Commentary

What is America's Team? How about 'Mempis'?

Originally Published: February 19, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargePierre Niles
Mark Weber/The Commercial AppealBetween the slap on the right and the misspelled sign, this photo has it all.
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where students are supposed to spell better than they apparently do at UAB (1):

"We beat Mempis [sic] not our girls," read the sign held up at Bartow Arena Saturday night. The Minutes will have additional thoughts later in this column on the No. 1 Tigers and their violent, 79-78 escape against the Blazers, but the first one is this:

Too bad they don't have spell-check for handmade signs.

Must viewing between now and Champ Week


It's that time of year when almost everyone wants to fast-forward to postseason play, but don't go into hurry mode just yet. Enjoy the journey. Enjoy the prelude to madness. Enjoy the rest of the regular season, where conference titles and bragging rights are yet to be decided.

The Minutes provides you with a chronological list of the 10 remaining games you must watch or your life will be a hollow, meaningless charade:

• Tuesday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET): Purdue at Indiana (2). Looks like the last game for Kelvin Sampson (3), the coach with the blue shirt and the blackened reputation. He could well be fired at the end of the week after being charged by the NCAA with major rules violations. The surreal atmosphere of the Hoosiers' past two home games, since the NCAA allegations surfaced publicly, should only intensify for this one.

It also happens to be the only regular-season meeting between two of the game's fiercest rivals. And first place is on the line in the Big Ten. And one of Purdue's stars, Robbie Hummel (4), had his name surface in the NCAA Enforcement letter of inquiry as an alleged target for some of the Hoosiers' impermissible phone calls.

• Saturday (ESPN2, 5 p.m. ET): Drake at Butler (5). Best BracketBuster game ever? It matches teams with a combined 47-4 record, a pair of top-20 RPIs (Drake is ninth, Butler 18th) and teams that have spent a combined 19 weeks in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. For fans that haven't seen much of either team and want to appraise their tournament worthiness, tune in. The fact that the game is played in Hinkle Fieldhouse only adds to the allure.

• Saturday (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET): Tennessee at MempHis (6). This is the biggie. They're ranked 1-2 in the polls (MempHis, followed by Tennessee). They're ranked 1-2 in the RPI (Tennessee, followed by MempHis). Quite simply, it's the largest game of the season and the largest game in the history of a football-first state.

The rivalry between orange and blue has really heated up since Bruce Pearl swaggered into Knoxville and offered a competing megawatt personality (and winning percentage) to John Calipari's. But the social gap goes way beyond recent times. MempHis is almost an island republic on the state's western edge, whereas the state university nearly 400 miles to the east is in a wholly different place geographically and culturally.

You'll find a lot more orange in MempHis than you'll find blue in Knoxville. Saturday night, you'll find the biggest (and potentially best, if both teams live up to their on-court styles) game of the season.

[+] EnlargeMichael Beasley
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesMichael Beasley won't have to take his high-flying act to Africa in order to lead K-State to a clean sweep of Kansas. He'll get his chance in Lawrence on March 1.

• Feb. 26 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET): Tennessee at Vanderbilt (7). This one screams "trap game" so loudly that it's audible in Tibet. The Volunteers go from the GOY in MempHis to Nashville for another rivalry game. They'll play in one of the toughest gyms in America, Vandy's Memorial Gym, against a Commodores team that has regrouped impressively. The Dores have won five straight, including consecutive home wins over Kentucky (by a whopping 41 points) and defending national champion Florida (by a skinny three points), after losing four of five.

If the Vols win both games -- and the unofficial state championship -- consider it the greatest week in program history. And consider them strong national title contenders.

• March 1 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET): Kansas State at Kansas (8). National POY candidate Michael Beasley (9) gets an opportunity to back up the second leg of his Jayhawks trifecta guarantee. Before the season, Beasley said, "We're going to beat Kansas at home. We're going to beat them in their house. We're going to beat them in Africa." The Wildcats got the home game last month. Next is this road game. They're waiting for word on gym availability in Addis Ababa (10) to schedule the third.

