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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Newsday - Is Memphis this year's Belle of college hoops?

Is Memphis this year's Belle of college hoops?
BY JOE GERGEN | joe.gergen@newsday.com
November 10, 2007

The usual suspects are plentiful atop college basketball as the 2007-08 season begins in earnest. Institutions that have won multiple NCAA championships such as UCLA and North Carolina, programs tested in traditional power conferences like Kansas and Indiana, teams in the process of resurrecting past glory in the cases of Georgetown and Louisville. All are expected to play a major role in determining the successor to two-time titleholder Florida at the Final Four.

There is a significant exception, one genuine national contender without a championship banner in the rafters or a BCS conference pedigree. To liken the Memphis Tigers to a big fish in a small pond would be an understatement. As presently constituted, they resemble a whale in a swimming pool.

Not since Bud Wilkinson's Sooners overwhelmed the Big Eight in the 1950s -- Oklahoma and the Seven Dwarfs was a popular refrain of the times -- has one team so thoroughly outclassed its alleged peers.

It's not just that Memphis was 16-0 in Conference USA competition a year ago. More significantly, the Tigers advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season while none of the league's other 11 members earned a postseason call, not even from the NIT. Call it a credibility gap.

Historically, what Memphis is attempting is almost unprecedented. The last team to claim a Division I men's basketball title from such an undistinguished conference was Nevada-Las Vegas in 1990. The only institution to win an NCAA championship as the lone conference representative since multiple bids were first awarded in 1975 was Kentucky in 1978. And that was when the tournament field was 32 teams, half its current size.

Yes, the Tigers have been operating virtually in a league of their own since rivals Louisville, Cincinnati and Mar.quette -- with five national titles among them -- defected from C-USA along with DePaul and South Florida to join the Big East in 2005.

Charlotte, St. Louis and TCU also opted out that year. The replacements -- Central Florida, Marshall, SMU, Rice, Tulsa and Texas-El Paso -- stirred little excitement.

"The only league kids care about is the NBA," coach John Calipari said at the time. "As long as you're on TV and play a style that will help them get to the next level, they're happy."

And he set about to prove it. Blessed with strong community support and a beautiful downtown arena -- FedEx Forum -- the onetime Nets coach continued to recruit at the highest level. Faced with limited competition in the conference, he created a strong non-conference schedule to attract television and earn points with the NCAA Tournament committee.

Ever the promoter, his Tigers will make two trips to New York, starting this week with the 2K College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. Memphis will meet Southern California in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden next month.

In addition, Calipari has booked home games against Georgetown, Arizona, Gonzaga and Tennessee, all nationally ranked. All four games will be nationally televised. Fortunately for the coach, he has what is potentially his best team, with a grand opportunity to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1996 when he was pulling the strings at Massachusetts, and one that may even be capable of taking the grand prize at the Alamodome in San Antonio in April.

"What we have is a self-motivated group," the coach said. "They expect to be [at the Final Four]. I wouldn't be comfortable if they just dreamed about it."

Not only do the Tigers return all five starters from the 33-4 team that lost to Ohio State in a regional final last March -- a group that includes All-American candidates Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey -- but they added a marvelously talented freshman in Derrick Rose. The 6-4 point guard from Chicago earned MVP honors in Coaches vs. Cancer regional action at Memphis last week, orchestrating victories over Tennessee-Martin and Richmond.

Fueled by Memphis' all-out drive, the conference is starting to respond. Central Florida, which finished a distant second last season, is opening a 10,000-seat arena. Renovations are under way at Rice and Southern Mississippi and SMU has a new practice facility. Each of the 11 other schools has upgraded its schedule.

"We have to catch up to Memphis," said Matt Doherty, the second-year coach at SMU and former North Carolina star from East Meadow. "That's the carrot for all of us."

The Mustangs were the only C-USA team to throw a scare into the Tigers last season in the regular-season finale before bowing, 64-61. "We don't just want to compete with them," he insisted. "We want to beat them."

At UMass, Calipari said he trained his attention on Temple, then the unquestioned leader among Atlantic 10 programs. "What we decided," he recalled, "was that if Temple can do this, we can do it."

He said he sees the same philosophy now at work in his current conference, only with his program as the model.

"It's helped our recruiting to have a team like that in our conference," said Mike Davis, the former Indiana coach who is in his second year at Alabama-Birmingham.

"We're all spin doctors," Doherty said. "We try to sell what we have. And one of the things we have to sell in our league is Memphis. We don't want them to slip to us; we want to get to them."

But before the rest of C-USA pulls itself up, Memphis will make an unaccompanied push for the top.

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