Tigers need big win in big game vs. Arizona
University of Memphis coach John Calipari says tonight's showdown with Arizona isn't a big game, but he sure doesn't want to watch his team let a rare opportunity to secure a high NCAA Tournament seed get away. After tonight, Gonzaga will be the only ranked opponent left on the Tigers' schedule.
By Dan Wolken
December 20, 2006
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Today there are two more chances. Tomorrow, only one will be left.
Sure, the University of Memphis might very well sweep through Conference USA this season, be one of the country's hottest teams come March and have legitimate claims to a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But realistically, few December games could be bigger toward that end than tonight's, in which the No. 18 Tigers play No. 9 Arizona.
Though Memphis will leave here with one more chance to significantly improve its resume -- at Gonzaga on Feb. 17 -- even that game won't match this one in terms of opportunity for the Tigers to form their national reputation.
"It's not such a big game, it's a quality game," junior point guard Andre Allen said. "If we win ... it could change our seed."
That pretty much has been the theme for Memphis (8-2) this week. Coach John Calipari has stressed that tonight's game is huge if the Tigers can win, but they won't be penalized by a loss given that Arizona (8-1) is ranked No. 1 in the
RPI and only loses 1.5 home games per year on average under coach Lute Olson.
However, Memphis already has two losses to borderline top-25 teams -- by 18 points at Tennessee and to Georgia Tech on a neutral court -- making it impossible to envision a scenario in which the Tigers can earn a top-four NCAA seed without beating either Arizona or Gonzaga.
"If we win, it's huge," said Calipari, whose team also has a Jan. 4 home game against Cincinnati of the Big East Conference. "If you don't, you just lost on the road to a top-ranked team who never loses here who has a chance of doing some unique things.
"When you play ranked opponents, you are playing for your seed. This is an important game because it's the next one. It's not a big game. It's not a league game for either of us. Is there more importance because of seeding? Yeah, but if you ask them, it's the same thing."
In some ways, tonight is almost as crucial for Arizona, which has a 41-1 record in the Chase Fiesta Bowl Classic, the official designation for this game.
Though the Wildcats will obviously have a chance to win the Pac-10 and earn a top seed, they are yet to face a ranked team this year despite a demanding schedule that already includes victories over Illinois and Louisville.
"I think we look at it as, it could set us up for a No. 1 seed in the tournament," Arizona sophomore forward Marcus Williams said. "You say 'one game at a time,' but with the strength of schedule, it puts us in position to accomplish that."
Another potential subplot to this game is Arizona sophomore guard J.P. Prince, the former White Station star who was recruited by Memphis and Vanderbilt before signing with the Wildcats.
Prince's career, however, hasn't blossomed thus far. He's played just three games this season and has reportedly been battling an undisclosed illness; meanwhile, speculation has swirled that he's considering a mid-season transfer.
Arizona didn't make Prince available to the media on Tuesday, but he did talk to reporters Sunday after the Wildcats beat Houston 87-62, a game he didn't play in but did watch from the bench.
According to the Tucson Citizen, when asked about the possibility of a transfer, Prince said, "We'll see how things go."
Whether Prince plays or not, the Tigers shouldn't lack the motivation to put forth their best effort of the season.
"It's hard to play on the road but I don't believe any of us should have pressure," freshman guard Doneal Mack said. "We've got a chip on our shoulder. Nobody respects us, so we should play with no conscience. I think if we win this, it can change our season."
-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365