Memphis threatening to widen gap in C-USA
By Doug Smock, Staff writer
One day, Memphis coach John Calipari defends his league’s honor. A few days later, his Tigers trash it.
Not much has changed in the post-realignment world of Conference USA. And after Wednesday’s first round of conference games, the gap between the have (Memphis) and the have-nots (loosely defined, everybody else) threatens to widen.
The second-ranked Tigers welcomed East Carolina to FedEx Forum with a 99-58 pounding. They hit the road this weekend, traveling to Marshall for an 8 p.m. game Saturday at Cam Henderson Center.
Memphis (14-0, 1-0 C-USA) will be the highest-ranked team ever to play in Huntington. Two years ago, the Tigers came to Huntington ranked third and struggled for the first half, falling behind by 11 at one point. But Calipari’s troops fought back to within a point at halftime, then won 91-81 on the strength of a 15-0 run.
Since then, the Tigers have simply built on their domination of the realigned C-USA. They are 36-1 since conference reshuffling and are almost untouchable at home. Their lone loss in that span came at Alabama-Birmingham in 2006, and most close calls have come on the road before jacked-up crowds.
East Carolina came out energized but ended up zapped by Memphis’ drive-motion offense. The Tigers hit 20-of-30 free throws to take a 43-29 halftime lead, then flowed into a “showtime” mode, hitting 7-of-12 3-point attempts and throwing down a bunch of dunks. Derrick Rose led the way, finishing with six 3-pointers and 19 points.
It didn’t help the Pirates that they shot 37.8 percent and got hammered on the boards 52-31.
“In all reality, it’s about them rebounding the ball offensively and driving the ball up the goal so hard,” ECU coach Mack McCarthy said of the Tigers. “We knew what they were doing, but stopping them is another thing. They have a lot of great weapons.”
For those who worship the Rating Percentage Index rankings, the Tigers’ No. 1 status hasn’t kept the league from struggling to return to its 11th ranking at the end of last season. After Memphis, only Tulane (96th), UAB (97th) and Texas-El Paso (99th) are C-USA teams among the top 100 after Wednesday’s games.
Earlier this week, Calipari led a stream of coaches who think that’s misleading.
“The thing that’s getting away from everybody is that the league is getting close,” he said. “We’ve been at this three years; when we had to split the league, I think it was the ninth-rated league. We had four games [last weekend] that could have gone either way that all went against us. If we win all four of those, and they were winnable games, we would be the 10th-ranked league.”
At Houston, Tom Penders probably thinks the least of the RPI. His Cougars are 107th, despite their 11-2 record and perhaps the best profile of a C-USA team other than Memphis. Consider this: Houston’s home game Saturday is televised on ESPN2. While the Cougars are playing 24th-ranked Arizona, the ESPN empire hasn’t picked up many C-USA games in the past three seasons that didn’t involve Memphis.
“I don’t understand the RPI thing,” Penders said. “I think it’s a very flawed system, has been from the very beginning and always will be.”
McCarthy set a milestone he’d rather forget. The one-time Tennessee-Chattanooga mentor was coaching in his 500th game, but he took an early exit. With 12-plus minutes remaining, he incurred two quick technical fouls from official Ed Hightower, getting him ejected.
McCarthy, who also has coached at Virginia Commonwealth, was elevated from assistant this summer when Ricky Stokes departed. He’s not officially referred to by ECU as an interim coach, but he is auditioning to stick around past 2007-08.
“I don’t know if I’m on the longest interview process ever, or where I’m at, to be honest,” McCarthy said. “Any coach will tell you this: You don’t have much time to focus on the long term much, anyway.
“It’s never been mentioned with the kids. It’s never been mentioned among the staff. All we’re doing is trying to win the next game.”
It’s not a task for the faint of heart. While he took over successful programs at UTC and VCU, East Carolina is not exactly a basketball powerhouse — 20 C-USA wins since gaining all-sports admittance in 2001-02. The Pirates broke an 0-57 streak against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents by beating North Carolina State this season.
Marshall travels to ECU Wednesday. Herd fans get to welcome McCarthy, who is 315-185 in his career, back to Huntington on Feb. 9.
Among the C-USA teams that figure to jockey for second place — and perhaps an NCAA tournament bid — UAB scored the first big victory, taking advantage of a three-shot foul to beat Tulane 62-61 in New Orleans.
Point guard Ed Berrios was swamped in front of the UAB bench by several Tulane defenders when he stepped back and launched a desperate 3-pointer with time running out and the Green Wave up by two. The shot wasn’t close, but Tulane’s Kevin Sims was called for the foul with 1.6 seconds left.
In front of an angry 1,810 at the pit-like Fogleman Arena, Berrios hit all three free throws to swing the game. The fans were upset, but Tulane coach Dave Dickerson considered it a proper call.
“If it wasn’t so obvious, maybe they wouldn’t have called it,” Berrios said. “But it was an obvious call. They hit me on my shooting arm.”
The teams play again March 1.
To contact staff writer Doug Smock, use e-mail or call 348-5130.