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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Calipari: Preseason No. 12 rank no cause for alarm

Calipari: Preseason No. 12 rank no cause for alarm
Coach believes team has chances to climb

The Commercial Appeal
Thursday, October 30, 2008

The University of Memphis disrespect train is leaving the station for the 2008-09 season. But this time, you won't find coach John Calipari driving the engine.

Memphis was ranked 12th Thursday in the ESPN/USA Today preseason poll, and the verdict isn't expected to be much different when the Associated Press releases its poll today. But unlike last season, when the Tigers were admittedly perturbed by being slotted third behind North Carolina and UCLA, the reaction to Thursday's news amounted to a collective shrug of the shoulders.

"I don't think anybody should be disappointed," Calipari said. "And it doesn't really matter right now anyway. Three years ago, I think we were 10, 11 12 and within a week we were fourth. So we'll have opportunities to prove whether we're 12 or 25 or 40 or six."

Make no mistake, the Tigers' program and its fans have been obsessed with national rankings in recent years. The school even put up a billboard in the summer of 2007 proclaiming itself as "Preseason No. 1," which was essentially undermined by the two major national polls.

The disrespect theme continued all season. Even when the Tigers were obviously going to ascend to No. 1 on Jan. 19 after beating Southern Miss (North Carolina had lost earlier that day), players and coaches spent the next two days in a fog of paranoia, thinking that voters would resist vaulting them to the top.

But with the Tigers having finally broken through with a Final Four appearance, followed by the departure of three starters and an influx of new talent, their preseason ranking has barely registered as a topic of conversation.

"To be honest, I haven't even looked at no rankings or none of that," junior forward Pierre Henderson-Niles said. "This is the first I've heard of it. We should be good. People should think we'll be good. We lost three big scorers and a rebounder. But it's not like all of our players are gone."

In reality, ranking the Tigers 12th heading into this season is a far greater acknowledgement of how the program is viewed nationally than ranking them third before last season.

Anybody could have deduced that Memphis, led by Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and Derrick Rose, was a national championship contender. It takes much more faith, however, for voters to rank this Memphis team anywhere close to the top 10.

"We have some things we have to prove," Calipari said. "We have some numbers, but there's inexperience, there's unproven players, there's players that need to break through that maybe don't think they need to break through. We've got a lot of questions and a lot of guys we're trying to bring along."

So far, it's been difficult to tell how the Tigers will answer those questions. They've been hit with some injuries, including to senior guard Antonio Anderson (shin splints) and freshman forward Angel Garcia (knee sprain), hindering their early progress. And much of Calipari's practice time so far has been spent teaching talented freshmen like guard Tyreke Evans and wing Wesley Witherspoon how to play in their system.

But junior forward Shawn Taggart, who provided the dissenting view, said the Tigers should be given even more credit in the polls because they're coming off a Final Four.

"I don't think it's fair, but we need motivation anyway," he said. "I think we should at least be in the top seven, top five. We're coming from a national championship game and it ain't like we got blown out. We had it. We almost clutched it.

"I know we lost three guys, but we've got great players. We've got role players then who are stepping up now to become significant players, and we've got a very good team."

Two seasons ago, voters gave Memphis the benefit of the doubt despite losing two first-round NBA Draft picks in Shawne Williams and Rodney Carney, ranking the Tigers 12th in the preseason. They delivered and then some, eventually rising to No. 5 and making the Elite Eight.

Even if it's unfair to expect Memphis to do the same thing, Calipari said he accepts the pressure.

"The expectations in this city are 30, 35, 37 wins," he said. "And it's what it is, but we understand. What we're trying to do is let's be the best we can be. Let's try to win in March like we always have. Let's have the team that's up at bat in March."

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

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