There are times when John Calipari can barely hide the chip on his shoulder. What he's managed to master, though, is toting that chip with a smile.
After his University of Memphis Tigers won their 10th straight game February 21st in a packed Pyramid -- beating UAB to move into first place in Conference USA -- Calipari took at least 20 minutes before meeting the local press contingent, time he spent, in part, making sure his wife and kids were accommodated amid the celebration. Priorities in place, Calipari stepped in front of the cameras to review his team's third 10-game winning streak in as many years. He had but one complaint:
"I want our students to be more a part of this," he reflected. "I haven't said a whole lot about this, and I know it's hard to get down here ... but it makes a difference. It makes such a better environment. And it is their team. And we've got good guys."
Imagine that: The local poster-boy for big-time college hoops stressing the importance of his institution's student body. Boosters, press, administration -- all well and good, but we need more kids!
Notwithstanding their 66-60 loss to archrival Louisville last Saturday, the Tigers (20-5) remain in contention for a league championship, a first-round bye in next week's conference tourney, and a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament, which opens March 16th. A showdown with Cincinnati looms this weekend, a regular-season finale that will likely determine the C-USA champion.
Regardless of how the 2003-04 season turns out, the fact is John Calipari has delivered, and in spades. This marks his fourth straight 20-win season, a standard not matched since the Dana Kirk era. With one home game left -- Wednesday night against TCU -- the Tigers are just shy of averaging 16,000 tickets sold for the fourth straight year, and on as many nights as not, these are tickets and bodies. (The UAB game -- UAB! -- was as electric an atmosphere as I've seen since Calipari arrived, and that includes showdowns with Louisville and Cincinnati. More than 17,000 members of Tiger Nation were giving Arthur Barclay a standing ovation -- for drawing an offensive foul.) For some perspective on the ticket sales, consider the Tigers averaged 13,261 over their nine years in The Pyramid before Calipari's arrival in 2000.
On top of all the wins and punched tickets, the U of M is graduating its players (three last year, two on schedule this year). And with a win over the Horned Frogs, Memphis would finish the season undefeated at home for the first time in nine years -- and only the second since Kirk left in 1986.
So why the chip?
A considerable ingredient of Calipari's angst is wrapped in the national perception of his program. He continues to win consistently but in a league the national media continue to deem second-tier. (And one that will suffer the loss of perhaps its two highest-profile schools -- Louisville and Cincinnati -- the season after next.) Despite mounting wins, the Top 25 has been a difficult party for Cal's club to crash. Even with the 10-game streak and sole possession of first place in C-USA, Memphis was ranked 19th in the February 23rd AP poll, behind eight teams with more losses than the Tigers' four.
Calipari dismisses the seemingly chronic snubs with raised eyebrows and a quick shrug. "We won 12 straight games last year and got a seven seed [in the NCAA tournament]," Calipari muses. "We just have to win and not worry about it. I'm not worried about rankings. That's a popularity contest."
Ultimately, of course, Coach Cal is worried about rankings. It's with higher rankings that a program achieves a higher seed in the NCAA tournament -- and with a higher seed, an increased likelihood of reaching Calipari's stated goal all along: the Final Four. It's his lack of control over the ranking/seeding process that clearly drives Calipari to distraction.
And what about those rankings? The first and biggest step toward gaining an NCAA seed of no less than four (placing the Tigers among the top 16 teams entering the 65-team tournament) will be making some waves at the C-USA tournament in Cincinnati (March 10-13). Last year's squad won those 12 straight games, only to bow to Louisville in the C-USA semifinals. Result: a seven seed.
With apologies to freshman sensation Sean Banks (if only he'd smile!), senior point guard Antonio Burks will be the determining factor in how far this squad advances in the Big Dance. As with any decent college basketball program, the U of M has been blessed with some tremendous point guards over the years. Bill Laurie and Alvin Wright were instrumental in the 1970s; Andre Turner and Elliot Perry broke records and won over fans far and wide during the 1980s; and Chris Garner was the pulse of some fine Tiger teams during the mid-1990s.
