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Monday, October 15, 2007

C-USA better, but more U of M dominance won't help perception

Conference USA basketball tipoff
C-USA better, but more U of M dominance won't help perception
By Dan Wolken
Friday, October 12, 2007

Tulsa basketball coach Doug Wojcik was flipping channels one night in April and happened to catch John Calipari during one of his guest-hosting gigs on Fox Sports Net's "Best Damn Sports Show Period."

So Wojcik sent a playful text message to the University of Memphis coach, which read, according to Wojcik, "Some of us have to go out on the road and recruit. You just go on the 'Best Damn Sports Show.'" Within minutes, Wojcik's phone lit up with a response: "Yeah, and (Jim) Rome too."

The Tigers of Memphis coach John Calipari (left, during C-USA media day at the FedExForum on Thursday) might be hampered by their domination of Conference USA. Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy thinks "somebody's going to have to knock off Memphis, which is going to be very difficult to do."

Not only does Calipari have a bigger budget, more talented players and a 35-1 record against his Conference USA counterparts over the past two years, but apparently, he's got wittier comebacks too.

Thing is, maybe it would be better for everyone if Calipari and the Tigers didn't have all the answers.

As C-USA coaches gathered in Memphis on Thursday for the league's media day, there was one issue that everybody -- including Calipari -- could agree on. Despite vast improvement from top to bottom, it will be difficult to turn national perception in their favor if the Tigers rip off another 16-0 romp through the league. And that perception could mean the difference between multiple teams making the NCAA Tournament or a second straight one-bid year.

"I think what it's going to take is some nice non-conference wins and beating Memphis," Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy said. "Somebody's going to have to knock off Memphis, which is going to be very difficult to do."

Whenever Calipari was asked about the strength of C-USA last season, he was armed with RPI numbers that showed the league had gotten significantly stronger from 2005-06, when both Memphis and UAB made the NCAA Tournament and Houston and UTEP were in the NIT.

But that didn't make much difference on Selection Sunday 2007, when Houston (18-15), Southern Miss (20-11), Tulsa (20-11) and Central Florida (22-9) were left out of the postseason altogether.

And though Memphis received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the lack of competition in the league made that a controversial choice among some national commentators.

"We all get a little bit bashed because Memphis rolls through undefeated," Wojcik said. "And yet, they get bashed because people think that Memphis isn't playing good competition, like how could you go through a league undefeated if you're playing anybody? So the perception of them to get a No. 1 seed is somewhat tarnished, and the top half of your league is tarnished."

Houston coach Tom Penders compared the situation to the defunct Southwest Conference in the late 1980s when Arkansas was romping through the league. When Penders arrived in the SWC at Texas, he didn't beat Arkansas for his first two seasons. Still, his teams had enough big wins to make the NCAA Tournament both years, including one Elite Eight appearance.

"We have the exposure in this league. We have two non-league games on ESPN," Penders said. "We've got a nice schedule. We've got 18 home games. It would help, certainly, if one or two teams that are at the top knocked them off. But they're the No. 1 team in the country. Who's supposed to beat them? It could conceivably happen again."

Calipari certainly isn't opposed to somebody or maybe two somebodies within the league stepping up and beating the Tigers this season. But the key is whether the teams that do it will have done well enough in their non-conference games to be in the top 50 of the RPI, thus not hurting the Tigers' NCAA seeding.

In other words, the pressure is on Houston to beat a Kentucky, Arizona or Arkansas. Southern Miss will have to cash in opportunities against California, Ole Miss and Alabama. It would help if Tulsa can upset Maryland and Oklahoma, and UAB needs to make the most of opportunities against Kentucky, Wichita State, Florida State and Cincinnati.

"If it plays out like I see it, you'll have three teams, I'm hoping, inside of 30 (in the RPI) and one inside of 50," Calipari said. "That means you can lose any of those four road games and be fine. Not necessarily. But they're going to have to win a couple games, just like we have to."

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on Tiger basketball at

Memphis Madness

When: Today, doors open at 7 p.m., event begins at 8.

Where: FedExForum

Admission: Free, but fans are encouraged to bring canned food donation for Memphis Food Bank.

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