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Friday, January 25, 2008

Debate over true No. 1: Memphis or Kansas?

Debate over true No. 1: Memphis or Kansas?
Thursday, January 24, 2008

Until someone receives more votes than the University of Memphis in either the Associated Press or USA Today/ESPN poll, the Tigers can securely proclaim themselves the nation's No. 1 college basketball team.

But are they the best team? That's a more complicated question.

"I've said it's the most highly thought-of team in the country. That's what we are right now," coach John Calipari said. "It doesn't mean we're the best team in the country. Kansas may well be, it could be North Carolina, Georgetown, UCLA. We don't know. But we're the most highly thought of team in the country right now."

For the Tigers, who won their first game as No. 1, 56-41, at Tulsa Wednesday night, there is no way to determine whether they are truly the best team. None of the programs Calipari mentioned will play each other the rest of the season, though the Tigers' Feb. 23 clash with No. 3 Tennessee could go a long way toward building an argument on either side.

Though opinions ultimately won't matter much since college basketball determines its champion with a 65-team playoff, the debate at this point is really down to Memphis and Kansas, the only two unbeaten teams left.

In fact, the Jayhawks and Tigers have near-identical resumes. Memphis is 18-0 against the 52nd-toughest schedule in the country, according to the Ratings Percentage Index.

Kansas is 19-0 (including one non-Division 1 win) against the 53rd-ranked schedule. Memphis is 5-0 against teams in the RPI top 50; Kansas is 4-0 against the same.

Both teams beat Arizona at home (Kansas needed overtime; Memphis won with Wildcats star Jerryd Bayless sidelined).

The Tigers beat Southern California in overtime on a neutral court; Kansas beat the Trojans by four points in Los Angeles.

Both teams own victories over Oklahoma; though Kansas' was decidedly easier, Memphis played the Sooners in the third game of the season when its offense wasn't as organized.

Kansas won non-conference road games over middle-of-the-pack ACC teams Boston College and Georgia Tech. The Tigers beat mid-pack Big East teams Cincinnati (on the road) and Connecticut (neutral). From a resume standpoint, the only real tiebreaker is Memphis' Dec. 22 triumph against Georgetown.

"(No. 2) is where we should be," Kansas coach Bill Self said Monday at his weekly press conference. "Memphis started out ahead of us, and they haven't done anything to warrant anyone believing that they haven't done what they are supposed to do. We have played fairly consistently, and I don't know if being No. 2 or 1 means anything right now.

"I think it will certainly be motivation for our guys because we haven't gotten to go where we want to go. I don't really read much into it, but we are probably about where we deserve to be."

Despite Self conceding the No. 1 ranking, he and Calipari would both like their chances in a head-to-head meeting. Though Calipari wouldn't pick a winner, saying only that it would be "a great game," his players were predictably less diplomatic.

"We're a better team, I feel," junior guard Antonio Anderson said. "I'm not talking bad about them; I'm just commenting on my guys. We go out and play extremely hard. They've got a great team. I'm friends with (Kansas guard) Mario Chalmers; we've been good friends from high school.

"They're really good. Their guards and bigs are extremely good. But if we had to play tomorrow, I'm going with us. That's just how I am. But they're a great team."

Jeff Capel, the Oklahoma coach, disagreed with that conclusion after the Jayhawks dismantled his team last week, 85-55.

"They're better," Capel told reporters, referring to his Big 12 rival Kansas. "This is the best team we've played, and we've played some really good teams. They're so balanced. They shoot it obviously better than Memphis. They're bigger. They're probably equally as good in transition. I think this team passes the ball better. I don't think it's close. I think this is the best team in the country."

Pete Gillen, the former Virginia coach and current CSTV analyst, has seen both teams in person and called Kansas' 85-60 win at Boston College for Westwood One radio.

Still, he said he'd pick the Tigers in that matchup, pointing to junior Chris Douglas-Roberts as the "X factor" for his ability to penetrate and make clutch baskets.

"I think it would be a great game," Gillen said. "I think Memphis would win. A lot of people are going the other way, but they'd play mainly man-to-man, which is a plus for Memphis, and they penetrate so well.

"Kansas is playing unbelievably well, so a lot of people are going with the Jayhawks, but I'm sticking with Memphis. Derrick Rose is going to get better and better, and I just think Douglas-Roberts is really, really hard to defend. He's a money guy. When they really need a basket, he comes through more often than not. Kansas was tremendous the day I saw them, but I think on a neutral court Memphis would win in a great game."

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