It's time to add Burks to this list, and he belongs near the top. Turner may have been a better shooter. Perry may have been just as quick. And Garner was an exceptional passer. But in combining the whole package, Burks has cemented his place in Tiger history. With 35 more points, he'll become the first pure point guard since Perry to score 1,000 in his Tiger career (made all the more amazing by the fact he had to share one of his three years in the Tiger back court with the shoot-first Dajuan Wagner). "Elliot and I talk a lot," says Burks, "and I see Chris in the summertime. To be put in their category is special to me. I thank God for that, because I grew up watching them."
There are some hazards in running a basketball team's offense through its point guard, but Burks has managed to stimulate flow, as opposed to clogging it up. He's among C-USA's top five in scoring (16.7 points per game), assists (5.1), and steals (2.5) and appears to be a lock for all-conference honors. Should Memphis win the league title, Burks may well become the first Tiger to be named C-USA Player of the Year.
As his team's offensive catalyst, Burks offers a surprising take on his own value. "My greatest strength is playing defense," he says. "I'm a good on-the-ball defender. I can make up for mistakes my teammates might make and keep everybody together. I grew up in the projects, and in the projects you always try to keep your man from scoring. I just take that mindset onto the floor."
Having traveled a sometimes troubled path from Booker T. Washington High to Hiwassee (Tenn.) College to Division I hoops stardom, Burks is relishing the final act of his Tiger career. "Everything negative that happened to me," reflects Burks, "has made me a better person, on the floor and off the floor. My game has changed a lot. I'm more a student of the game, so I can help teach the younger guys." (Burks is on track to earn his degree in sports management later this year.)
With Burks so critical to the team's fortunes, the season-ending knee injury suffered by Jeremy Hunt will be on the minds of many as the postseason looms. Calipari had been shuffling seven players for most of the season before Hunt got hurt. Since the injury, forward Arthur Barclay's playing time has picked up and Anthony Rice's role has become as much that of a ball-handler as that of a scoring threat. As the latest Tiger skywalker -- Rodney Carney -- has picked up his offensive production, adding Barclay's size down low could be the silver lining to the Hunt injury. (Carney's ankle injury at Louisville was a huge factor in the six-point loss.) "We have to stay out of foul trouble," stresses Burks. "If anybody, going into any game, gets into foul trouble, it's gonna hurt our team."
Without question, the thin roster makes Calipari's substitution patterns more, not less, complicated. He has to find rest for five starters with only two true substitutes available off the bench. Football refugee Maurice Avery has become a favorite at The Pyramid, but if he sees playing time in the tournament, it will be either very happy news (a large lead) or very sad (huge deficit or an absent Burks).
It should be fun to see young Mr. Banks take the national stage for the first time. He's the best freshman not named Dajuan to be seen in these parts in many a year. Capable of hitting the trey, as well as jamming home errant Tiger shots, Banks appears to be another Cedric Henderson but with an inside game. Best of all, he can run the floor with his quicksilver point guard, meaning a Tiger run is never more than a few turnovers away. And a Tiger fast break is the kind of sight that can cheer even John Calipari.
The irony in Calipari's demeanor, of course, is that the larger that chip on his shoulder grows -- and the more he adopts an "us vs. an unfair world" approach to selling his program -- the more this onetime carpetbagger becomes a Memphian. No city in America has had to fight stereotype and upturned noses (particularly when it comes to sporting endeavors) like Memphis has. Calipari has learned this by having spent four years with his hands on the wheel of the city's flagship sports enterprise. When you count the number of wins, attendance figures, and graduating basketball players at the U of M these days, it seems he's perfect for the job.
As he wrapped up that UAB press conference last month, in first place and with a 10-game winning streak alive and kicking, Calipari was asked what it takes to capture the nation's attention. Tongue wrestling in cheek, the coach responded, "I can try to have us win every game. That's hard. Believe me, I'm trying to win every game. We're graduating our kids, we're putting people in the seats, and there are people who are angry."
Based on nearly 100 wins in four seasons, here are two bits of advice for Coach Cal: Keep smiling. And keep the chip.
Look for Frank Murtaugh's weekly sports column on the Flyer Web site: MemphisFlyer.com.