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View from the 'ville
Thursday, January 24, 2008

By Al Myatt

Calipari's charges relish top spot

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

The difference between being No. 1 or No. 2 in college basketball could be likened to the distinction between President or Vice President.

The media has relatively little concern at the moment about who the next Veep will be but we get daily reports on how various primary campaigns across the nation are going for the presidential candidates.

Some folks couldn't tell you if the current vice president was John Chaney, Lon Chaney or Dick Cheney.

The national spotlight shifted to Memphis and Coach John Calipari this week after the Tigers moved up a notch to No. 1 in the polls following Maryland's 82-80 upset of previously-unbeaten North Carolina on Saturday in Chapel Hill.

There was widespread media attention — some of it coming from outside the rather sizeable geographic footprint of Conference USA.

The Tigers coach fielded questions from reporters in media outlets ranging from Seattle to Dallas to USA Today after the Terps boosted his program into the top spot. Many coaches try to downplay the rankings but Calipari said his players wanted to be No. 1.

"I was surprised yesterday how badly the team wanted to be rated No. 1," Calipari said. "I was kind of taken aback by that. But when you look at it — and I said this earlier — similar to my UMass teams, we have a lot of players that were kind of overlooked who had been told their whole lives that, 'You can't, you won't, it isn't ever happening, there's no hope.'

"And all of a sudden, they all come together; they work together."

East Carolina had the distinction of being guinea pigs for the Tigers' C-USA opener two weeks ago and Pirates coach Mack McCarthy probably would offer little dispute for Memphis being rated the top team nationally. ECU was in the game for about 15 minutes at the FedEx Forum before getting left in the vapors of an offensive explosion.

Memphis won 99-58 as McCarthy was ejected for a second technical foul before the midway point of the second half. Still, Mack saw enough of the Tigers to realize they were exceptional.

"In the first half when we did enough of the things that we needed to do to compete with them, there were two things that were problems," McCarthy said. "The first of them being 17 offensive rebounds I think in the first half. The problem is when you get offensive rebounds you're close to the goal, so now we're talking about getting fouls and then shooting 30 free throws.

" ... It's about them rebounding the ball offensively and driving the ball up the goal so hard. We knew what they were doing, but stopping them is another thing. They have a lot of great weapons."

A lot of Memphis' weaponry was developed in North Carolina. The Tigers have seven players on their roster who played at prep schools in North Carolina. Those seven players were accounting for 41.9 points and 27.7 rebounds per game going into a 56-41 C-USA win over Tulsa on Wednesday night.

"You know it's inspiring the other team," said Calipari after his club failed to win by 20 points or more for the first time in seven games. "You've got to hope that it's inspiring to your team even more. If it becomes an anvil around their neck, let's lose. If it becomes something that drags us back, let's lose.

"I think a lot of this had to do with Tulsa.''

Calipari's players may not be on the same page with their coach in terms of taking a loss to avoid targeting from opposing teams.

"I've been wanting to be No. 1 since I was a freshman," said 6-foot-9 senior Joey Dorsey, who prepped at Laurinburg (NC) Institute. "It was great for me."

Dorsey had a career-high 19 rebounds to surpass 1,000 for his career.

"I ain't trying to lose it," Dorsey said. "I'm trying to be No. 1 until the year's over.''

Shawn Taggart, a 6-10 sophomore who prepped at Mount Zion in Durham, had 12 of his 14 points in the second half at Tulsa as Golden Hurricane coach Dave Wojcik, who was on Matt Doherty's staff at North Carolina, played some triangle and two as well as a 2-3 zone against Memphis rather than his customary man to man.

"I'm not sure that anybody does a better job of preparing their team for us than what Doug does,'' Calipari said. "The problem is that when you're playing them early in the season, he exposes some of the stuff for other people to kind of come after you a little bit.''

Wojcik is reportedly a good friend of Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose 15-4 club will challenge Memphis' 42-game home winning streak in a noon tipoff (EST) on Saturday. It's a good bet that Few will be calling Wojcik for some strategic counseling.

The Tigers (18-0, 5-0 C-USA) already have exceeded their win total following their last ascension to the penthouse in the polls. The last time Memphis reached No. 1, Virginia Tech pulled off a 64-56 upset just hours after the rankings were released. That was on Jan. 10, 1983.

Memphis finished 33-4 last season, getting a No. 2 seeding for the NCAA Tournament and advancing to the San Antonio regional final where they lost 92-76 to top seed and eventual NCAA runner-up Ohio State, 92-76. The Tigers have five returning starters with the experience of that NCAA run plus additional depth.

This year's Final Four is in San Antonio, too, so Memphis should be ahead of the curve in terms of adjusting to the building if they can just get there.

It should be an interesting season as the Tigers attempt to become the first non-BCS conference team to win the NCAA basketball title since UNLV in 1990.

McCarthy likes the offensive aggression of the program that has won the last three C-USA titles.

"They do a good job at creating their situation; the way they drive it," said the Pirates coach. "When they catch it, they're shooting it or driving it. When they drive it they can finish or make plays. They're just very, very talented. They have a lot of answers for whatever you do."

At the moment, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Memphis are all No. 1 in the polls but the Tigers aren't running for the White House. The position they're seeking will be decided at the Alamodome in April.

Send an e-mail message to Al Myatt.

Dig into Al Myatt's Bonesville archives.

01/24/2008 02:29:48 AM


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