• March 1 (8 p.m. ET): Saint Mary's at Gonzaga (11). The first meeting of West Coast Conference rivals was a classic: an 89-85 overtime win for the Gaels. This time around in The Kennel, the conference championship could be on the line between two teams that include victories over five BCS-conference opponents in their bodies of work.

• March 6 (11 p.m. ET): Stanford at UCLA (12). Get a nap in during the day, because the Pac-10 championship should be decided when Team Lopez (13) collides with Kevin Love (14) in the Pauley Pavilion paint. Scheduled tip-off East Coast time: 11 p.m. In a loaded league that has had showdown games on a weekly basis, this will be the biggest yet.

• March 8 (noon ET): Louisville at Georgetown (15). Things can change in a hurry in the Big East, but don't be surprised if the title is on the line when this game tips off. As of now, they share first place at 11-3. The surging Cardinals close the regular season with five straight games against top-60 RPI competition, starting Monday night against Syracuse and capped by this rematch of a 59-51 Louisville victory in Freedom Hall. (Minutes caveat: If the team to beat in the Big East isn't either of these teams, then it could be Connecticut, winner of nine straight and facing a leisurely stretch of closing games. Average RPI of the Huskies' six remaining opponents: 104.)

• March 8 (1 p.m. ET): UAB at MempHis (16). To see whether the rematch can compare to the thriller in Birmingham. To see whether the MempHis crowd behaves any better than the UAB crowd, and the visiting UAB players behave any better than the visiting MempHis players. And potentially, to see whether the Tigers can cap off the first undefeated regular season since Saint Joseph's ran the table in 2004.

• March 8 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET): North Carolina at Duke (17). Never a bad game and often a great one -- especially at times like these, when the Atlantic Coast Conference championship could be decided. Maybe an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed, too. Injured Tar Heels guard Ty Lawson should be back by then, though The Minutes must say that backup Quentin Thomas (18) has done a creditable job filling in.

America's Team? You decide


After beating Gonzaga last month, MempHis coach John Calipari (19) proclaimed that the Tigers are "going to go from being Tennessee's team to being America's team." Since then, the Tigers have accumulated more victories. And more baggage.

Which got The Minutes thinking that it's time to put this to a popular vote. Do you, my fellow Americans, wish to declare as Your Team a group that includes the following:

Pierre Niles (20), a backup center who, according to the MempHis Commercial Appeal, owns the blue-sleeved hand seen slapping a UAB fan in the stands in the picture at the top of this story. Debris-throwing UAB fans should be embarrassed by their postgame behavior toward the Tigers -- but if you don't run across the court to get into the faces of those fools, as the Commercial Appeal reported Niles, Shawn Taggart (21) and Jeff Robinson (22) did, you stand much less chance of being goaded into slapping anyone. But judging from Niles' body (6-foot-8, 310 pounds) and body of work (eight points this season), altercations might be his strong suit. (Meanwhile, Conference USA reacted with trademark sluggishness, failing to complete its review of the fracas as of noon Tuesday. A spokeswoman said the league is "still gathering information" on the Niles slap, more than 60 hours after it occurred. Meanwhile, Memphis has announced no discipline of its own against Niles.)

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesIs Memphis America's team? If so, does that make John Calipari commander in chief?

• Taggart and Robinson, who don't just get their kicks by taunting UAB fans. They also have September 2007 arrests for inciting a riot outside a Beale Street night spot called the Plush Club on their résumés. Neither missed any game time because of the incident.

• Don't forget Joey Dorsey (23), the spectacularly athletic MempHis center who police say also was involved in that September Plush Club incident, though he was not arrested. After that one, Calipari said Dorsey was down to his last strike to stay on the team. And it takes some work to reach last-strike territory with Cal.

Robert Dozier (24), MempHis' third-leading scorer, is alleged to have smacked a former girlfriend twice with his open hand earlier this month. (Hence the misspelled UAB sign.) He allegedly did this at 3:30 a.m. outside the very same Plush Club, which Calipari reportedly had declared off-limits to the Tigers after the September inciting-a-riot thing. Dozier's punishment: He sat out one game, against vaunted SMU (8-15). Now, the ex-girlfriend comes with some baggage of her own, including previously asking for and receiving protective orders. She has not pressed charges against Dozier over the incident.

