IN A WORD ... RELIEF For the first time since John Calipari arrived almost four years ago, there seemed to be a hint of panic in the Tiger air last week. The U of M was summarily whipped by a less-than-intimidating DePaul team last Tuesday, merely three days after digging a 5-for-24-shooting hole in the first half of a loss to Southern Miss in Hattiesburg. For the first time since 1999, the Tigers were 0-2 in conference play. The shooters weren’t making their shots. The defenders weren’t stopping their opponents’ shots. Newsprint and radio waves were debating issues of “responsibility” instead of the usual topics, like burgeoning stars and when Louisville will be here next. Well, who needs FedExForum when The Pyramid feels as good as it did Saturday afternoon? Playing the closest thing to a “must-win” game in January as we’ll ever see, the Tigers beat a solid Charlotte team by more points (22) than the sum total of the 49ers’ three previous defeats (17). An estimated crowd of 11,000 was loud, the shooters made their shots, the defenders held Charlotte to under 42 percent from the field, and all seemed right with the world . . . for now. There are more questions than answers about this 2003-04 Memphis squad, but Saturday’s contest seemed to confirm a few points worthy of note:
  • The Tigers’ biggest cheerleader is the guy on the sideline in Armani, slight limp. Love him or loathe him, Calipari is on his game these days (which doesn’t necessarily mean his players can say the same). In the first half, Coach Cal jumped onto the floor, pumping both fists . . . for a traveling call against the 49ers. In the second, he slapped Anthony Rice on the rear as the junior guard headed up court . . . after a missed three-pointer. “We had to win, because we were 0-2 in the league,” Calipari stressed during his postgame comments. “That’s what backed us into a corner. I’m happy where we are . . . I’m happy coaching here.”
  • Freshman forward Sean Banks is this program’s star-on-the-rise. A season-high 29 points, including six for seven from three-point range were enough to qualify Saturday’s win as the Banks coming-out party. The New Jersey native also pulled down 10 rebounds (he was one of three Tigers with a double-double), showed poise in the offensive flow (he didn’t take a single shot he shouldn’t have), and was five of six from the free-throw line (a notorious Tiger weakness over the years). This is Antonio Burks’ squad, hands down, but Banks will be the guy who determines how far the U of M program can rise over the next four seasons.
  • Production is desperately needed from Duane Erwin and Ivan Lopez. With only two legitimate post options, Memphis needs these two to handle some dirty defensive work and find their way to between 10 and 15 garbage points. They each show flashes of touch within the paint, and neither is afraid to hit the floor for loose balls. Here’s hoping Lopez’ leg injury (which limited him to 10 minutes Saturday) is merely a distraction.
  • Presuming at least three Conference USA teams will receive NCAA tournament bids, there remains a lot to play for. Cincinnati and Louisville have separated themselves from their league brethren. But after these two giants, anything goes. Charlotte was considered by many to be C-USA’s Number Three. And if not Charlotte, then Marquette (who lost to Southern Miss in Green Bay last Friday). The Tigers have to play every game as if it’s the chance to distinguish NCAA from NIT. There is no gimme on the U of M schedule, but really no time bombs either (well, maybe two). Calipari has verbally agreed to a contract extension that will keep him in Memphis through 2010, so questions about his wandering eye should be closeted for the time being. “I’ve taken this program to another level -- completely -- from where it was when I took over,” he noted Saturday. “I am so happy where this program is right now: academically, on the basketball floor. I love my team, they’re at my house, they’re with my children. Some of them need me as their father, and I am . . . very firm with them. Whatever I do is geared to help them get better.” A lot seemed to get better on a rainy afternoon in downtown Memphis. Saturday’s win returned to Tiger Nation the one precious element any sports fan can’t quite live without: hope.

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