to play."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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