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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Memphis players taking coach, fans, city along on joyous NCAA ride

Memphis players taking coach, fans, city along on joyous NCAA ride

By Geoff Calkins (Contact)
Sunday, April 6, 2008

SAN ANTONIO -- Chris Douglas-Roberts cut in along the baseline, took the slick pass from Antonio Anderson, soared in for his customary layup and thought, you know, why not dunk?

So he dunked.

He dunked for Larry Finch, watching from a Memphis hospital. He dunked for Larry Kenon, sitting in the Alamodome. He dunked for John Calipari, who wasn't supposed to be clever enough to win this game. He dunked for Detroit, which will always be his home.

Mostly, though, he dunked for Memphis, for the city and the school, and for the collection of players who never let the expectations of others shape their expectations of themselves.

"They didn't think I could get that high," he said.

Someone put that on a T-shirt, quick.

They didn't think Memphis could get this high, either, clear into Monday and the national championship game.

Thirty-five years after UCLA defeated Memphis in the 1973 championship game, the Tigers earned a second shot at the title Saturday night with a resounding 78-63 victory over UCLA.

"Revenge is sweet," said Vickie Finch, watching from the stands. Finch was at the Final Four in St. Louis 35 years ago, when her true love, Larry, scored 29 points in the loss. Now she was dancing and laughing and taking pictures with her son, Larry Jr.

"It's awesome," she said, "you can't beat this."

Not far away, former '73 forward Larry Kenon sat with Gene Bartow, his old Memphis coach, and exulted in the win.

"If they go, we all go," said Kenon.

Put that on a T-shirt, too.

Because they're going to the national championship game, these Tigers, and they're carrying all of Memphis along.

"I think we'll win it," Kenon said, "we have the best team."

And who can doubt that this morning, after watching the Tigers dismantle a UCLA team that so many thought was perfectly designed to stop what the Memphis players do best?

UCLA had the size, the experience and -- this was the big thing -- the genius on the bench.

That would be Ben Howland, the smartest kid in the coaching class, who is to timeouts as Mendel was to peas.

"There was a column in the Los Angeles Times today that said this was a coaching mismatch," someone told Calipari after the game.

Calipari pondered this.

"I don't think Ben is that bad," he said.

Big laughs all around.

What a wonderful moment that had to be for Calipari, even if he won't admit to it publicly. The guy is not a favorite with the national media. He has never met a fight he couldn't pick. But saying Calipari can't coach is like saying Derrick Rose can't run.

Can't coach?

Then why do his guys play so hard?

Can't coach?

Then why do they defend better than anyone else?

Can't coach?

Then why does he have an entire city believing in this team and, maybe, even themselves?

Calipari has never thought coaching is about proving you're smarter than the other guy. He thinks it's about recruiting great players, teaching them a system, helping them to believe in themselves, and then unleashing the result on an unsuspecting world.

It's almost hilarious, at this point. Every game is the same. The wise guys figure out all these reasons that Memphis might lose. Then the game starts and the wise guys are suddenly muttering and shaking their heads and drawing up post-game questions like these: "Derrick did some things on the court today that left a lot of us slack-jawed ..."

Slack-jawed.

Put that on a T-shirt, too.

They were slack-jawed over Rose (25 points, nine rebounds, four assists and one turnover), they were slack-jawed over Douglas-Roberts (28 points), they were slack-jawed over the free-throw shooting (87 percent) and they were slack-jawed over Joey Dorsey's single-mindedly ferocious game (zero points and 15 rebounds).

Dorsey did write another story for this one, by the way. It was called "No Love for UCLA." It could have been subtitled, "No Collison, either," because that's the way it worked out.

UCLA's Kevin Love had 12 points, but just 2 in the second half. Point guard Darren Collison had two points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field. Calipari might not be much of a coach, but for the 832nd straight game he figured out how to make the other team's best players disappear.

"I coached like I do in every game," he said.

Pause.

"According to some, in a very poor way."

More big laughs. Could it be that Calipari is the genius now?

It certainly can't be Howland who, in addition to ordering up Collison's fifth foul, went out of his way to "credit Memphis State."

Memphis State? Yo, Ben. It's been 14 years!

But this isn't a time for gloating, just dancing, and chest-bumping, and toasting a team that set a national record Saturday with its 38th win of the year.

CBS analyst Billy Packer reminded Calipari about the record in his postgame interview. The Memphis players, circled around Calipari, wondered if they'd heard it right.

"That's it, that's the most wins?" one of them asked.

"No," Calipari said, "you've got to get to 39."

To reach Geoff Calkins, call him at 529-2364 or e-mail calkins@commercialappeal.com

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