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Thursday, February 08, 2007

UAB Blazers Nearest to Tiger Rivalry

Blazers nearest to Tiger rivalry
No. 8 Tigers at UAB
Calipari says it takes time for heat to build

By Dan Wolken
February 8, 2007

BIRMINGHAM -- ESPN has promoted tonight's game between the University of Memphis and UAB as part of its "Rivalry Week" package.
But is it a rivalry?

Though Memphis-UAB has certainly been a competitive, highly interesting series in recent years, to call it a rivalry would only be for the sake of convenience. Because for the Tigers, who are ranked No. 8 and ripping through Conference USA, the Blazers are the closest thing to a league rival Memphis has had since Louisville left for the Big East.

"I think it's UAB right now," Memphis junior Andre Allen said.

In the past, no qualifying phrases were needed to define Memphis' most intense series. But when C-USA broke up two years ago and the annual rivalries with Louisville, Cincinnati and Charlotte went away, the Tigers were left in a league with mostly unfamiliar foes.

Though Southern Miss and UAB have always been important opponents for Memphis, they have never ranked higher than third or fourth on the list. And even the UAB series has lost some of its sizzle, given that the Blazers enter tonight's game 11-11 under first-year coach Mike Davis rather than in NCAA Tournament contention, as they were the previous three years under Mike Anderson.

But Tigers coach John Calipari said it's too early in the evolution of C-USA to discount the potential for rivalries to develop and cited his experience at UMass, where a rivalry developed with Temple simply because those two teams were battling annually for conference supremacy.

"When you're in a new league, you're building," Calipari said. "And so is Louisville Who's their rival now? Cincinnati? You know, the position we're in, it's only the second year and the first year of playing 16 (conference) games. You have to have this thing together five years, and then it will develop. I don't think it will be right away."

So who are the prime candidates to develop a rivalry that, well, rivals the one Memphis used to have with Louisville?

It certainly could be UAB; after all, the Blazers gave Memphis its only C-USA loss last season. Another obvious choice would be UTEP, where former Tigers assistant Tony Barbee is now the head coach. Or perhaps Tulsa, which was one of Memphis' foes in the Missouri Valley Conference during the 1960s and 1970s.

"It's whoever pops up where it becomes 'The Game,'" Calipari said. "When we were at Mass, Temple was built into a big rival. Temple was never a Massachusetts rival. And over five years, it became enormous."

Memphis players appear to be buying into the idea that UAB is currently the most intense rival, simply because of the Blazers' 80-74 victory at Bartow Arena last season. Senior Jeremy Hunt is the only current Tiger to experience a victory in Birmingham, way back during his freshman season of 2002-03.

"They rushed the floor on us, and things like that hurt," sophomore guard Antonio Anderson said. "You remember things like that, so you want to go back there and try to get a win."

Allen said the atmosphere in Birmingham last season is the reason UAB is at the top of his list.

"It was crazy," Allen said. "There were people sleeping outside in weather like this, sleeping in tents. We know what to expect, and we know what we've got to do. They're playing Memphis, so they'll be up for us."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

No. 8 Tigers at UAB

When, where: Today, 8 p.m., at Birmingham, Ala.

TV, radio: ESPN, WREC-AM (600)

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