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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dominant Tigers bring out best in normally docile C-USA crowds

Dominant Tigers bring out best in normally docile C-USA crowds

By Dan Wolken
Saturday, January 12, 2008

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Some basketball players can block out the hecklers and the noise when they play road games; indeed, for them, there is little difference between Marshall or Mississippi, Tulsa or Tennessee.

But if you want to find the most hostile road environment in Conference USA, who better to ask than University of Memphis senior Joey Dorsey, whose oversize personality and punishing style have made him a target wherever he goes.?


Randy Snyder/Associated Press

Memphis’ tour of C-USA opponents starts tonight at 9,043-seat Cam Henderson Center against Tirrell Baines (30) and Marshall. Over the past two seasons, Memphis is 14-1 on the road in C-USA.

“Rice,” Dorsey said.

Rice?

“Crazy. It was crazy. The fans are so close to the bench.”

Whether it’s in Rice’s cozy Autry Court or UTEP’s 12,000-seat snake pit, the Don Haskins Center, there is no bigger event in C-USA than a visit by the Tigers. And No. 2-ranked Memphis will surely get another reminder of that tonight at Marshall’s Cam Henderson Center, which is expected to have nearly all of its 9,043 seats filled.

“Pretty much anywhere Memphis goes right now, people want to come out and see that program,” Marshall coach Donnie Jones said.

Memphis’ drawing power is important, since C-USA basketball has not exactly attracted big crowds the past two years. In 2007, C-USA ranked 11th among conferences with an average of 5,053 fans per game. Aside from Memphis, which ranked 16th nationally in attendance, UTEP was tops in the league at 8,707 per game. Nobody else cracked the top 100.

That bleak picture, however, is totally lost on the Tigers, who typically encounter rowdy road environments in otherwise empty arenas. Though Marshall has been drawing better this season under Jones, whose previous ties to the program as an assistant under Billy Donovan have energized the fan base, the biggest crowd this season has been roughly 5,100.

Memphis coach John Calipari is expecting Marshall fans to deliver an atmosphere as rough as the Tigers’ last trip to Huntington, when they had to work much harder than anticipated for a 91-81 victory on Feb. 11, 2006.

“There was an emotional level like, ‘Whoa,’” Calipari said. “This will be packed; he’ll give away tickets. I called (athletic director Bob Marcum) four days ago and he said, ‘I’ve got about 200 left.’ I said, ‘I may buy them just so you don’t fill the house.’ He said, ‘You don’t understand; I can print new tickets.’”

Though the Tigers are up against that wave of enthusiasm for all their conference road games, they’ve done reasonably well overcoming it. Over the last two seasons, Memphis is 14-1 on the road in C-USA.

The only loss was at UAB, so naturally, junior forward Robert Dozier said Birmingham was the toughest place to play in the league.

“You’ve just got to block it out,” Dozier said. “The game is played on the court, not in the stands, so guys have to come in focused and mentally prepared and take whatever they throw at us, because you know they’re going to come out swinging and the crowd’s going to be into it.”

Though Rice’s fans may have been the most offensive to Dorsey’s rabbit ears, other venues have been tough on the Tigers. At UCF last season, Memphis brought out a record crowd and a week of buildup never before experienced on that campus. In El Paso, the Tigers were almost shocked by the veracity voracity of UTEP’s crowd, which helped the Miners play very competitively until the final two minutes.

And for the Tigers, the difficulty of a road venue can be just as much about the accommodations as the fans.

At Southern Miss, for instance, the Tigers had to dress in makeshift locker rooms last year while Reed Green Arena was undergoing renovations. Those locker rooms, however, were on the concourse level, meaning the Tigers literally had to walk down stairs through the crowd to get to the court. That makes it difficult for players to ignore the insults they hear from afar.

“I love playing on the road, coming into a hostile environment with the crowd against us,” Dorsey said. “They always try to get under my skin, try to get me out of the game. It makes my motor get going. I feed off it. I just show them on the court. I get a dunk or block and look at them and point at them and feed off the fans.”

Ultimately, having the ability and confidence to win road games helped the Tigers last season in the NCAA Tournament when they had to play Texas A&M in San Antonio, where the crowd was heavily tilted toward the Aggies. Though Memphis didn’t get credit for a road win, it undoubtedly proved the Tigers’ worth as road warriors.

“You’ve got a team that’s going in knowing what the challenge is,” Calipari said. “What I want them to do is enjoy it. Go in knowing these people live to play you guys, and go have fun with it. If you defend and you rebound and you have a veteran team, you’ll be in the game.”

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365

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