On day to honor seniors, Calipari can take a bow
Geoff Calkins, Sports Columnist, Commercial Appeal
February 26, 2007
With slightly more than eight minutes left in the game, already up by a dozen, the Memphis Tigers forced a shot-clock violation.
The fans cheered.
Not loud enough, evidently. Because Memphis coach John Calipari went slightly nutso, waving his arms, jumping up and down, asking for more from the crowd.
If he could have benched all 16,924 at that moment, he might have.
Then, after a few minutes, he would have sent them all back to their seats, determined to do better next time.
This is how Calipari coaches. This is how he coached the Tigers to a 77-64 win over Houston on Sunday.
Willie Kemp went under a pick instead of over?
Out he came.
Antonio Anderson didn't give the ball back to Kemp at the right moment?
Have a seat, Antonio.
Joey Dorsey didn't show enough hustle on defense for a small span?
In goes Kareem Cooper.
And if this seems excessively knee-jerk and impatient, all Calipari has to do is point to two numbers.
Seventeen -- that's the Tigers' winning streak.
Twenty-nine -- that's the Tigers' home winning streak.
"What else is there to say?" said Memphis guard Chris Douglas-Roberts. "I think he's the best coach in America."
Mind you, Calipari isn't going to win any national coach of the year awards because he isn't fresh and undiscovered.
Also, the Tigers didn't stink last year. Prizes aren't awarded for consistent excellence.
But now that the home portion of the schedule is over, now that Memphis has won its 16 home games by an average of more than 25 points, isn't it a reasonable time to stop and marvel at what Calipari has built in Memphis?
The Tigers are ranked No. 7 in both polls. They have the longest winning streak in the country.
They don't lose games at home, they're on national TV more than Ryan Seacrest and, barring an unforeseen stumble, they'll follow up last year's No. 1 seed with a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Can you imagine that? It's the Lawrence Welk era in Memphis.
Ah one and ah two.
(That dated reference is for what Calipari fondly calls the blue hairs).
But it's remarkable, really. And unprecedented. The previous best back-to-back seedings came in 1985 and 1986, when the Tigers were No. 2 and No. 3 seeds.
"What we've done here is build a program," Calipari said. "Not for one year, not for two years. We've built a program."
Sure, say the skeptics. He's built a program by playing junk. Unlike his predecessors at Memphis, Calipari gets to coach against the wretched programs of the newly-depleted Conference USA.
That's one way to look at it. Except, without Calipari, who's to say this program wouldn't be every bit as wretched as the rest of them?
What separates Memphis from UAB or Tulsa right now? Or Sunday's opponent, Houston?
History? So how come Houston has played in more national championship games than Memphis? Besides, history wasn't doing Memphis much good before Calipari arrived on campus.
Each of the two years before Calipari arrived, the Tigers were 3-5 against teams now in C-USA. Want a longer period? Fine. How about seven years? That's how long Calipari has been in Memphis. In the seven seasons before he arrived, the Tigers were 23-19 against teams now in Conference USA.
They were 3-4 against UAB in their previous seven games before Calipari. They were 3-4 against Houston.
That doesn't sound like a team poised to dominate or even transcend its conference. It sounds more like a team poised to rise or fall right along with its conference.
Calipari has prevented that from happening. He's taken a negative and made it a positive. And he's shown, in the process, that while recruiting is the key to everything he does, it's not by any means the only thing he does.
"He gets us to play hard," said forward Robert Dozier. "We might not always like it, but we understand what he's doing."
When Dorsey forgets he's in there to rebound, he comes out. When Doneal Mack lets missed shots affect the rest of his game, he comes out.
"By the way," Calipari said, "you see how Mack is playing now?"
Fabulously, is what he meant. Dorsey is playing as well as ever. And the whole thing works because Calipari -- in addition to the tough love -- has proven to these players that he cares about them.
Why else would he have come out in a zone Sunday? Calipari hates zone. But he did it because he was determined to start his three seniors in their last home game. In addition to Jeremy Hunt, that meant Clyde Wade and Jared Sandridge.
Only problem: Sandridge had no chance of guarding Houston's Oliver Lafayette one-on-one.
"He wasn't going to let them isolate Jared on Senior Day," said Douglas-Roberts.
Hence, the zone. On Senior Day, Calipari's heart trumped Calipari's stubbornness.
There were smaller examples just like that throughout the entire game. Another came with 19 seconds left.
Calipari wanted to bring Dorsey out because he thought the kid deserved a big ovation. But to do that, he had to send someone in the game in place of him.
"You can't force a player to go in with 30 seconds left because it's embarrassing," Calipari said. "The reason I know that is I was that guy at one time."
So Calipari asked Cooper if he'd be willing to go in. Cooper stood up without a question. And as Dorsey jogged out to the roar of the crowd, Calipari said something that made all the difference.
"Hey," he told Cooper. "Thank you for going in."
To reach Geoff Calkins, call him at 529-2364 or Email (search for ---)