Siena fits the bill as Tigers' opponent
MAAC team offers challenge, may aid RPI
By Dan Wolken
Thursday, January 3, 2008
University of Memphis coach John Calipari was relaxing poolside last May at the Conference USA meetings in Florida when assistant John Robic called with some bad news.
Holy Cross had just pulled out of an agreement to play this season at FedExForum, leaving the Tigers with a hole on the schedule that would need to be filled by a very specific kind of team.
A team that would be willing to play in Memphis on a one-year contract.
A team from a mid-major conference that could resemble a first- or second-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
And, more than anything, a team that would win 20-plus games, helping the Tigers' schedule strength in the Ratings Percentage Index.
Of all the potential replacements, Siena appeared to fit the bill best of all. And Siena has cooperated, emerging as the favorite to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title. Now, the No. 2 Tigers must live up to their end of the bargain and fend off any slip-up against a team Calipari believes is capable of an upset.
"They're a veteran team, and we're definitely not going to look past them," sophomore guard Doneal Mack said. "They've got good guards, and we've been working on them like all the other teams we've played, and we'll just try to make it hard for 40 minutes."
And if the Tigers play hard for 40 minutes tonight, it will be an RPI bonanza for a Memphis team that won't have many opportunities to improve its power numbers once the C-USA schedule begins.
According to Ken Pomeroy's calculations on his Web site, kenpom.com, the Tigers are No.1 in the RPI, the primary tool used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee to compare teams from different conferences.
It's no surprise Memphis is No. 1 right now, given that the Tigers have already beaten Georgetown, Arizona, Oklahoma and Southern California. Staying there, however, isn't guaranteed once Memphis enters league play, where it will see a steady diet of teams ranked outside the top-100.
Siena, however, comes into tonight's game ranked 65th in the RPI with, ironically, a win over Holy Cross. And the more victories over top-100 teams Memphis can claim, the better chance it has of landing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"This was simply an RPI game," Calipari said. "They can beat you if you don't play (well), but if you play and you can beat them, it's great at the end of the year. It becomes a quality win."
But it could also become a nerve-wracking experience for Calipari, who compared this Siena team to the 2005-06 Winthrop squad that finished 23-7 and gave the Tigers a tussle before succumbing, 73-63.
Siena has much the same look, with a win over nationally ranked Stanford already on its resume. And like most of the successful mid-major teams, Siena lacks size but has a bevy of experienced guards. That can sometimes create matchup problems, especially if those guards are hitting 3-pointers, which the Saints have done at a 41 percent clip this season.
"They have good guards," Calipari said. "And the scary thing for us, in a game like this, they can shoot threes. And the biggest thing is, our press may not have the effect it's had on other teams because they'll play two small guards who are basically two point guards."
The Tigers also catch Siena after their run of victories over Georgetown and Arizona on back-to-back weekends, clearly the high point in the preconference schedule. The Tigers must guard against a letdown tonight and again Saturday against Pepperdine, or all that work they did to get in position for a No. 1 seed will suddenly seem less impressive.
"It's no different every game for us," sophomore forward Shawn Taggart said. "Everybody wants to play games now, not be in the gym beating up on each other. We'd rather be out there beating up on other teams."
Etc.: Memphis has made 600 unclaimed student tickets on the terrace level available to the public for each of the next four home games, beginning tonight. The tickets can be purchased for $12 apiece through the athletic department Web site (gotigersgo.com), at the ticket office on Normal and Southern or by calling 678-2331.
Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at thememphisedge.com.
Go to thememphisedge.com at about 7:30 p.m. today to catch Dan Wolken's pregame thoughts live from FedExForum.