Andre Allen (25), backup point guard, was arrested in 2005 on charges of soliciting a prostitute.

Then there is the coach, whose lone trip to a Final Four, in 1996 at Massachusetts, has been vacated from the NCAA record books for rules violations that occurred on his watch.

And that's just the current roster. You might recall that former Tigers Jeremy Hunt, Kareem Cooper and Sean Banks had multiple off-court incidents of their own under Calipari. Forgive The Minutes for forgetting any others.

The polls are now open, America. Vote your conscience.

Loser behavior


Another group of young men behaving badly: the Oregon State Beavers (26). And playing badly. But first the behavior stuff.

On Friday, Oregon State players reportedly walked into Gill Coliseum during an ostensibly closed practice by visiting Washington (27). What transpired after that was a bizarre war of words that escalated into a near-confrontation. And then things really got weird.

According to media reports, Washington player Joel Smith (28) received a voicemail message from Oregon State player Marcel Jones (29) after the Huskies returned to their hotel near Gill Coliseum. Jones allegedly invited the Huskies to come outside the hotel and fight.

Nothing of the sort happened, and come tip-off Saturday, the Beavers had apparently left all their moxie on the practice court. A Washington team snorkeling through a disappointing season won by 38 on the road, sending Oregon State to its 15th straight loss and an 0-13 record in Pac-10 play. Oregon State fired coach Jay John weeks ago and will be looking in earnest for a replacement after this miserable season is over.

Road, sweet road


The age-old truism about how hard it is to win on the road does not apply to the northeast corner of America this season. There's clearly something about cold-weather basketball that agrees with visiting teams -- at least at the low-major level.

In the Patriot League (30), the visitors were 23-19 in conference play through games Sunday -- and they've never finished a season with the road teams .500 or above in the 18-year history of the league. Every Patriot team has won at least two road games. Bucknell had a 38-game home league winning streak snapped and now has lost three in a row at home. Holy Cross had a 23-game overall winning streak snapped and has won four of six at home since.

But that's not all. In the Northeast Conference (31), road teams are 42-36. The America East (32) is 29-29. The home teams have winning records in every other league through Sunday.

[+] EnlargePamela Anderson
Jeff Golden/Getty ImagesPepperdine may only be 9-18 this season, but the Waves are much easier on the eyes when Pam Anderson decides to catch a game.

Home, sweet home


The opposite end of the home-road spectrum has been the series between BYU (33) and UNLV (34) the past two seasons. The Rebels won the first meeting this season in Vegas by 29 on Jan. 15. The Cougars won the second meeting in Provo by 26 on Feb. 16. That's a 55-point swing.

Last season, UNLV won by eight in Vegas while BYU won by 27 in Provo. Swing: 35 points. (Then Vegas won by eight again on its home court in the Mountain West Conference tournament. Unfortunately for BYU, the conference tournament is on the Runnin' Rebels' home court again this season.)

A-Listers


College basketball bleachers got a whole lot prettier last week, when a pair of hotties showed up to cheer for their favorite teams.

First Minutes girl Ashley Judd (35) made an appearance at Vanderbilt to see her beloved Kentucky Wildcats (36). They repaid her by absolutely playing dead in a 41-point punking from the Commodores. But Ashley earned her true-fan stripes by staying through the entire second half of the debacle. First-year coach Billy Gillispie owes her a written apology.

More surprising was an appearance by Pamela Anderson (37) at Pepperdine (38) Saturday to see the Waves beat Santa Clara. Turns out Pam has been known to hit Pepperdine baseball games, where her sons have done bat boy work for the Waves. Why she'd come out to see a 9-18 team befuddles The Minutes, but hopefully she didn't make a repeat appearance Monday night to see Pepperdine get bludgeoned 100-64 by Saint Mary's.

Buzzer Beater


When thirsty in Denver -- which some of you might be, since that city will be a first- and second-round NCAA Tournament site next month -- The Minutes recommends the microbrews at Wynkoop Brewing Company (39), celebrating its 20th year of pouring its own beer. Try a RailYard Ale (40) and thank The Minutes later.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.