Big expectations are nothing new for the U of M basketball team. They've been a part of the program for years, particularly since 1985, the year the Tigers went 31-4 and earned a Final Four berth and number-one ranking.
Realistic or not, the Final Four question comes around every October: "When are the Tigers gonna get back to the Final Four?" Coach Dana Kirk heard it. Larry Finch heard it -- a lot. Believe it or not, even Tic Price heard it. And now John Calipari is hearing questions about post-season dancing. But can his team learn the necessary steps?
National publications have taken notice of the improvement of last year's existing team and the addition this year of one of the nation's elite recruiting classes. The two most popular magazines -- Street & Smith's and the Sporting News -- rank the Tigers number 15 and number 10, respectively, and both have the team winning Conference USA.
"The sky's the limit for this Memphis team," said Scott Smith, managing editor of Street & Smith's, in a recent interview on WHBQ-AM. "Coach Calipari has really helped himself out with a strong recruiting class and I look for the Tigers to win their conference and get some deserved national attention."
The Sporting News took it even further: "Success- starved Memphis basketball fans now have two teams that are likely 20-game winners ... . It's unclear which initials will be more prominent in Memphis this season -- NBA or NCAA. But at least no one will be talking NIT."
Not that anyone really should have wondered, but it has become readily apparent that Coach John Calipari was the right fit for the Tigers' coaching position. Having a coach from the NBA has not only worked wonders in recruits' homes, it has greatly improved the product on the floor.
The difference between the Tigers early last season and the team that advanced through the NIT at the end of the year was staggering. It took time for the coach to establish a system and time for that system to take effect. Work ethic, responsibility, and professionalism are no longer clichés at the University; they are a creed. Throw in a stellar recruiting class featuring the nation's top high school player (Dajuan Wagner), a proven JUCO transfer (Chris Massie), and a returning nucleus that includes Kelly Wise, Scooter McFagdon, Earl Barron, and steadily improving reserves, and Calipari should have all the tools he'll need.
It's no secret that last year's Tigers made their run to the NIT Final Four largely in part to their bread and butter: the front line. The interior play of Wise and Barron provided match-up problems for opponents as well as shot-disrupting defense. This year that ballyhooed front court has only gotten better. Added weight, a strong work ethic, and international experience have Barron playing his best basketball ever. Wise spent a full summer under the tutelage of strength coach Ray Oliver.
Much needed depth will come from Massie, sophomore Modibo Diarra, redshirt holdout Arthur Barclay, and newcomer Duane Erwin. Massie brings a physical presence and toughness to the paint that the team has lacked. He also has the ability to play facing the basket, which creates a match-up nightmare for opposing coaches.
Cal praises the efforts of Diarra, who could become an excellent player with time. Barclay has recovered fully from knee surgery and has been dubbed "a vicious rebounder" by his coach. Erwin's shot-blocking ability gained attention at Finch Center summer pick-up games.
When you already have the scoring record for the arena where you have yet to play a college game, people tend to sing your praises. When you score 100 points in a game and when you are called the best high school player ever, YOU DA MAN! That's Wagner's rep coming into Memphis.
But when "da man" is on your team, there are often consequences. Gelling with teammates who have also been told at some point that they were "da man" could be another concern. For the Tigers to get to the next level, Wagner needs to be a man but amongst men, and he'll need help in the backcourt.
JUCO standout and former BTW star Antonio Burks has made quite an impression in practice and in pickup games. Burks is built like an NFL cornerback at 5'10", 190 pounds, and has exhibited a quickness at point guard that was lacking in last year's squad. Anthony Rice, a highly recruited newcomer known for his shooting skills, might be thrust into duty. And Nathaniel Root can also provide experienced depth at the one spot.
By Chris Przybyszewski
Home again, home again, jiggedy-jig. After a good, long road trip -- let's say one that takes us down to Houston, Texas, one week and to Greenville, North Carolina, the next -- the return home can be sweet indeed.
