John Calipari may have done his finest coaching job of the season Monday night against UAB. The crowd was flat. The pep band was uninspired. The students were quiet. Even the pompon squad clapped as if their minds were on boyfriends or mid-terms or anything but basketball.
It seemed that only Calipari came ready to play. After consecutive losses to Cincinnati and Charlotte, the first-year Tiger coach had to dig deep into his bag of motivational tricks to get his team started. He yelled, he cursed, he stomped his feet, he ran players in and out of the game. Finally under the capable leadership of senior point guard Shyrone Chatman, Memphis took its first lead of the game at 18-17 with 7:25 to go in the first half. From there Memphis (15-11; 9-4 in C-USA) gradually pulled away before pouring it on the visiting Blazers in the second half. The final score was 86-69, but the game was never in doubt after Memphis went on a 12-2 run to open the second half.
Afterward, Calipari was relieved, happy, jubilant almost. He talked about the job Murray Bartow had done this season with UAB. He said Marquette's Tom Crean or Bartow should be coach of the year in C-USA. But really, shouldn't that award go to Calipari?
After the UAB game he gave his players two days off, admitting that it would probably be good for them to take a break from The World According to Cal. That world can be pretty intense.
No one knows it better than Shyrone Chatman. The point guard always has the toughest job. As the "coach on the floor" he has to mirror the intensity of the head coach. In Chatman's case that is a tall order. The serenity with which Chatman faces his task game after game is a wonderful thing to watch. Each time the game is stopped for a foul shot, Calipari yells to Chatman, who dutifully comes to the sideline to listen to his coach. Sometimes it is a rant, sometimes a reminder. But no matter the message or the tone in which it is delivered, Chatman is the same. He makes eye contact, focuses on what the coach says, nods that he has heard him, then goes back to his team. He never buckles under the strain, never shows any impatience. The cohesion of the two men says a lot about both of them.
Part of the Johnny Jones/Tic Price Louisiana connection, Shyrone Chatman was a little-used player heading into the second half of his junior season. But he started six of the Tigers' last seven games for Jones and became the defensive stopper on the club. When Courtney Trask was suspended for academic misconduct on December 9th, the senior from Baton Rouge was ready.
Chatman doesn't have much flash to his game, but he is a relentless competitor. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the turnaround in Memphis' season. His maturity and leadership were just what the Tigers needed. Against UAB his line in the box score told the story: 15 points, 4 steals, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and 0 turnovers in 30 minutes. Chatman is a winner.
Because of the bond that he and his coach have built, Memphis will be one of the favorites to win the Conference USA tournament next month in Louisville. And winning the conference tournament is looking more and more like the only way the Tigers will get into the NCAA.
Memphis has not done well in the C-USA tournament, going 2-5 (with the two wins coming in Memphis). But Calipari has a little experience in conference tournaments. His record at UMass in the Atlantic 10 tournament was 17-3. Assistant coach Derek Kellog was a starting guard and team captain for Calipari. The Minutemen won four consecutive A-10 conference tourneys while Kellog was at the school from 1991 to 1995.
Although Chatman will not get to play four years for Calipari, he is the most important factor in whether or not Memphis wins the C-USA tourney and gets into the Big Dance. If that happens, it will be because of the synergy that two very different men have built in a little more than eight months together. There were times against UAB that Calipari, his arms flailing like a madman on the sidelines, looked like he was going to go on the floor to help his team. But eventually he saw that it wasn't necessary.
He had Shy and that was good enough.
Like the XFL TV ratings, Memphis Maniax attendance was down by almost 50 percent last weekend. The bigger problem is the team's offense, which has not scored a touchdown in the last 10 quarters. The fans thought the XFL would be wide-open, but the offensive talent is just not there. No one in the league is scoring, and that is a problem. In last week's cover story about talk radio, I used an anecdote about Tommy West and Lex Ward to illustrate a couple of points. The first is that some coaches do listen to talk radio. The second is that talk radio is full of misinformation. I did not mean to imply that Lex Ward is one of those who makes a habit of putting out misinformation. Ward does as much preparation for his show as anyone and I respect the work he does on SportsCall 790. Nor did I mean to imply that what Ward said about the offensive coordinator job was necessarily false. In fact, it turned out to be the correct call. Randy Fichtner got the job as offensive coordinator, just as Ward had said he would. Speaking of sports talk radio, I had Mike DeCourcy visiting with George Lapides on Thursday instead of Wednesday. Everyone knows that Thursday is devoted to trivia on George's show. The next game for the U of M is Sunday night against South Florida, the team tied with the Tigers for both best overall record in Conference USA and the National Division title. It's the final home game for the Tigers, who close out the season against Southern Miss and Louisville on the road. Sunday's game, to be televised on ESPN2, will mark the final appearance in The Pyramid for seniors Marcus Moody, Shannon Forman, Shyrone Chatman, and Shamel Jones.
You can write Dennis Freeland at firstname.lastname@example.org.