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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Schedule Could Haunt Tigers

Schedule could haunt Tigers

By Dan Wolken
December 14, 2006

Whether it's the regional rivalry with Arkansas State or former University of Memphis assistant Dave Loos bringing his Austin Peay team into FedExForum tonight, there has been an intriguing storyline within each of the so-called "guarantee" games Memphis has played this season.

However, the lack of sizzle with the Tigers' home schedule has been a topic of local importance, especially this month.

Though Memphis will continue to play teams like Austin Peay and Jackson State from mid- or low-major conferences, coach John Calipari said this week he plans to have more "balance" in future schedules.
That means having games scheduled both at home and on the road with marquee programs, as opposed to this year's set-up, where Memphis has Tennessee, Gonzaga and Arizona on the road, yet won't host a top-25 team in FedExForum.

Which isn't only bad for fans, it's potentially disastrous for Memphis, which, given its 18-point loss to Tennessee on Dec. 6, is already fighting for its RPI life.

So instead of making a national statement tonight, the best the Tigers can do is beat Austin Peay and then hope the Governors go on to have a good season in the Ohio Valley Conference, possibly giving Memphis some strength of schedule points.

The current situation has prompted questions about why Memphis has to play so many guarantee games -- six of them this year -- given the current depleted state of Conference USA, which won't help the Tigers' NCAA Tournament seeding.

The biggest issue, according to assistant coach John Robic, who does the legwork on Memphis' scheduling, is that the Tigers must play 18 games per year at FedExForum to meet their budget.

The only way to accomplish that is to pay for teams like Austin Peay, Manhattan and Marshall to come to FedExForum for one-time appearances rather than the home-and-home contracts most teams from major conferences seek.

"It would be nice to have two more (marquee) teams, maybe one on the road and one at home, but you can't because you've got to have the home games," Calipari said. "There's a huge profit with us. One less home game is a couple hundred thousand."

"We can get games. People want to play us. It's just trying to get the balance of it."

Next year, assuming Conference USA continues with its 16-game league schedule, eight home games are locked in. The Tigers also have marquee home games against Gonzaga and Arizona, plus Tennessee coming to town for the continuation of that home-and-home series.

That leaves Memphis with seven home slots for next year, one of which will probably be an exhibition game and two more against mid-major competition in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, in which the Tigers are angling to be a regional host.

Those remaining four slots will likely be filled with "buy" games, Robic said.

"We're looking for buy games against teams that we think are going to win 17, 18 games so that it helps our RPI," Robic said. "There's so many unknowns. It's a flip of the coin."

Next year, Memphis is locked into road games at Ole Miss and Cincinnati and will play Middle Tennessee at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville as part of a 2-for-1 contract.

But the key to achieving "balance" in the schedule will be securing a marquee home-and-home series starting on the road, ensuring that opponent will play in Memphis in 2008-09.

Another idea is to play a nationally televised neutral site game in Chicago to showcase top point guard recruit Derrick Rose in his hometown against a top-25 caliber team.

"Last year's schedule was unbalanced in our favor with Cincinnati and Mississippi on the road," Calipari said. "And then we had all those games, Texas, Tennessee, Gonzaga at home. Now what's happened is, we've got Arizona this year on the road and then next year we've got them here. We're trying to either get one more really good road game or possibly a neutral game along with a tournament."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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