Either they want to do this or they don't. I've got to figure out which five or six [players] want to do it and go with them. We're not into each other right now. As the challenge escalates, the need for team elevates."
Those words were delivered by University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari -- after a win. Two days before Thanksgiving, the Tigers beat a game Arkansas State squad but failed to impress the fifth-year Tiger coach. And that was before a 23-point drubbing at the hands of Maryland (on national television), a 19-point eviscerating at the hands of Pittsburgh (on national television), and last Saturday's 12-point loss to what appears to be a merely average Ole Miss team.
As the Tigers' first home game since the Arkansas State win 18 days earlier, the Ole Miss contest was supposed to be a formal righting of the U of M ship, a return to playing basketball "the right way," as Calipari preaches. The team's primary star -- sophomore Sean Banks -- came off the bench for the first time in a Tiger uniform, part of the internal motivation Calipari prides himself on and a tool that has helped the coach to four 20-win seasons in Memphis.
Instead, this blue-and-gray ship, for so long the standard-bearer for team sports in this city, appears to be taking on water. Saturday's matinee against the Rebels looked very much like the unraveling of a program, a system, and maybe a head coach.
Tuesday afternoon, Calipari announced that Banks had been suspended "indefinitely for violation of team rules." Which leaves two likely scenarios for the short- and long-term future of this struggling program. Either Banks has played his last game as a Tiger or (more likely), he'll take the wrist-slap and be back in time for the nationally televised tilt with Providence on December 23rd.
Against Ole Miss, Banks, who was last year's Conference USA Freshman of the Year, missed seven of his eight shots, two of them layups. And Rodney Carney -- remember his spectacular performances in Madison Square Garden last month? -- was three for 13 from the field, missing all six of his three-point attempts. And the Calipari-anointed "general" (freshman point-guard Darius Washington) scored 20 points but passed out merely two assists and had eight turnovers. Memphis shot 34 percent for the game, while Ole Miss drained 53 percent of their shots. And sin of sins, the Tigers were out-rebounded by the Rebs, 31-28. For Memphis, this was, by most every definition, playing basketball the wrong way.
As for Calipari, the closer you were to the floor Saturday afternoon, the more concerned you had to be for the man. He's coaching the only way he knows how: every possession, every dribble, every pass. But the passion in his screams to his players last Saturday seemed to have some panic mixed in. He clearly wants desperately for his players to respond to the urgings for hustle ("Play somebody!"), for defense ("Hands!"), and for emotion ("Come on! Get excited!!"). But can a dog bark so much that it's no longer heard?
Two years ago, Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton recollected for me his days at UCLA under John Wooden. He described the intensity -- and sometimes tedious repetition -- of Wooden's practices. And he described Wooden's typical pregame talk. "Men," Wooden began, "you've got a job to do now. Once that game starts, don't look at me."
So yes, John Calipari is the anti-Wooden. And he's an easy target for the old-school coaching faithful. (One fan during the Ole Miss game would shout, "Tell 'em in practice, Coach!" when Calipari delivered instruction.) But the fact is, 90 percent of major college basketball coaches today are "anti-Woodens." The game is played differently, both literally (the shot clock and three-point shot) and in terms of personnel. (Do you doubt a modern-day Walton would bypass college and go directly to the NBA?) Calipari is responding to his environment the only way he knows how: by coaching his heart and lungs out.
The fear for Tiger fans has to be that, despite all the talent Calipari's brought to Memphis, the program is falling victim to what amounts to a personality conflict. His players may be listening, but are they hearing anything but noise? During one second-half exchange between Calipari and senior Anthony Rice -- purportedly one of this team's leaders -- the player apologized after his admonishment. Sweat dripping from his chin, Rice owed his coach the same hustle he's delivered game-in and game-out for almost four seasons. He did not, however, owe him an apology.
"It comes back to me," said Calipari after the Arkansas State win. "I can't get them to understand that we can be good, or we can be an average team, at best. When you break down each individual guy, we've all got holes." With conference play three weeks away, it's time to fill some holes. •