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Monday, January 28, 2008

ESPN - Top-ranked Tigers are like Coach Cal: relentless, unselfish and paranoid

Top-ranked Tigers are like Coach Cal: relentless, unselfish and paranoid
By Pat Forde,

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Memphis Tigers began their game against Gonzaga on Saturday the way Mike Tyson began fights in his prime.

The opening bell was still echoing while the Tigers were beating the Bulldogs senseless.

The score was 10-0 after 127 seconds. The Zags' mouthpiece had flown into the third row, and their eyes were swelling. Memphis had made all four of its shots; Gonzaga had missed all three. Bulldogs coach Mark Few was calling timeout to stop the hemorrhaging.

"It's tough for us to simulate that in Spokane," Few said dryly.

It's tough to simulate the Memphis Experience on any college campus.

Gonzaga regrouped and actually led for one shining moment late in the first half before submitting, 81-73. But that opening flurry showed exactly why Memphis is 19-0 and ranked No. 1.

The athleticism and controlled fury Memphis threw at Gonzaga off the opening tip was breathtaking. And keep in mind, that tip-off came at the sleepy hour of 11 a.m. local time.

So how did John Calipari get his team that jacked up for that early a tip-off?

"Coach told us a lot of people flew in just to see us lose today," Memphis guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said.

"You turn on the TV, and people are picking this game as one they think we'll lose," guard Antonio Anderson said. "That's definitely why we came out ready."

Thus we have a quintessential Calipari team: relentless, unselfish … and plenty paranoid. We have a team that perfectly reflects its coach.

I think we'll lose two league games.
--John Calipari

If you sent Cal a box of chocolates, he'd have them tested for arsenic. And if you vote his team No. 1, it's only to see it fall.

Did anyone really fly to Memphis just to see the Tigers lose? Probably not, unless you were wearing Gonzaga colors. Most out-of-town media types were here to see a rare close game because there wasn't a whole lot to be learned from watching Memphis' previous four home games -- a 42-point win over Siena, a 37-point win over Pepperdine, a 41-point win over East Carolina or a 36-point win over Southern Mississippi.

But if Calipari can construct a straw man for his players to bayonet, you'd better believe he will. In the absence of competition, he'll create motivation elsewhere.

Cal has the luxury of spending his time doing that because the Tigers' schedule is almost totally stress-free from here until roughly the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.

They won't lose before then. Even if Calipari does not see it that way.

"I think we'll lose two league games," he said. With a straight face.

"Their team will play out of their minds, and we'll break down a little," Calipari said, not convincing anyone. "They're not machines. Now, I've been wrong before -- I think it was in '79, might have been '77."

Which means he's overdue. With the Conference USA tournament to be played right here at the FedEx Forum, expect the Tigers to be 34-0 on Selection Sunday. They'll be the first unbeaten to reach the NCAA Tournament since UNLV in 1991.

That would be a huge story line. As it stands now, Memphis is the first team from outside the big six football conferences to be ranked No. 1 since Saint Joseph's in 2004. But don't mistake the Tigers for Cinderella, no matter what Calipari is selling.

"We're going to go from being Tennessee's team to being America's team," Cal proclaimed, in a fit of grandiosity. "Like we did one time before."

The one time before was 1995-96, when Calipari's Massachusetts team spent most of the season ranked No. 1 before losing in the national semifinals to Kentucky. That team validated Cal's coaching ability nationally, although it never should have been in doubt after he took an overachieving UMass team to the Sweet Sixteen in 1992.

This Memphis team bears little resemblance to those UMass clubs. It has a McDonald's All-American and surefire lottery pick in freshman Derrick Rose (19 points, nine assists and eight rebounds vs. Gonzaga) at point guard. It has other future pros in Douglas-Roberts and rebounding fool Joey Dorsey. It goes nine deep without running out of size, speed or shooters.

The Tigers never tire of playing defense, and they're playing with notable unity on offense. How do you average 17 assists a game? By giving up the rock and avoiding forced shots.

"It's impressive to see everyone, as we say, pulling the rope," Few said.

But in my view, pulling an undefeated bull's-eye into March Madness will hinder Memphis' title quest. I asked Calipari, who has referenced the New England Patriots repeatedly, whether he agreed.

It depends on if the Patriots win," Calipari said.

Fair enough. But it's hard to find two league losses on the remaining schedule. Maybe two that will be within 20 points.

The first is Wednesday at Houston. The Cougars are 14-3 but own just a single victory over a team ranked better than 120th in the RPI (that would be No. 82 Marist … woo-hoo). Houston will play right into Memphis' hands, running up and down the floor. The Tigers will roll.

The other road game of consequence is at UAB on Feb. 16. The Blazers are 9-0 at home, and Mike Davis has a couple shock-the-world wins on his résumé from his time at Indiana. But UAB also has lost to Marshall, Wichita State, South Florida and Georgia Southern.

That means the only other game of immense consequence is at home against Tennessee on Feb. 23 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). The Volunteers have the athletes to match up fairly well with Memphis, but playing on the road will make that a tough assignment.

With the Gonzaga hurdle cleared, one of the primary story lines from here on out will be Memphis' run at perfection.

"We're coaching to win every game," Calipari said. "What are the chances? Not good."

They're better than they were before Gonzaga stepped into the Forum. After his Bulldogs gave the Tigers their best battle at home, Few said the undefeated talk has detracted from appreciating Memphis' overall excellence.

"I don't think that's a fair thing to hang on their head," Few said. "Everyone needs to step back and think what a wonderful season they're having.

"It's not accurate to portray their conference as easy to roll through. That's what people always put on us. But I hope they do [go undefeated]. I'm rooting for them."

Don't let your players hear that, Cal. Not if you're selling them on the idea of everyone wanting to see the Tigers lose.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for He can be reached at

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