Tuesday, February 27, 2007
From USA Today "Memphis' 'Propaganda' Battle"
Memphis' 'Propaganda' battle
Updated 2/27/2007 11:36 PM ET
By Tom Weir, USA TODAY
MEMPHIS — John Calipari throws open a door and looks out on a University of Memphis parking lot with impish pride.
"They didn't tow me," Calipari shouts as he spots his illegally parked Audi. "We must be winning."
Memphis is indeed winning. The Tigers are 25-3 and riding a 17-game streak, the nation's longest in Division I men's basketball. Only Memphis and the Big South's Winthrop are undefeated in men's conference play, and Memphis ran its home winning streak to 29 Sunday with a 77-64 victory against Houston.
Given that Memphis is where the Conference USA will play its league tournament, it's a good possibility the Tigers will glide into the NCAA tournament on a 22-game roll.
During the winning streak, Memphis' average margin of victory has been 21.1 points by a team that starts one junior (6-9 forward Joey Dorsey), three sophomores (6-6 guards Antonio Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts and 6-9 forward Robert Dozier) and a freshman (6-2 guard Willie Kemp).
Despite the team's hot streak, Calipari is talking like a strategist from the Cold War era. He peppers his conversation with references to the "propaganda" that could knock the No. 7-ranked Tigers to a lower seed in the NCAA tournament because of perceptions about the diminished strength of Conference USA.
"I just don't want it to become propaganda, because the more it's said the more it becomes believable," Calipari says. "You don't think our guys are watching TV and hearing they should be a 4 seed or a 5 seed?
"You don't want opinions to become propaganda. You don't have a sequestered group picking these seeds, and the tournament is all about seeding, believe me."
Calipari has been battling that so-called propaganda since Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati and DePaul moved to the Big East in 2005.
This season the RPI ratings, which evaluate strength of schedule for teams, rank Conference USA 11th in Division I, behind the Mountain West, the Western Athletic Conference and the Atlantic 10.
In this week's USA TODAY/ESPN Coaches' Poll, Memphis was the only C-USA school among the 47 that received at least one top-25 vote.
But Memphis' RPI ranks ninth, one slot behind Duke and two behind defending national champion Florida.
"We had a top-five non-conference schedule," says Calipari, whose team had losses at Arizona and Tennessee in December and knocked off Gonzaga in overtime on the road Feb. 17.
"And people don't want to accept this, but our league has gotten stronger than it was a year ago. … Six teams moved up 50 or more (places) in the RPI."
Regardless of Memphis' schedule, the Tigers are having their most surprising season since the Calipari era began in 2000. Last year's Elite Eight team saw Rodney Carney and Shawne Williams go to the NBA as first-round picks and Darius Washington go to Europe.
"People say, 'They lost 50% of their points, 50% of their rebounds, how can they be better?' " Calipari says.
The answer, he says, is he has one of his best passing teams in his 15 years of college coaching.
"There was no way we were going to be as talented as last year, but what we are is a better team, passing the ball and taking better shots," Calipari says.
"We don't shoot it better. We probably miss more wide-open threes than any team in the country. But if we're making threes, we'll beat you by 30."
Faith in Hunt pays off
Douglas-Roberts, who leads the Tigers in scoring (15.1 points a game), says the key to the younger players developing so quickly is last year's season.
"It's carried over big," Douglas-Roberts says of the season that ended with a loss to eventual national runner-up UCLA. "The returning guys know what it takes, and the young guys have listened."
Continuity is a constant at Memphis, where all the players live in two adjacent homes. One has nine bedrooms, the other has five.
"Everybody lives together, and we all always eat dinner together," Anderson says. "There's never anything negative.
"If I'm broke, I can ask anybody on the team for five bucks, and they'll give it to me."
For Anderson, Dorsey and Dozier, that continuity also dates to their high school years at Laurinburg (N.C.) Prep, where they had a 40-0 run.
"We had that attitude that losing is not acceptable," Anderson says. "We brought that here."
Memphis has exceptional depth, with nine players averaging at least 12.4 minutes. The only senior who gets significant playing time is 6-5 sixth-man Jeremy Hunt, who is second on the team in scoring (13.9 points a game).
Hunt, 23, has been a successful reclamation project for Calipari.
The Memphis-raised guard was dismissed from the team in 2005 after two assault incidents. At the time Calipari said the dismissal was permanent, but he relented after Hunt went on to earn his degree in African-American studies. Hunt is working on a second major, in communications.
"Believe me, there was a gnashing of the teeth before taking him back," Calipari says, adding Hunt is on "double-secret probation."
"He's got things he has to do throughout the year. If he breaks the contract, he's gone," Calipari says. "There's a curfew.
"It's all well beyond what a normal athlete would have to do. It's probably unfair, but what was he going to do? Say no?"
Calipari says Hunt earned his way back by completing his degree in four years and continuing to come to every game, plus at least three practices a week.
"That's a humbled guy," Calipari says. "He's repentant about what he did."
Anderson says: "Getting Jeremy back was huge. He stayed out of trouble all last year and minded his business. Now Jeremy is a big leader on this team, telling guys what to do, what not to do, because he's been down that road."
Hunt has turned down opportunities to start, content to be the spark off the bench. He says his continuing probation "is nothing too hard, nothing I can't handle" and "I'm just very thankful, very blessed to be in this position, to get a second chance."
The rapid emergence of Memphis' young players, Hunt says, is because "Coach Cal doesn't treat them like young players. He puts pressure on them to see how they'll respond, and he's getting on them like they're seniors."
Nothing soft about Memphis
One of the players Calipari has ridden hardest is Dozier, who's averaging 10.5 points and 5.7 rebounds.
Inheriting the big-man role from the physical Carney has led to the 215-pound Dozier sometimes being portrayed as soft.
"Every day, I've heard something about me being soft since I've been here," Dozier says. "It's been Coach's argument with me since the first day I got here."
Mention Dozier to Calipari, and his eyes widen and he whistles.
"Potentially, oh my goodness," says Calipari, who predicts Dozier can eventually outperform first-round pick Carney if he trains hard next summer.
Calipari says Dozier's probable NBA future and that Memphis has had three first-round picks since 2002 have overcome any recruiting issues the Tigers face as a member of Conference USA.
"There's really only one league they're talking about," Calipari says. "That's the NBA."
If Memphis wins out, conventional wisdom dictates the Tigers will wind up with a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Calipari, however, disagrees.
"If we could run the table," he says, "we're probably a No. 1 seed."
Calipari, smiling, says, "Propaganda."