Critics press Memphis into defending status
Tigers face questions about whether C-USA competition has them prepared to win in NCAA Tournament
Kyle Hightower | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted March 13, 2007, 2:31 PM EDT
In a perfect world, Coach John Calipari wouldn't have to defend a thing this week as his Memphis basketball team prepares for its NCAA Tournament first-round game against North Texas.
In a perfect world, the Tigers simply would take their 30-3 record, 22-game winning streak and No. 2 seed into the South Region and get to try their luck like everybody else in March.
But it's not a perfect world. And though on paper Memphis has in some ways surpassed the regular-season exploits of the team that went 33-4 and lost in the Elite Eight a year ago, the Tigers are fighting off similar questions and critics this time around.
The criticism is simple: Playing in one-bid Conference USA hasn't fully prepared Memphis for a deep NCAA tourney run.
"Somebody had a funny line," Calipari said. "They said, 'If you lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it will be because [blank]. If you lose in the second round, it will be because [blank]. The third round, if they get to the Final Four, the final game.'
"I mean, come on now. The league is stronger than it was a year ago. The league did not hurt us a year ago."
Last season Memphis was 15-1 against C-USA foes. This season, despite the loss of underclassmen Rodney Carney and Shawne Williams to the NBA, it was 16-0. It has folks in Memphis talking Final Four again, a place Calipari hasn't gone since 1996 with Massachusetts and a place Memphis hasn't gone since 1985.
Such a run also would erase the sting of Memphis' dismal 50-45 Elite Eight loss to UCLA last season, when it was just 17-of-54 from the field.
But unlike last season, when the Tigers' victory total included early-season victories against Alabama, UCLA, Gonzaga, Purdue and Tennessee, this season they are just 1-3 against teams in the Ratings Percentage Index Top 50. The only victory: 11-loss Kentucky, on Nov. 22.
During ESPN's Sunday night bracket analysis, commentator Jay Bilas suggested that Creighton could have an edge on Memphis should the teams meet in the second round. This despite Memphis boasting an imposing frontcourt with C-USA defensive player of the year Joey Dorsey and a backcourt led by athletic guard Chris Douglas-Roberts.
The Tigers also have a high-scoring sixth man in guard Jeremy Hunt, whose average of 13.6 points per game is second on the team to Douglas-Roberts' 15.4.
The players are ignoring the critics and their perceptions.
"People are going to put us where they want to put us and say what they want, but we can't worry about that," sophomore shooting guard Antonio Anderson said.
Calipari said the analysts who don't respect Memphis also don't respect the improvements that C-USA has made since last season. As a league, C-USA has improved from the 13th-best conference in the RPI to No. 11.
"The greatest thing that has happened for this league is the league office has now said to all the teams, 'Reinvest in basketball,' " Calipari said. "The league is moving where we want it to go.
"It has not hurt our national television exposure, recruiting, ticket sales. It didn't hurt anything. But what it has helped us with is a No. 1 seed a year ago and an Elite Eight finish. What it will do this year? We'll have to see."
So, what about the national lack of respect for the Tigers this season?
"If you feel that way and feel like we should have done a little more or whatever, that's OK. . . . None of it matters in this tournament," Calipari said. "I think they all know, it's on now. It's about business. We got three weekends to take care of business now."
Kyle Hightower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.