Tigers' games often over before they start
C-USA domination more than physical
By Dan Wolken
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
For every Conference USA team that walks into FedExForum talking upset, there's another whose hopes literally die in the layup line.
"We'll see them looking at us and stuff like that," sophomore Doneal Mack said. "You can kind of sense the fear in their eyes."
As much as coach John Calipari likes to talk about how his University of Memphis team will absorb everybody's best shot in league play, the No. 2-ranked Tigers begin another go-round tonight against East Carolina as the undisputed intimidators of Conference USA.
Since the league split and reconfigured in 2005, the Tigers have gone 35-1 against their supposed conference rivals, and most of the games haven't been particularly close. In 2005-06, only Houston and UAB were able to play the Tigers within 10 points, with UAB pulling the upset in Birmingham. Last season, Memphis' average margin of victory was 18.5 points, and only three times were the Tigers even in danger of losing in the closing minutes.
The Tigers (13-0) suspect that their dominance has bred some resentment among the competition, but the question is whether any team in this league can do something about it.
"Some teams come in, and they want to beat us bad," junior guard Antonio Anderson said. "Regardless of what the situation is, they know they may not be as talented or as athletic, but they believe they can win.
"But there may be teams or guys on a team who know, 'We ain't got no chance of beating these guys whatever we do.' It's funny; it's crazy, but we feel good about it when teams respect us enough that they don't think they have a chance of beating us. But we can't look at it like that because then we'll eventually get beat. So we have to try to go out and dominate every game, dominate the glass, assists, whatever we possibly can."
Indeed, at times last season it seemed like only boredom could take down the Tigers. In the final game before the Conference USA Tournament, they got their biggest scare when SMU played them within 64-61 after Memphis won the earlier meeting by 36 points.
The only other team that gave Memphis trouble was Southern Miss, which bucked conventional wisdom by standing up to the Tigers physically and playing without fear. That doesn't always happen, especially in FedExForum, where the Tigers have now won 40 straight games.
Even on the road, Memphis has encountered challenging halves, but opponents rarely are able to sustain that level of play for a full 40 minutes. Other times, the game is over before it begins.
"I'm not going to say what teams in particular, but in the past and this year, we've seen certain teams, coming out of the locker room they're looking at us and they're shocked," Anderson said. "That's good to have that mentality, and coach Cal pretty much drilled that into us. We're not cocky or anything like that, we're just very confident amongst one another and we've got each other's backs."
In other words, the Tigers are intimidating, and on some nights, that's all it takes. And they'll take full advantage of that aura, even engaging in some trash talk when necessary.
"We're very confident, our team," Mack said. "We're thinking we're going to beat everybody this year. We're very confident this year, and we act like it. I wouldn't say we're cocky; we're just very confident."
Oddly, tonight's opponent hasn't exactly shrunk at the sight of blue jerseys. Despite finishing last in Conference USA, East Carolina mucked it up enough last year to produce a 21-21 tie at halftime before Memphis pulled away. It was a similarly competitive game the year before that, and interim coach Mack McCarthy said the Tigers often come up in practices throughout the year.
"I think all our kids see every Memphis game on television, and our kids ultimately aspire to not necessarily be Memphis but to be competitive at that level," McCarthy said. "Sometimes we'll bring up their name, like, 'Do you think that will work against Memphis?'"
That mentality is why Calipari says that watching tape is often useless for him when he's trying to get a sense of how other teams will play.
"They're going to bed at night thinking about, 'What if we ever upset these guys?'" Calipari said. "They go to class the next day, you can beat these guys, and they become heroes on their campus over this game. So we're going to be facing the other team's best every time. The school's best, the fans' best and their team's best."
Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at thememphisedge.com.