Tigers aware of Eagles' dangers
Southern Miss has potential for upset
By Dan Wolken
Saturday, January 19, 2008
As much time and energy as John Calipari spends trying to convince his team otherwise, there are a number of opponents who simply cannot beat the University of Memphis no matter the circumstances.
So from time to time in this three-year romp through Conference USA, Calipari will get an effort that does not sit well with him, and he'll spend the next 48 hours trying to prod the Tigers into a peak performance.
But if Calipari has recruited players with good memories, that task should not be too difficult tonight against Southern Miss.
For the No. 2 Tigers, who have barely been challenged in C-USA, their games against Southern Miss last season stand out as reminders that college basketball can be as much about matchups and motivations as it is about records and RPIs.
Whereas 10 other C-USA teams proved they could not stay with the Tigers, Southern Miss took them to the brink twice. And without much change in either their personnel or coaching, there's every reason to believe the Golden Eagles can do it again.
"They always play us tough; I don't know why," sophomore guard Doneal Mack said. "They're a real scrappy team. They run an offense that sets a lot of picks, and ever since I've been here they've been a tough team to play against. They play us down to the wire every time."
On paper, there's no reason why Southern Miss should cause Memphis problems. The Golden Eagles are 9-8 -- four of their wins, however, are against non-Division 1 teams -- and rank 195th in the RPI rankings. They have not won a road game all season and have lost to low-majors McNeese State and Savannah State in the past month.
But that's not a whole lot different than last season, when Southern Miss was in a one-possession game with fewer than 5minutes remaining against Memphis just a week after losing to Savannah State. Free throws ultimately helped the Tigers extract a 75-62 win out of Hattiesburg, but the final score did not reflect how hard Memphis had to fight that night.
Then, just two weeks later, the Tigers needed late 3-pointers from Andre Allen and Jeremy Hunt to avoid a huge upset at FedExForum after Southern Miss controlled much of the second half.
"We bring out the best in them," Calipari said. "Every game we play has been a war."
Though some of Southern Miss' success against Memphis can be attributed to its strategy -- attacking the press, then slowing the pace and forcing the Tigers to make free throws by roughing them up at every opportunity -- Larry Eustachy's team has declined to be intimidated by the opponent or the venue.
In terms of pure athleticism, Southern Miss is arguably second in the league to Memphis, and when Eustachy can get the team to play physical and execute, it is formidable.
"They play extremely hard, and they scrap a lot," junior guard Antonio Anderson said. "They're very well coached. They always come out and play extremely hard, and they're a good defensive team. When you play a team like that, it's going to be a hard game."
Anticipating a difficult game should bode well for Memphis, which hasn't shown many weaknesses this season aside from a propensity to relax against lesser teams. That's why Calipari was upset after Wednesday's 77-50 victory over Rice in which the Tigers jumped out to a 19-5 lead and then seemed content with their night's work.
Calipari doesn't believe that approach will further the cause of winning a national title, so he won't accept it when it happens.
"It was just a lack of a hunger to go and attack and go at people," he said. "It was more like, let's get this thing over with.
"We're trying to do something unique; it's creating that habit so there's not a game you walk into that you think it's OK. It's not OK. It shouldn't be for them. They shouldn't accept anything from each other less than their best."
And tonight, they might actually need it.
Go to thememphisedge.com at about 7:30 p.m. today to read Dan Wolken's pregame thoughts live from FedExForum.
Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365