By PETE IORIZZO, Staff writer
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First published: Thursday, January 3, 2008
Tenn. -- John Calipari broke from practice for a moment Wednesday to talk to a smattering of reporters about his No. 2 Memphis team's game against Siena tonight.
But Calipari's thoughts soon turned to a different game, from a different era, against a different Siena team.
Calipari coached Massachusetts in a 1991 National Invitation Tournament game against Siena at Knickerbocker Arena, with a berth in the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden at stake.
Calipari's team trailed by three points with 2.9 seconds left, when a public-address announcer informed fans, "The bus for Madison Square Garden will leave Siena College tomorrow ..."
But that bus never left -- the Minutemen hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer and won in overtime.
"One of my players grabbed the mike and yelled, 'What time is the bus leaving?' " Calipari said with a laugh. "That's my experience with Siena, even though I really love the school and the people there."
Indeed, Calipari spent much of his Wednesday chat talking up the Saints, who face the Tigers at 9 p.m. at FedExForum. Calipari cited concerns about Siena's guards, its speed and its exceptional ball-handling, some of it probably coachspeak, some probably genuine.
Still, one of the Tigers' biggest worries is looking past the Saints. Memphis (11-0) comes off victories over No. 5 Georgetown and No. 17 Arizona, bringing its home winning streak to 38 games.
Memphis boasts an NBA prospect at every position and maybe another off the bench. NBA- Draft.net, a Web site that predicts future NBA Drafts, forecasts freshman point guard Derrick Rose to be the third overall selection, should he turn pro.
Calipari put his team through a spirited workout a day before facing Siena, a practice that included intensive one-on-one work beforehand. His message was clear -- no letting up allowed.
"This is one we better not look by," Calipari said.
Success is new neither to Calipari, in his eighth year at Memphis, nor his players. His teams won 33 games each of the past two seasons, boosting his record here to 192-63. The Tigers also have made consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.
But when it was suggested to Memphis players that they might overlook Siena, they refused to buy it.
"They have a pretty good team," sophomore forward Shawn Taggart said.
"We're definitely not going to look past them," reserve guard Doneal Mack said. "We're going to try to give them trouble for 40 minutes."
The Saints (7-4), who arrived in town Wednesday and practiced at FedEXForum, look to play David to Memphis' Goliath. A victory would mark the biggest upset of the year. But even in defeat, Siena likely can find solace, given Memphis is the highest-ranked opponent the school ever has faced in the regular season.
"I feel like this team has a certain confidence level and sophistication," Siena coach Fran McCaffery said. "They understand what this game is all about. They understand this is not just another game."
The Saints prepared for a Memphis team relentless at both ends of the floor. Memphis runs a motion offense that attacks, attacks, attacks. On defense, the Tigers employ a press for the majority of the game and play man-to-man so tight it's more skin-to-skin.
Still, Siena vowed to play to win, to try to accomplish what their 1991 forbearers couldn't against one of college basketball's most recognizable coaches.
"It's going to be a good experience for us," junior captain Kenny Hasbrouck said. "But we're not just coming out here to come out here. We want to get the W."
Iorizzo can be reached at 454-5425 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.