Memphis enjoys view from summit
Updated: 01/26/08 6:50 AM
The last time Memphis was ranked No. 1 in the country, the giddy feeling lasted a mere six hours.
On Jan. 10, 1983, coach Dana Kirk decided to inform his team, then known as Memphis State, after a game against Virginia Tech that it had ascended to the top spot. But the Hokies, led by sharpshooter Dell Curry, had other plans and knocked off the Tigers by 13 points. But last Monday when the Tigers were voted No. 1 for the first time in 25 years, coach John Calipari didn’t bother concealing the information.
“They were on it,” Calipari said. “They knew what every TV announcer had said. When North Carolina lost and there was Game Day all day that day, no one mentioned us. No one stepped up and said, ‘Well, it looks like Memphis is going to move into that No. 1 spot now.’ It wasn’t that way.”
Now the best team in the country has a sizable chip on its shoulder wider than the Mississippi River and with good reason. The Tigers are 84-8 over the last two-plus seasons, including 18-0 this season heading into today’s nonleague showdown against Gonzaga. If programs like Kansas, UCLA and North Carolina had a .913 winning percentage over a similar span, there would be talk of a dynasty. Such is life for schools outside BCS conferences, even one like Memphis that has a rich tradition.
Although Calipari helped create the resurgence at Memphis, the school hasn’t garnered this much national attention since the Penny Hardaway era in the early ’90s. Calipari returned five starters from last season’s 33-4 group that lost to Ohio State in the Elite Eight and has a roster stacked with NBA prospects, including freshman point guard Derrick Rose, who could be the top pick in the draft come June.
In terms of scheduling, Calipari follows the same blueprint he had while at Massachusetts: Play the most difficult nonconference schedule possible, even if it means taking the show on the road.
“If you want to be the champion, you can’t fight on the undercard,” Calipari said. “You have to take on all comers.”
In the last two years, Memphis has played at Tennessee, Arizona, Gonzaga and this year played USC on a neutral floor and hosted Georgetown. Next month, it hosts Tennessee. “Those scheduled games sprinkled throughout our league, makes our schedule tougher than most,” Calipari said.
And perhaps positions Memphis for an extended stay atop college basketball.