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Friday, January 25, 2008

Gonzaga plays at top-ranked Memphis on Saturday

Gonzaga plays at top-ranked Memphis on Saturday

SPOKANE, Wash. -- To hear John Calipari tell it, his top-ranked Memphis Tigers sound like the Gonzaga of the East.

Both programs are in lightly regarded conferences, and must play tough schedules to attract the attention of Top 25 voters.

On Saturday, Gonzaga (15-4) plays at Memphis in the latest installment of a cross-country series that Calipari would like to continue for at least four more years.

"It's great for both schools," he said. "It prepares us both (for the NCAA tournament)."

The teams are talking about extending the series for two years or four years, he said.

"I'd do four," Calipari said.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few liked the idea of four more years.

"These games have had really, really high intensity and drama," Few said Wednesday.

Playing in Conference USA, Memphis (18-0 after Wednesday night's 56-41 victory over Tulsa) has to contend with critics who say that league's schedule is easier than teams face in the major BCS conferences. That means Calipari has to find top-notch opponents during the non-conference season, and often can't lure them to campus.

Instead, he tries to schedule powerhouse opponents in tournaments and other neutral sites.

"We've got to get to neutral events," Calipari said. "We can never get those opponents at home."

It's the same system that Few has pursued at Gonzaga, which dominates the West Coast Conference. The Zags typically fly all over the country to play in tournaments during the nonconference season. This year they've been to Alaska, Boston and Oklahoma City for neutral games.

Memphis and Gonzaga also don't have much margin of error during their league seasons, Few said.

"In both cases, there's a feeling you've got to be perfect in your league," Few said. "It's not fair."

On Monday, Memphis replaced North Carolina as the No. 1 team in college basketball - the Tigers' first appearance in 25 years at the top of The Associated Press poll.

Memphis is led by Chris Douglas-Roberts (16.3 ppg), Derrick Rose (14.1 ppg), Robert Dozier (11.2 ppg) and Joey Dorsey (8.4 points, 10.2 rebounds per game)

The only other time the Gonzaga squad has faced No. 1 was against Cincinnati in a 75-68 loss on Dec. 4, 1999, at the Rock-N-Roll Shootout in Cleveland.

Memphis will be the third Top 10 team the Zags have played this season. They previously lost to No. 6 Washington State 51-47 and to No. 3 Tennessee 82-72. Gonzaga's other losses this year are to Texas Tech and Oklahoma.

"We'll have to play just about perfect," Few said. "You are dealing with one of the best accumulations of raw, physical, athletic talent in the last 10 years."

Memphis is only the fourth non-BCS program to be ranked No. 1 since UNLV in 1990-91. The others are Massachusetts in 1994-95 and 1995-96, both coached by Calipari, and Saint Joseph's in 2003-04. That Saint Joseph's team beat Gonzaga 73-66.

The Zags have never been ranked higher than No. 3. The highest-ranked team they have defeated was No. 2 North Carolina last season.

Memphis leads the series with Gonzaga 2-1. Last season, the Tigers won 78-77 in overtime in Spokane.

"It was an unbelievable environment," Calipari said. "The fans are knowledgeable and respectful, even though they are loud and crazy.

"It's one of the best road trips we've taken," he said."What a great city."

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