Inside the College Game
By Brian Cerone
John Calipari has enjoyed success in his coaching career. In the mid to late 1990s at Umass he built a national powerhouse in a conference (Atlantic 10) that was not considered to be as competitive as the top conferences, yet he took them all the way to the final four in 1996, losing to the eventual national champion Kentucky Wildcats. Now he has done the same, leading a national powerhouse, the Memphis Tigers. But again, critics are trying to downplay Calipari’s success by pointing out the weak teams in Conference USA. Regardless of the lack of competition, the Tigers have been as good, if not better than any program in the nation during the last few years.
Memphis has now won 57 conference games in a row. A streak of 57 games is impressive regardless of the conference or even the division. Critics want to point out their lack of competition, but no other team in the country is about to finish unbeaten in conference play for the third straight year (Assuming they take care of business this Saturday at home versus Tulane). The Tigers credibility lies in their success during the NCAA tournament. They boast a 11-3 record in the NCAA tournament during the time of the 57-game win streak. Outside of the Florida Gators (2 National Championships) and UCLA Bruins (3 final four appearances) no team has had more success in the NCAA tournament than the Memphis Tigers recently. Last year they lost a heart-breaker to Kansas in overtime of the championship game. On their way to the finals was the highly touted Michigan State team, who Calipari's crew dismantled 92-74. Also, the UCLA Bruins had their shot at the Tigers in the final four, but failed badly, 78-63. So it would be tough to argue that the regular season schedule of the C-USA is hindering their preparation for the big dance.
This season is different than last year, and that is what Calipari can be most proud of. Last year was a team stacked with NBA talent, including the 1st pick overall in Derrick Rose, and two 2nd rounders - Chris Douglas Roberts and Joey Dorsey. This year, the team has a completely new look. Integrating freshman Tyreke Evans proved to be difficult at first, but eventually Calipari found a spot for him at point guard and the Tigers have ripped off 21 straight games since. New roles were handed out to the likes of Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier, the two remaining starters from last years national runner-up team.
With all the changes happening to this team, the streak has stayed intact despite taking the best shot from every opponent. When Memphis comes to town, it is like the Superbowl for every C-USA team. Everyone following the league knows that its been more than 3 years since Memphis has had a losing night in the conference. Even though the conference RPI only ranks 10th in the nation, and that only one of the games of the 57-game win streak were versus a top 25 ranked opponent, the teams and their fans gear up for when the Tigers come to town and throw everything but the kitchen sink at them to try and knock off the conference titans.
3rd ranked Memphis is now standing at 27-3 with wins at Gonzaga, at Tennessee, and Cincinnati. They are ready for another run deep into the tourney. With Calipari's kids, the name on the back of the jersey may change quite often, but the name on the front stays the same. So, regardless of whether you think their streak is tainted or not, the Memphis Tigers will be a force in the tourney this March, just like they are every year.
I think everyone would agree that the best part about the NCAA tournament are
the cinderella teams who make a run and scare the big named schools. Let's take
a look at 5 teams who could play that role:
5 Cinderella's hopefuls this year:
Siena (23-7, MAAC): Siena has proven to be a tough team this year, beating the MAC conference leader Buffalo and St. Joe's. They have ripped through the MAAC (16-2) and out of their 7 losses, 4 have come to the likes of #12 Tennessee, #3 Pittsburgh, Oklahoma State, and at Kansas. Come March, Siena will be a threat because of the tough non-league schedule they played this year.
Arkansas-Little Rock (22-7, Sun Belt): The Trojans have played tough this year and are playing their best ball at the right time, winning 8 of their last 9. Earlier in the year they played at #21 Memphis, and nearly pulled off the upset, losing 59-51. They have the conference's Defensive Player of the Year in senior John Fowler, who should be able to lead the Trojans to a league title, becoming a threat in the tournament.
Vermont (23-7, American East): The Catamounts have been tough before in the NCAA tournament, knocking off Syracuse in 2005. They have the players to shock another big school again. Marqus Blakely is as athletic as anyone in the country and is a nightmare on the defensive end for opposing teams. Blakely, last years American East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year could be a game changer in the early rounds. The Catamounts have beaten George Washington and took Maryland to overtime at College Park. Vermont, who has won 14 of their last 15, will be a tough draw for any team.
Cal State Northridge (15-12, Big West): This experienced team has plenty of mature players on their team with the 3 top scorers all being seniors. They got out to a rough start (1-6) but have responded quite well, winning 9 of their last 11 games. Winning the regular season conference title does not guarantee a win in the conference tournament, but with most of the team knowing its their last shot, the Bison should be playing in the big dance, and should be a problem in the 1st round for whoever draws them.
Robert Morris (22-10, Northeast Conference):
The Colonials ran through the Northeast Conference last year but have a slit
up in the conference tourney, forcing them to play in the NIT rather than the
NCAA tournament. This year, they are ahead of the pack again in the Northeast
Conference, and are looking to finish what they started. Should they do so,
it won't be an easy game for whoever draws them. Robert Morris has the best
player in the conference in Jeremy Chappell (16.7 ppg). The four-year starter
will be a threat in the tourney.
13th ranked Washington Huskies are looking good to win the Pac-10 outright if they can take care of business at home against Washington State on Saturday. Maybe Jon Brockman will finally get some of the credit that he deserves. The senior is averaging a double double (15 points, 11 rebounds) for the second consecutive year...Villanova has been steady all season, and in many ways have had a season to remember. They have now won 28 straight games at home (on campus home games) and went 13-0 this season on their court. Also, 25 wins ties a school record for most regular season wins. When considering the schedule they play in the Big East, it is quite impressive...North Carolina freshman Ed Davis has seemed to earn Coach Roy Williams trust and has become a regular off the bench. The freshman had 6 blocks at Virginia Tech on Wednesday. Per 40 minutes, the 6-10 Davis is averaging 13 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 blocks...On Wednesday night the Pittsburgh Panthers beat Marquette, 90-75. They were incredibly efficient all night. They attempted 37 two-point field goals and made 27. The stat was a result of Pitt's dominance in the paint, which eventually was too much for Marquette to overcome. Dejuan Blair led the way with 23 points on 7/10 shooting.