Calipari has good reason to be excited
Friday, October 12, 2007
STEVE IRVINE Birmingham News staff writer
MEMPHIS - The excitement that Memphis men's basketball coach John Calipari claimed to have during Wednesday's Conference USA Media Day at the FedEx Forum is understandable.
After all, he's returning all five starters from last year's team that went 33-4 overall, won all 16 C-USA regular season games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight for the second successive season. And he's also welcoming freshman point guard Derrick Rose, who may be considered the country's top freshman by the end of the season.
Surprisingly, however, Calipari's excitement carries outside his program.
"I'm just as excited about our league," Calipari said. "The steps that all the coaches have taken to take their programs to another level is phenomenal. What I like is everyone is taking their program up. What you're going to find is a parity that is good at the top. That's what I see happening and I'm excited for that."
On paper he has a point. Take away Rice, which lost C-USA Player of the Year Morris Almond, and nearly every team returns most of their key players.
UAB strengthened itself with its recruiting class, Houston returns point guard Lanny Smith after he sat out last year with an injury and Southern Miss has a strong mix of returnees and incoming talent. Tulsa has nearly everyone back from a team that won 20 games and Tulane returns the core of a team that finished fourth in the conference.
All of that is just a start for a league but Memphis is still the place to begin.
"We have to catch up to Memphis," said SMU head coach Matt Doherty. "That's the carrot for all of us. We want to chase them down a little bit. We don't just want to play them close. We're all competitors. (Calipari) wants to win every game and we want to beat them. We don't want Memphis to slip to us. We want to go to them. Then that's going to be good for everybody."
Finding a way to get more teams into postseason play is what the league really needs. Four C-USA teams made it into postseason play in 2006 when Memphis and UAB participated in the NCAA Tournament and Houston and UTEP played in the NIT. Memphis was the lone postseason participant last season.
"It's a strong league," said Southern Miss head coach Larry Eustachy. "It's far stronger than last year. I think last year was just growing pains. I think you'll see a league that gets four or five teams annually."
Eustachy detailed what he thought it would take to get more teams in the postseason.
"I think, obviously, we have to have some big wins in the nonconference - collectively," Eustachy said. "(Calipari) has to cooperate and let us beat him a few times. I think it will happen. (Houston has) got a very good team.
"I think (Houston head coach Tom Penders is) downplaying it, which is unusual for him. They're good. And UAB is loaded."
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