This is about winning basketball. If winning basketball, the way we play it right is not good enough, then we go to the next season. It's not life or death for me, folks. Won't ever be. I've won enough games, done enough good things, I've taken this program to another level -- completely -- from when I took over."
-- Memphis coach John Calipari's postgame comments after his Tigers beat Charlotte January 17th
It's time for the University of Memphis basketball program to "go to the next season," and a little sooner than Tiger fans would like. But having won 22 games, shared a regular-season conference title, and spanked an SEC foe in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Calipari would be right to dismiss any whining or finger-pointing in the aftermath of the Tigers' whipping at the hands of Oklahoma State last Sunday in Kansas City.
Once the pain of a season-ending loss subsides -- and remember, such is the fate for 64 of the 65 teams in the Big Dance -- the time comes for self-evaluation, from head coach to third-stringer. There is more to feel positive about with Tiger basketball than there has been in years, but Calipari would be the first to emphasize that the mission has hardly been completed. So what to expect for 2004-05?
Be true to the ones you love. Calipari simply has to step up and declare his intentions for next season. The St. John's rumors have some legs (just like those at Pitt not so long ago), and Calipari is the only man who can summarily take them out. The Memphis coach is as savvy in his media relations as he is in his substitution patterns. And despite having already received a six-figure raise and contract extension, Coach Cal is going to drive his ticket price as high as the market will allow ... and leave every door open that may have a bidder behind it. As much good as he's brought the U of M program, this waffling every spring is damaging. Calipari demands fierce loyalty from his team, his fans, his student body. He bristles when the local media "turn" on him and his program. He had the chance to eliminate doubts in Kansas City and ducked. Our arms are extended, Coach.
Build around Banks. You want a silver lining to the second-round dismissal in the NCAAs? Look no further than Sean Banks falling out of the national spotlight (having scored all of 17 points in the two games). Banks will be the most talented returning Tiger since Lorenzen Wright in 1995. Conference USA's reigning Freshman of the Year will be a favorite for All-America honors next season, and his team's humbling this month may simply accelerate his development. Unlike his coach, Banks has said the right thing when asked about the possibility of his leaving the program for the NBA draft ("no"). He'll be desperately needed to offset the loss of Antonio Burks, more in terms of leadership and guts than in his role on the court.
Find strength from within, not from Conference USA. Isn't it ironic that not one of the celebrated C-USA programs on their way out after 2005 survived the tournament's first weekend, while little ol' UAB knocked off the top-ranked team in the country and will carry the conference flag into the Sweet 16? All of Tiger Nation -- particularly those of us in the media -- need to quit the nostalgic fretting over what the U of M will do without Louisville, Cincinnati, and Marquette. Little can be done to reverse the mass exodus, and the fact is, these aren't the programs against which Memphis should be measured. Calipari was somewhat prophetic on the eve of the Tigers' season opener last November at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York. Said Coach Cal, "The whole point of coaching college basketball -- aside from teaching life skills and getting these kids prepared for life after basketball and helping them develop their game for their pro aspirations -- is to get in the NCAA tournament and advance. To be in a great league, but be in the weakest situation ... it hurts you." Ask Nevada how important a great league is.
Help is on the way. Presuming Calipari's incoming recruits are academically eligible, the roster for 2004-05 may be a good deal more complete than the seven- or eight-man rotation of this past season. Kareem Cooper, a 6'11" center from Washington, D.C., should bring some offensive presence to the post that was sorely lacking this year. Hamilton High's Shawne Williams is a taller version of Banks, if not equipped with the same skills. As for the void at point guard, Darius Washington of Orlando will compete with Clyde Wade (assuming the latter can put his legal troubles behind him) for playing time. With so much new blood being introduced, the value of stalwarts Anthony Rice, Rodney Carney, and Jeremy Hunt can't be overvalued.