Conference USA living in Memphis Tigers' shadow
Posted: Thursday Oct 11, 2007 7:52 PM
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -They strolled into the Tigers den, staring at the championship banners, admiring the state-of-the-art facilities - all things they hope to have.
Players and coaches from all of Conference USA paraded Thursday around FedExForum, home of the league's postseason tournament and the Memphis Tigers - the team they are all trying to copy.
These days, it just dreams.
"They're trying to kill us,'' Memphis coach John Calipari joked. "We're all friendly, but we're competitive people. Sometimes they won't even shake my hand after the game.''
Ever since Louisville and Cincinnati bolted for the Big East after the 2004-05 season, Calipari's Tigers have reigned mightily as C-USA champions - including a 16-0 league record last season before winning the conference tournament on their home floor.
The conference is still fighting the perception it's a one-team league.
"We have to catch up to Memphis,'' SMU coach Matt Doherty said. "We want to chase them down. We don't want Memphis to slip to us, we want to go to them. Then that will be good for everybody.''
With a 66-8 combined record the last two seasons, the Tigers were the unanimous preseason favorite by the league's coaches to win a third straight C-USA title. Memphis returns all five starters and added McDonald's All-America point guard Derrick Rose, whom the Tigers hope will follow in the footsteps of Ohio State's Greg Oden and Texas' Kevin Durant as an impact freshman.
The Tigers likely will be ranked among the nation's top five in the preseason poll.
"Quite honestly, they deserve all the attention,'' UAB guard Paul Delaney III said. "They're beating all of us. We have to get better because they're not getting any worse.''
The Tigers are coming off their seventh consecutive postseason appearance under Calipari with the last two ending in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. The rest of Conference USA is just trying to reach the postseason.
"They have to be our model,'' Doherty said.
The conference has shown signs of improvement.
Schools like Central Florida, among others, have new facilities, while others are under construction. Teams have scheduled stronger nonconference games to bolster their resumes and lure top recruits.
Tulane coach Dave Dickerson, a former assistant at Maryland, said he would be disappointed if less than five teams don't make the postseason this year - something only Memphis did last season.
"We really think that's how much better our conference is this year,'' Dickerson said. "We have high hopes.''
Calipari has done the kind of reworking teams in the league are now facing.
When he was the coach at Massachusetts, Calipari led a struggling program to the NCAA tournament, overcoming Atlantic 10 powerhouse Temple. Calipari said C-USA teams can do the same.
"They want to beat us so bad,'' Calipari said. "What you're trying to do is say, 'If Memphis can do this, we can do it.' That's what I said at UMass, 'If Temple can do this, so can we.'''
And, the Tigers are rooting for them.
Memphis has been forced to schedule stiffer nonconference opponents to compete with teams from bigger conferences who are tested nearly every league game. Tennessee, Gonzaga, Georgetown and Arizona all visit FedEx Forum this season.
Tigers guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, the league's preseason player of the year, said C-USA's weak reputation has hurt Memphis in the past.
"I know a few times our tournament seeding has slipped because one or two guys are saying, 'They haven't played anybody,''' he said. "That's not our fault.''
East Carolina coach Mack McCarthy said teams can't worry about what the Tigers are doing. He said they all have a clean slate and anything can happen.
"Like everybody else in the conference,'' McCarthy said, "we're undefeated right now.''
Too bad they have to play Memphis.