For this year's Tigers football squad, it also means a return to confidence. The team is fifth in the C-USA standings with a 4-3 record and 2-2 conference mark. The record, in itself, isn't so bad, especially for a historically mediocre football club. But the numbers also reveal a major challenge for head coach Tommy West: This team can't seem to win on the road.
At the Liberty Bowl, Memphis is 3-0. On the road, the team is 1-3 with the one victory coming at winless Houston. Offensively, the team plays pretty well on the road, averaging 32.5 points per game compared to 27.3 at home. But defensively, the Tigers' tale is woeful. The Tigers have given up only 12 points per game at the Liberty Bowl. On the road, this same defensive unit has allowed 33.3 points per game.
West thinks this has a lot to do with the opponents the team has faced on the road. "Louisville and Carolina are the two best offenses in our league," West says of Memphis' last two road losses. "That has a lot to do with our stats." But West admits that he has put an emphasis on being a team that plays well at home. That emphasis seemed to backfire last Saturday night as the Tigers looked outclassed, overmatched, and even out- coached against ECU. West indicated as much after the game, saying, "We got our butts kicked. I got mine whipped. Everybody on our football team, we came up here and we got whipped. I wish there was some other way to explain it, but there isn't."
A stranger to Tigers football might suggest that perhaps there has been too much emphasis on rebuilding the new-look Tigers offense. West, a defensive-minded coach, disagrees. "We're really younger defensively than we are offensively," he says. "But I can't tell our players that because I don't want to give them a crutch." West also notes, however, that veteran defenders are pulling as many boneheaded plays as the youngsters.
The Tigers are home for three of their last four games. That's a good thing, since one of those teams -- UAB -- has what West calls "the toughest defense we've seen this year" and another -- Cincinnati -- currently leads the conference. Throw in the daunting prospect of playing Tennessee at Knoxville and the Tigers have a slim margin of error when it comes to earning six wins and the accompanying bowl eligibility.
The rest of the season begins this Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. Appropriately enough, it's homecoming.
· "We got our butts kicked." -- Tiger football head coach Tommy West after his team's 32-11 loss to East Carolina University.
· "[Physicality] has been a mark of Pat Riley's teams. We'll have to deliver that blow first to tell them we can play this game." -- Grizzlies head coach Sidney Lowe before his team met preseason opponent the Miami Heat. Heat center Alonzo Mourning didn't play and the Grizzlies won, 110-106.
· "It felt great." -- Grizzlies center/forwardLorenzen Wright on hitting the game-winning shot against the Heat.
· "Obviously I create excitement. Everybody wants to sit back and watch." -- Michael Jordan on himself, after his Washington Wizards lost 114-88 against the Detroit Pistons. Jordan's teammates apparently did just that, as His Airness put on an unimpressive display of seven of 20 shooting for 24 points and five fouls in 32 minutes of play. In his next game, against the New Jersey Nets, Jordan scored 41 points on 15 of 24 shooting. The Wizards still lost, 102-95.
· "When I had the surgery, I just wanted to wake up. And I wanted to see smiling faces around me." -- Southwest Tennessee Community College head coach Verties Sails on his double hip replacement surgery over the summer. Sails will be seeking his 500th win this season (his record is 487-185) and hopes his team will again challenge for the National Junior College/Community College Championship.
· The Grizzlies' Lorenzen Wright has "Mr. Wright" tattooed on his left shoulder. There's no word on whether it refers to himself, his father, or his paternal grandfather.
· Here are some firsts, recorded on October 9th, as the Memphis Grizzlies took on the Portland Trailblazers in their first preseason game:
FG, Stromile Swift
Rebound, Stromile Swift
Three-pointer, Jason Williams
Foul, Shane Battier on Scottie Pippen
Turnover, Jason Williams
Block, Lorenzen Wright
Points against the Grizzlies, Damon Stoudamire ·