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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Memphis focuses on bigger picture, not one loss

Memphis focuses on bigger picture, not one loss
The Commercial Appeal
Originally published 11:03 p.m., February 24, 2008

For the soon-to-be former No. 1-ranked University of Memphis basketball team, Saturday's loss to Tennessee only felt like the end of the world.

No, Memphis will not emulate the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers as undefeated national champions. The No. 1-elect Vols, with their 66-62 victory, put paid to that notion.

But the reality, although it was too much for the despondent Tigers to contemplate it in the wake of a rare loss at FedExForum, is that there is still a great deal left to play for over the next six weeks.

The perfect record is gone, and a host of school-record winning streaks along with it, but Memphis (26-1) is still streaking toward a Conference USA regular-season title. The Tigers will be heavy favorites in next month's C-USA tournament and, barring a disastrous post-Tennessee hangover, are still in line for a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

"It's all still there," freshman point guard Derrick Rose said. "There ain't nothing to worry about."

Memphis has a couple more days to regroup before facing Tulsa on Wednesday night at FedExForum. Sophomore guard Doneal Mack expects the Tigers to put the loss behind them and proceed with their march toward March.

"We'll get it straight for the next game," Mack said. "We've got to use this for motivation. We've got to look at what we did wrong on the tape."

Although Sunday was technically an off day for the Tigers, who were outrebounded 50-34, shot 47.1 percent from the free-throw line and missed their last 12 3-point attempts against the Vols, Mack said "I know everybody's gonna be in the gym."

Tennessee, which almost certainly will assume the Tigers' place atop the rankings today, has less time to come to grips with its newfound status as a basketball superpower.

The Vols (25-2) travel to Nashville on Tuesday night to face a Vanderbilt team that hasn't lost at home to a top-ranked opponent in 30 years. The 20th-ranked Commodores (23-4) have won three consecutive games at Memorial Gym against teams ranked atop the Associated Press poll. They beat Florida last year, Kentucky in 1993 and North Carolina in 1987 when each of those teams was No. 1.

Senior guard Chris Lofton isn't worried about the Vols being overwhelmed by a No. 1 ranking. He's more concerned about beating the Commodores and preserving Tennessee's two-game lead in the SEC standings.

"I think we'll handle it fine. We've got to remember that on Tuesday night we play a very good team that's gonna be ready to play," Lofton said. "They don't lose a lot at home and they're gonna be ready for us."

While Vols coach Bruce Pearl whipped his team's fans into a frenzy at a pregame pep rally on Saturday - "We're 40 minutes from No. 1," he told them - his players expect him to downplay the ranking.

"Coach is gonna preach every day to us that it don't mean nothing," said sophomore forward Tyler Smith, whose turnaround jumper over Dozier with 26.5 seconds left proved to be the game-winner.

As for the Commodores, Smith said their recent 93-52 bludgeoning of Kentucky - it was the Wildcats' worst loss since 1989 - has commanded the Vols' full attention.

"They beat Kentucky by 40-odd points and Kentucky beat us," Smith said, "so it's gonna be a tough game."

Should Tennessee escape from quirky Memorial Gym with what would be its 10th straight win, the Vols can clinch at least a share of the SEC crown by beating Kentucky on Sunday in Knoxville.

Memphis, meanwhile, can wrap up its third outright C-USA title in as many years with wins over the Golden Hurricane on Wednesday and at Southern Miss on Saturday.

Dozier insists that the Tigers "never were" caught up in the increasing hoopla over their unbeaten start to the season. But the post-game scene in the Memphis locker room, where the majority of players declined to field questions from the media, gave lie to that.

"We were supposed to come up with a victory," said Rose, who did his part by scoring 23 points.

Dozier, despite what Rose described as the emptiness of the moment, was eventually willing to consider the fact that the Tigers' season will continue.

"You live and you learn," Dozier said. "There's a bigger tournament coming up."

In the meantime, Rose said, it would be ridiculous to let Saturday's disappointment derail what could still be a dream season.

"We're the only team in the nation with one loss," he said. "There ain't nothing wrong with that."

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