If Sports Illustrated wants reasons to root for the

LEAST ROOTABLE?! In the November 11th issue of Sports Illustrated On Campus, writer Matthew Waxman presents his list of the ten “most rootable” and “least rootable” teams in college basketball. (The most rootable? Vermont.) On Waxman’s list of bad guys, just behind “number one” Cincinnati (and head coach Bob Huggins, suspended last summer for a DUI conviction) and just ahead of “number three” UNLV (for crying out loud) is the University of Memphis. Such a middle digit raised in the face of Tiger Nation simply cannot go unanswered. So herewith are the arguments made against the U of M by Waxman . . . and some counterpoints.

“John Calipari has turned Elvis’s resting place into a way station for high school stars en route to the pros.” In four years under Calipari, exactly one player (Dajuan Wagner) has left early for the NBA. Take a look at Duke’s recent history, the poster program for College Basketball The Right Way. Elton Brand, William Avery, Corey Maggette, Jay Williams, and Luol Deng . . . all short-timers at that “way station” in Durham.

“The carpetbagger coach handed Wagner’s best friend a scholarship and hired Wagner’s father as Memphis’s director of basketball operations.” Calling Calipari a carpetbagger is way too easy a cheap-shot. Why isn’t Bob Knight a “carpetbagger” for restarting his career at Texas Tech? (The Red Raiders, by the way, are the 10th “most rootable” program, according to Waxman.) No, Calipari isn’t your typical Memphian, but he’s been here five years now, and shouldn’t be penalized for his northern roots.

As for the hiring of Milt Wagner and the recruiting of Wagner’s buddy, Arthur Barclay, here we are three seasons after Dajuan left school and Milt is still on the payroll (and, it would seem, showing up for work). The elder Wagner even finished school at Memphis, graduating last April with a degree in sports communication. Barclay spent his first year in Memphis (2000-01) gaining academic eligibility. This being his fifth year on campus, he’s considerably closer to getting his degree than anyone would have forecast. On top of that, he’s starting at center for the Tigers. How ironic would it be if these “consolation prizes” in the wooing of Dajuan Wagner find themselves better prepared for life after college than Juanny himself?

“The Tigers are also the choice for none-and-doners: Amare Stoudemire, Kendrick Perkins, and Qyntel Woods all committed to Memphis before jumping straight to the NBA.” Let’s get one thing straight: high school basketball stars going straight to the NBA is not healthy for college basketball. Give Calipari some credit for, at the very least, pitching his sport’s cause -- not to mention the virtues of college -- to the likes of Stoudemire, Woods, and Perkins. One of these players appears to be well on his way to a long, lucrative pro career. The others may look back on their visits with Calipari . . . and wonder. The Memphis coach approaching players like this is hardly a negative. After all, the person who stands most to lose is Calipari himself.

“Let’s not forget the sanctions levied against UMass upon Calipari’s departure in 1996 and his calling a reporter a 'Mexican idiot’ when he was with the New Jersey Nets.” It’s a helluva thing to denounce a basketball program for something its coach was involved in (A) eight years ago and (B) at an entirely different institution.

And about that ugly remark. I’ve attended my share of postgame Calipari press conferences. On the occasions when public criticism has been in the air, Calipari masks his defensiveness with a pointed subtlety. (When he says, for instance, “Some people stay negative, no matter what,” he tends to look “some people” directly in the eye.) But I haven’t seen a hint of personal hostility toward a reporter or cameraman, win or lose. If anything, Calipari has been gracious in answering questions after the TV cameras are off, even those from weekly cyber-columnists.

You want the five best reasons for rooting on the U of M Tigers these days? Here they are: Shyrone Chatman, Earl Barron, Nathaniel Root, John Grice, and Modibo Diarra. These five players made some impact on the basketball court . . . and left the university in a cap and gown. And consider Diarra especially. What percentage of adults in Mali, West Africa, do you think have bachelor degrees from an American university? And the percentage of men from Mali who have received the kind of ovation Diarra soaked up in a sold-out Pyramid on Senior Night last winter is that much smaller. If Calipari is going to be criticized for Dajuan Wagner leaving early, he needs to be given credit for these five U of M graduates. And that, Mr. Waxman, is well worth rooting for.

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