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Friday, March 07, 2008

C-USA title not one Tigers want

C-USA title not one Tigers want
NCAA championship remains ultimate goal
By Jim Masilak
Friday, February 29, 2008

Winning conference titles doesn't mean what it used to at the University of Memphis.

When the Tigers beat Tulsa on Wednesday night at FedExForum, the fact that they also bagged at least part of another Conference USA regular-season championship elicited barely a mention.

"This is my first time really hearing about it," freshman point guard Derrick Rose said before practice Thursday at the Finch Center.

Is that because winning league titles has suddenly become old hat for the the No. 2-ranked Tigers (27-1 overall, 13-0 in C-USA), who can secure a third straight outright C-USA title by beating Southern Miss (15-12, 7-6) in Hattiesburg on Saturday? Or is it because they have their sights set on bigger and better things?

"That's probably the main reason," Rose said.

For a team with consecutive Elite Eight appearances on its résumé, reaching the Final Four is widely considered to be a minimum acceptable requirement for a team with Memphis' resources.

And that's just fine with the Tigers.

If you're not trying to win a national championship, junior guard Antonio Anderson said, "I don't know what you're playing for."

That Memphis will finish on top of a depleted C-USA is essentially taken for granted at the moment, even with the improvements at UAB and Houston. And that, in turn, is an indication of how both the Tigers' fortunes and their surroundings have changed in recent years.

Between 1986 and 2004, Memphis finished alone atop its conference standings on just one occasion. The Tigers' 1995 Great Midwest Conference title under Larry Finch was their last outright regular-season championship until John Calipari finally broke through in 2006. His initial C-USA success, however, came only after Cincinnati, Louisville and Marquette left for the supposedly greener fields of the Big East.

Calipari, of course, isn't about to apologize for beating up on C-USA these past three seasons. The Tigers' recent league success has served as a launching pad to a pair of deep NCAA Tournament runs, with a No. 1 seed in 2006 and a No. 2 seed a year ago.

Calipari says he has long held the view that "winning the (conference) tournaments, winning the conference -- that's all part of your path to getting the highest seed you can get" in the NCAA tournament.

While Calipari was greeted by a fan base starved for success when he arrived here in 2000, he says he never focused simply on winning league titles, which is perhaps one reason why the Tigers' latest success was greeted in such ho-hum fashion.

"The less you think about those things, the more you win them. I'm promising you, we've never thought about it," Calipari said. "When I was at UMass, they had never won a conference title in 97 years. We never talked about it and we won a bunch of them."

Anderson doesn't think the Tigers have either discounted the importance of their conference success or neglected to enjoy their various titles.

Their 42-1 record in regular-season C-USA games the past three seasons is a testament to their consistency, focus and overall supremacy.

"We got that the last two years and we'd love to have it again," he said of an outright league title, "but we still have to go out and play Saturday afternoon."

For players like Anderson, a league championship is simply one of the markers on the way to the NCAA Tournament, a goal to be reached before moving on to the next one.

"You take things as they come," Anderson said. "Conference championships come before national championships."

-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311

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