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Friday, January 25, 2008

NCAA Tournament could draw Memphis

NCAA Tournament could draw Memphis
This article was published on Tuesday, January 22, 2008 7:10 PM CST in Columns
By Harry King
THE MORNING NEWS (Northwest Arkansas)

Email this story Print this story Comment on this story LITTLE ROCK -- Fans who scarfed up the tickets to the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in Arkansas could be at the center of the college basketball world in late March.

Memphis, the new No. 1 in the land, is a logical choice for North Little Rock. Although there is an occasional head-scratching site assignment -- No. 4 seed Texas playing in Spokane, Wash., last year comes to mind -- the NCAA tries to accommodate the nation's best teams in the name of the pod system.

Created a few years after Maryland, Georgetown, George Mason, and Hampton -- all East Coast teams -- were sent to Idaho in 2000, it's about regional games in the first two rounds. Last March, No. 1 seeds Florida, Ohio State, Kansas and North Carolina played their first two games in New Orleans, Lexington, Chicago and Winston-Salem -- accessible in a day's drive or less.

Barely two hours west, Alltel Arena is a natural for the Tigers if they remain No. 1. The only other regional contender is Birmingham. Other first-round sites include Anaheim, Denver, Omaha, Raleigh, Tampa and Washington, D.C., but there are only four No. 1s.

Arkansas fans have some history with Memphis coach John Calipari, including his response when asked about continuing the series with the Razorbacks. You cannot build a program playing regional rivals, he said in early 2003.

Calipari's name also came up when Arkansas was looking for a replacement for Stan Heath, but he said he met with then-athletic director Frank Broyles only to offer advice about candidates.

Abrasive at times, Calipari was head-on about the possibility of being No. 1 after North Carolina lost Saturday. He said some TV types would contend that Kansas deserves the top spot.

"But we played the No. 1 nonconference schedule in the country with Gonzaga and Tennessee still to come," he told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "We've taken care of business, done what we're supposed to do."

After the votes were counted, he said, "If you said to me I could have the No. 1 ranking or a No. 1 seeding, I'd take the seeding every time. For players and the school, though, this is huge."

Calipari has been around a No. 1 before, for two stretches in the mid-90s during his days at Massachusetts.

His Tigers are expected to get through the Conference USA schedule and Gonzaga is down a bit, so Tennessee on Feb. 23 figures as the biggest threat to an unbeaten season. Kansas, the only other major unbeaten, is up against it in the Big 12.

Memphis fans have already called San Antonio asking about rooms for the Final Four so, of course, they've been in contact with people in Arkansas, where tickets went fast last year.

Meanwhile, folks at the new Arkansas River Cities Sports Commission want to provide visitors from Memphis and beyond every opportunity to enjoy their time in Central Arkansas, and that is a challenge considering that March 21-23 is Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Some downtown restaurants don't open on Sunday, anyway, and it's possible that folks who attend the second-round games won't exit the arena until up in the night. They're going to need vittles and a place to unwind. If Central Arkansas wants to get those people to think about a return trip, the idea that the cities roll up the sidewalks at 7 p.m. is a step in the direction of Hicksville.

North Little Rock is farther west than any of the other Friday-Sunday sites, but it is not a given that the late games will be in Arkansas. It all depends on which teams are in town.

For instance, UCLA or Washington State, or Stanford, or Arizona State could be involved in a late-night game designed to catch prime time on the West Coast. In that case, the fourth game on March 21 might not end until after midnight, just another reason that all four hotels housing the teams must have full-service room service.

The window for first-round games begins at 11 a.m. and the who-plays-when is at the discretion of the network. That's the perk CBS bought when it agreed to $6 billion for an 11-year deal for the NCAA Tournament in 1999.

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