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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tiger Goals Don't Stop at C-USA

Tiger goals don't stop at C-USA
League title nearly won, so U of M keeps March in mind

By Dan Wolken
February 21, 2007

Without doing anything, the University of Memphis clinched at least a share of the Conference USA regular-season title Monday night when Houston lost to Southern Miss.
Rest assured, the No. 7-ranked Tigers did not spend Tuesday cutting down the nets at the Finch Center. And they probably won't expend any energy doing it at FedExForum on Thursday, when they can clinch the outright title with a victory against Rice.

"It's really nothing to celebrate," junior point guard Andre Allen said. "It's a good accomplishment, but that's not what we're here for. We want to win it all. We want to win in March. It's all about March for us."
Though it has been a formality for weeks and an afterthought in the wake of the Tigers' 78-77 victory at Gonzaga last Saturday, conference titles are typically celebrated in grand fashion. After all, Memphis' next victory will clinch only the sixth outright league title in modern school history.

But much like last year, when the Tigers won the league with a 13-1 record, the banner they're chasing supersedes the one they'll hang in the rafters for a C-USA championship.

"It's not why we play the season," coach John Calipari said. "At the end of the day, it's to try to win the national title. That's one of those small victories along the way, but that's not why we we're playing. We weren't playing for that reason last year. When we did it last year, there was no celebration.

"The good news is, it gives us a No. 1 seed (in the C-USA Tournament) if we can win one more game, which is a better seed than the two seed. That's about the extent of it."

Though a few teams around the country are running away with their respective league titles -- Florida in the SEC, Oral Roberts in the Mid-Continent, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the Southland and Austin Peay in the Ohio Valley -- it's a little unusual to clinch with four games remaining.

But that's the position Memphis (23-3) has put itself in by going 12-0 to this point in C-USA while its league rivals beat up on one another. Houston, which plays at FedExForum on Sunday, emerged from last weekend as the only team with even a chance to catch Memphis.

But after Monday's loss, Houston fell to 8-4 in the league, joining Central Florida.

Everybody else already has at least five conference losses.

"I don't think we're going to do no celebrating," sophomore forward Robert Dozier said. "The tournament is what we're going to focus on. Yeah, we want to win the conference and get a good seed for the tournament, but the most important thing is to prepare for those last five, six games."

Though Memphis won't celebrate its next win, the Tigers might allow themselves some enjoyment if they can win their next four games and finish with a 16-0 league record.

No Memphis team has ever finished undefeated in a conference, and this season only Winthrop in the Big South is still unbeaten in its league.

The Tigers are also chasing a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which they believe is a realistic carrot if they can extend their current 15-game winning streak to 22 by winning out in the regular season and sweeping the C-USA Tournament.

"There's pressure among the players, not for the seeding, but because we want to do something unique," Allen said. "We want to win on out. We want to be a team that went undefeated in the conference."

Etc.: Freshman guard Doneal Mack was excused from Tuesday's practice due to the death of his grandmother. Mack, who traveled home for the funeral, is expected to be back in Memphis in time for the Rice game. ... Calipari was named one of 15 finalists Tuesday for the Jim Phelan national coach of the year award.

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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