Calipari's team gets jump on 2008-09 while soaking up culture in China
By Dan Wolken
Sunday, May 25, 2008
The impact of the University of Memphis' association with Chinese basketball was evident last month when a delegation from the Big Ten visited the world's most populous country.
"One of their assistants," coach John Calipari said, "called back to say, 'Everywhere we go, they're asking, are you guys Memphis?'"
Given the vast potential for confusion in any East-West meeting, it was a minor and understandable mistake. It was also a potential preview of the reception for Memphis' delegation when seven Tigers players and five from other Conference USA schools arrive in Guangzhou sometime Monday for a weeklong trip highlighted by three exhibition games against the Chinese national team.
"You can imagine what has been built up, the goodwill of our team coming to China," Calipari said. "It's going to be exciting stuff."
For the Tigers, this rare overseas opportunity will serve two important purposes.
First, from a practical standpoint, it's the start of the 2008-09 season for Memphis' returning players. Though the dynamic will obviously change once the Tigers are able to play with their four incoming recruits, Calipari will at least get a sense of where the team stands on some key issues such as how junior Willie Kemp will play at point guard, whether sophomore Jeff Robinson will flourish in an expanded role and how junior Shawn Taggart will function as the primary post threat.
"I've been working out, trying to get ready for this point right now, so I'm happy to go out and play against guys like that," Taggart said. "It's going to be good competition for us to come together."
It's hard to gauge how this team, which will wear a special C-USA uniform rather than a Memphis uniform, will fare against the Chinese.
Fortunately for the Tigers, they won't have to match up against Houston Rockets center Yao Ming or Milwaukee Bucks forward Yi Jianlian, but they will have to adjust to international rules.
"They've got huge guys -- 6-8, 6-9 guards," Memphis senior Antonio Anderson said. "We've got to learn the rules, and the lane's a little wider. We have to be prepared in all aspects of how to play. We're looking forward to this experience. It's going to be great for me personally and the guys on the team and from the other schools. I'm pretty pumped up."
And they'll have to do it with just one day of practice. Memphis and the five additional players -- Tulsa guard Ben Uzoh, Southern Miss guard Jeremy Wise and forward Andre Stephens and UTEP guard Julyan Stone and center Claude Britten -- had just two sessions at the Finch Center on Saturday before taking off this morning.
Calipari said he would likely try to play the Memphis players together as much as possible.
"It's three games in six days, so there's not a whole lot we can really put in or add to it," Calipari said. "Maybe the first 12 minutes, we play our seven guys, then the next eight minutes we go with their five guys. Then we can have a couple guys sub in for them if they get exhausted. I think that's the easiest way to do this when you have absolutely one day of practice."
In some ways, however, the most important benefit of this trip is educational. None of Memphis' players have ever traveled so far away from home to a place so different from their own.
Despite the hectic schedule of games, Calipari said there will be time for cultural experiences. All three of the Tigers' games will be played in the vicinity of Guangzhou, the economic hub of South China and the third-largest city on the mainland. The metropolitan area is home to 9.75 million people and is just a 90-minute train ride from Hong Kong.
"It's different food, different culture; a lot of things are different over there," Taggart said. "And I've heard the shopping is cheaper, too."
The Tigers will also have to deal with a 13-hour time difference and a trip that will essentially take 24 hours from the time they leave Memphis until they arrive in Guangzhou.
"We've never been out of the country, so it's going to be a great trip," Kemp said. "The flight time and time changes, we'll probably be sleeping. It's daylight there when it's nighttime over here, so we have to get used to it."
After the players return on June 2, Calipari and assistants John Robic and Rod Strickland will remain in China for another week to conduct coaching clinics. This will be the first of five annual trips Calipari plans to make with his staff and a C-USA all-star team, per the terms of the exchange program he created last summer.
Last fall, the Chinese Basketball Association sent a group of coaches to observe the Tigers for 10 days during their preseason practices. One of them, Cui Wanjun, stayed with the team all season and witnessed their run to the national championship game. More coaches will be coming to Memphis next fall.
"Think about it," Calipari said. "These players are going to China, a country that had the iron curtain down not long ago. ... It's going to be a neat trip. I think people in that region are anxious for us to get over there. It should be fun."
Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365; read his blogs on the Tigers at thememphisedge.com.