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Monday, January 14, 2008

Charleston Gazette - Memphis fans now feel 'stuck'

Doug Smock: Memphis fans now feel 'stuck'

AS I STARED up at the green-clad humanity assembled at Cam Henderson Center, I was reminded of the day Marshall fans grumbled about being “stuck” in the Southern Conference.

The fans wanted a higher degree of difficulty and, two decades later, they got it.

Was that actually a conference game I witnessed Saturday night? Wow. And get this: Memphis’ 68-45 victory over the Thundering Herd was called “lackluster” by the Commercial Appeal newspaper.

That may have adequately described the officiating, but I didn’t see too many weaknesses from the men in blue. They’re beefy in the middle, long all over the court, they can jump (except maybe for 310-pound Pierre Niles . . . there’s a load!), they can zip down the court and they don’t shoot badly.

The addition of Derrick Rose, temporary as it may be, may push the Tigers to the Final Four.

If so, that will quiet the grumbling from Memphis fans and media about Conference USA for a few minutes. After the school struck out in its bid to follow Louisville, Cincinnati, etc., to greener pastures, Tiger fans are feeling stuck, much like MU fans were back in the day.

If their football team could beat a Sun Belt team, I’d sympathize.

Every chance he gets, Memphis coach John Calipari reminds us of the sweat that went into building the Tigers to their current level. Sure, Memphis had tradition when Calipari arrived in 2000, but that wasn’t going very far. He had to rebuild the swagger, both on the floor and in the stands.

The latter hasn’t always been easy.

“We went 33-4 last year and we were getting about 10,000 a game,” Calipari said. “Now, all of a sudden, they’ve bought in and we play Christian Brothers, we get 17,000. We sold out our season tickets at 18,000, but it’s taken eight years to do that.”

Calipari caught a lucky break here and there. When the city of Memphis landed an NBA team, that brought the Tigers a fabulous home arena they comfortably share with the Grizzlies. And when the NBA ended the practice of high school talent jumping to the league, that allowed Calipari to have Rose for a year.

“He could score 30 a game,” Calipari said. “He doesn’t like to score 30 a game . . . that’s not his mentality. Why is everybody so high on him? Because he’s so physically strong, he’s so skilled with the ball, he’s so unselfish, he’s a true point guard.

“How many of those are there in this country, at any level? And then he can really defend . . . He helps us in that [we were ahead by] 11, and then it’s 15, 16 because he can outrun them and make a layup.”

When MU point guard Pierre-Marie Altidor Cespedes was asked if Rose was the fastest point guard he’s seen, that triggered an amusing response from the Montreal native.

“Is he the fastest? I don’t know. I don’t have a ‘fast meter,’ calculator or whatever, I don’t know,” Altidor Cespedes said. “He’s a fast player.”

Calipari, ever the ambassador, likes what he sees at MU under first-year coach Donnie Jones. And he implored Herd fans to come out in larger numbers, no matter the opponent.

“People don’t realize that fans have as much to do with building a program as anything,” Calipari said.

“You’ve got to buy in with some blind faith. If a recruit comes in and sees [the capacity crowd], he’s coming to Marshall. It takes a village to raise a program, it really does.”
The Herd’s ride could become bumpier between now and March. Taurean Marshall is out with a major knee injury, and I’m wondering if Markel Humphrey won’t have to shut it down at some point.

Mark Dorris is playing through a painful elbow, and he faces more time at point guard if Darryl Merthie’s ankle injury is serious.

But there are the transfers sitting at the end of the bench, a 300-pound “prop” and at least one recruit on the way. Saturday’s sellout aside, the crowds are rebounding a little. Yes, better days are ahead.

I think the 9,043 fans Saturday sensed that. Amazingly, few of them fled early for the exits, sticking around to give the home team a nice sendoff.

“The big thing that stood out to me, after the game they gave us a standing ovation,” Humphrey said. “That’s what we need, as a team, to keep us motivated.”

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