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Monday, January 21, 2008

Geoff Caulkins - It's going to be a Blue Monday for the 'little team in Memphis'

It's going to be a Blue Monday for the 'little team in Memphis'

By Geoff Calkins
Sunday, January 20, 2008

The cheer started with two minutes left, loud and exultant and certain.

"We're No. 1!

"We're No. 1!

"We're No. 1!"

And they are, too. Or will be when the AP poll is released Monday.

The Memphis Tigers hammered Southern Miss Saturday, 83-47, on a night that was part basketball game, part civic celebration. For only the second time in 87 seasons of basketball, Memphis will be ranked No. 1 in the country.

That's ahead of North Carolina and ahead of UCLA and ahead of, well, everyone.

Memphis coach John Calipari was so tickled he did a little jig as the clock ran down.

"We told him after the game, 'Don't do that again, Coach,'" said center Joey Dorsey.

But just this once, you could understand it.

"This is the third year they're saying this little team in Memphis is not that good," Dorsey said.

Except the little team down in Memphis doesn't ever seem to lose. Which is more than the big team over in North Carolina can say.

North Carolina has been ranked No. 1 since the start of the year. The Tar Heels were 19-point favorites over Maryland Saturday. But when Maryland took a 41-35 at the half, fans all over Memphis started to pay attention.

Maryland built the lead to 11; North Carolina came back to tie.

Maryland took the lead again; North Carolina had one last chance.

The ball went to all-American Tyler Hansbrough. He let it fly and -- Tiger hearts stood still -- missed it.

"There will be a new No. 1," said Brent Musberger, in the way that only he can.

In the R.C. Johnson household, the phones went crazy.

"The moment the game ended, my phone rang, Melba's phone rang and our home phone rang," said Johnson.

First thought: Woo-hoo!

Second thought: History can't repeat, can it?

On Jan. 10, 1983, Memphis rose to No. 1 -- and went out that night and lost to Virginia Tech at Blacksburg.

Three years later, the Tigers were in position to ascend to No. 1 once again after a loss by of No. 1 -- how's this for symmetry? -- North Carolina.

Sure enough, Memphis blew it again, losing another game to Virginia Tech at Blacksburg.

So the fans filed into FedExForum Saturday expectant but cautious, too, jubilant but wary.

Southern Miss always plays Memphis tough, right? And the North Carolina-Maryland upset proved that anything can happen in a basketball game.

Unless the Tigers are playing, evidently. Say what you want about Memphis' junky conference schedule, but the team never loses to teams it's supposed to beat.

The Tigers haven't lost to a non-tournament team since March 2, 2005, when St. Louis beat them. Just last season, Kansas lost to DePaul, Georgetown lost to Old Dominion and North Carolina lost to three -- three! -- non-tournament teams.

The Tigers don't have that kind of slip-up; indeed they can't afford to.

They just go out and win. And win. And win. And if it's so dang easy, why don't other teams try it?

Saturday's game wasn't pretty or anything, starting with another television debacle. Local viewers couldn't watch the start of the Memphis game on CSS-TV because New Orleans-MTSU went into overtime.

That's right, Memphis fans couldn't watch their team play for history because of New Orleans-MTSU. And people still think it's rude to point out that C-USA is a joke of a conference?

In a certain way, it makes the No. 1 ranking all that much more impressive. Surrounded by bunglers, the Tigers muster brilliance.

Southern Miss tried gamely Saturday. Memphis led just 14-12 eight minutes in. Then the Tigers went on one of their ridiculous runs. By halftime, the score 44-23, it was all over but the AP voting.

And yes, this being Memphis, there is some paranoia over how that might go. Memphis was No. 2 in last week's poll; Kansas was No. 3. Could voters leap Kansas over Memphis?

Theoretically, sure. But a close look at last week's poll makes it seem wildly unlikely.

Twenty-four voters had Memphis No. 1 last week; only three had Kansas No. 1.

Even more tellingly, of the 45 voters who had North Carolina No. 1 last week -- and who will presumably be looking for a new No. 1 team -- 34 had Memphis No. 2, compared to 11 for Kansas.

So Memphis will be No. 1 come Monday, just like the crowd was saying.

"We're No. 1!"

"We're No. 1!"

It's hard not to like that sound of that.

To reach Geoff Calkins, call him at 529-2364 or e-mail calkins@commercial You can hear his radio show, "The Geoff & Gary Show," from 7 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN 730.

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