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Saturday, February 03, 2007

At Halfway Mark, Tigers Still Class of C-USA

Halfway, Tigers still the class of C-USA

By Dan Wolken
February 2, 2007

When 2007 began, coach John Calipari looked at the Conference USA schedule and saw so many hurdles, so many dangerous games ahead for the University of Memphis. And with a young team that struggled on the road in November and December and played inconsistently against lesser opponents, the thought of going 16-0 in this league seemed outlandish.

"To go in and say you're going to win every road game, come on," Calipari said on Jan. 9. "We're not winning every game this year. We're not going to. Are we going to try to? Yes. We're going to try to, but you don't go through a league undefeated. You just don't."

But now, halfway through the conference schedule, No. 11-ranked Memphis is 8-0 and on track for a perfect run through C-USA, with several of the scariest games already in the rear-view mirror.

The latest supposed challenge never materialized Wednesday at Central Florida. Despite a hyper-intense, hostile atmosphere inside UCF Arena, the Tigers easily ripped through C-USA's second-place team, 87-65, leaving little doubt the gap between Memphis and the rest of the league has not shrunk.

Now, with the second half of conference play beginning Saturday at FedExForum against SMU, the idea of a 16-0 record doesn't sound so crazy.

But once again Thursday, Calipari cautioned that more difficult tests remain.

"These kids aren't machines," Calipari said. "There's going to be a letup at some point. We try to guard against it, but it's just not realistic. You've got all these teams, and they're all better, every team in our league. The league has gotten better overall, it's just that the teams that were with us -- Houston and UAB -- kind of moved in the pack.

"SMU, Tulsa on the road, the UTEP game on the road is going to be a hard game. We've got Houston at home, and they've won five in a row now. That will be a hard game."

For all the hand-wringing about the lack of strong teams in C-USA hurting Memphis' NCAA Tournament seed this year, the Tigers checked in at No. 9 in the RPI as of Thursday.

Though Memphis is still unlikely to get a No. 1 seed as it did last year, the Tigers can one-up that team by going undefeated in league play. If they can, Memphis will be in very good shape for a top-four NCAA seed.

And the Tigers have shown no signs lately of slowing down.

"What I've been pleased with is how unselfish the team is," Calipari said. "Last year we had great talent, a terrific team that enjoyed each other, but the ball stopped a lot, and the guy that stopped it was good enough to score anyway. Right now, we're creating a little better for each other and taking better shots."

Memphis' biggest remaining hurdle probably won't be a C-USA game at all. The Tigers travel to Gonzaga on Feb. 17, giving them one more chance for a marquee non-conference win.

Here's what awaits Memphis in its final eight C-USA games:

Saturday, vs. SMU: The Mustangs have to be feeling good after winning at UAB on Wednesday.

Feb. 8, at UAB: The Tigers suffered their only C-USA loss last year at UAB. Will this year's Blazers be 25 points better than they were at FedExForum on Jan. 16?

Feb. 10, vs. Tulane: This game is the least likely Memphis loss.

Feb. 14, at Tulsa: Perhaps the most dangerous game against a tough defensive team

Feb. 22, vs. Rice: If they can hold Morris Almond to a reasonable point total, the Tigers shouldn't lose this one.

Feb. 25, vs. Houston: Memphis already won at Houston, but the Cougars' 3-point shooting is always a wildcard.

March 1, at UTEP: Former Tigers assistant Tony Barbee will have the Miners fired up.

March 3, at SMU: How intense will the pressure be if a perfect conference record is on the line?

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

Next for No. 11 Tigers

Opponent: SMU

When, Where: 11 a.m., Saturday; FedExForum

TV: ESPN

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