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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

'U' word suddenly surrounds Memphis

'U' word suddenly surrounds Memphis
Calipari: No pressure building with victories
By Dan Wolken
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

With each victory notched by the University of Memphis since beating Georgetown on Dec. 22, the idea of an undefeated regular season has bubbled closer to the surface of college basketball's consciousness. At the same time, however, more and more voices have chimed in with the notion that No. 1-ranked Memphis would benefit by losing a game heading into the NCAA Tournament.

"I just need to know," coach John Calipari said, "which of those people have coached."

Though there's still a long way to go before the Tigers (19-0) can zero in on going unbeaten, the number of true danger games on their schedule is dwindling rapidly. If Memphis can get by Houston on Wednesday at Hofheinz Pavilion -- arguably the most difficult road test remaining -- only a monstrous upset would prevent the Tigers from being 26-0 on Feb. 23 when they play Tennessee.

Calipari said after Saturday's 81-73 victory over Gonzaga that he believes Memphis will lose at least one or two games in Conference USA. At the same time, Calipari said he doesn't buy the argument that heading into the NCAAs without a loss would be detrimental to the Tigers' chances of winning a national title.

"What you want to do is make them feel invincible," Calipari said. "Not arrogant, but have a swagger based on preparation, hard work, respect and confidence in each other, based on a love between the team. That's what you're trying to do, and a loss doesn't do that. I've been in this a long time. What a loss does? It puts doubt in your mind."

The idea that Memphis would be better served by losing a game is a popular one. A couple examples:

On Saturday,'s Pat Forde wrote, "But in my view, pulling an undefeated bull's-eye into March Madness will hinder Memphis' title quest."

On Jan. 10, Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis wrote, "Personally, I think this is a no-brainer. I say it's better not to be undefeated ... (I) believe that if a team hasn't experienced losing, then it doesn't achieve the kind of growth that can only come about through adversity. And at some point, instead of playing to win, you start playing not to lose."

There simply isn't enough evidence, however, to establish a causal relationship between going undefeated in the regular season and failing to win a national title. Sure, every NCAA champion since Indiana's 1976 team has had at least one loss in the regular season. On the other hand, the last time a team has even tried to win the NCAA Tournament without a regular season loss was UNLV in 1991.

That's not much of a sample size. And as long as the Tigers remain unblemished, they will not acknowledge that a loss could be useful.

"We want to win every game we play," junior guard Antonio Anderson said. "That's all we want to do is win. We're not buying into anything anybody else has to say besides the guy behind us. That's about it. If a loss comes, it comes. But we just have to continue to play the way we've been playing, regardless of our record."

In that respect, Calipari is fortunate that Memphis' run at history is occurring as the New England Patriots are one game away from finishing off a rare unbeaten season. Calipari, of course, is rooting for the Patriots to win the Super Bowl on Sunday because it's hard to deny the connection.

"The Patriots winning their game will have a lot to say (whether) an undefeated season didn't hurt them," Calipari said. "If they're the best team, it shouldn't matter what you did in the past. What does that matter? It's these two teams playing. It's like the lottery; the odds are the same. They don't change, unless you let the past affect the future."

Part of going undefeated, however, is being able to handle the daily questions about it and the potential for added stress, especially in the modern media age. Calipari talks often of his 1996 UMass team, which felt the weight of history by the time it reached 26-0 but was finally unleashed after it lost a home game to George Washington.

At the same time, Calipari says this situation is different, since the Tigers won 25 straight last season before losing to Ohio State in the Elite Eight. It also should be noted that Memphis was under tremendous pressure during that streak, since the team knew that any loss would significantly hurt its NCAA Tournament seed.

"If we lose, then hey I'll say that, yeah, we needed that," Calipari said. "I'm going to say, we absolutely needed that. When I was at UMass and we won those games early, it was an albatross, but that team had never done what this team did. So it just built."

Is it building already? The Tigers say no, and if they lose Wednesday, it's unlikely to be because of the undefeated talk.

"I think people will try to put the pressure on you," sophomore guard Doneal Mack said. "You have to look at the Patriots. They stay humble and stay focused, and that's all we're trying to do."

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at

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