Commentary

Tigers turn C-USA tourney into Memphis Invitational

Originally Published: March 15, 2008
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- For all the glistening numbers Memphis has compiled this season, invariably there's a "but" somewhere in the conversation anytime the subject turns to just how good this team really is.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Jim Brown-US PRESSWIREJohn Calipari wants Memphis fans to enjoy the ride.
And with Selection Sunday only hours away, the more pressing question becomes: How equipped is this team to make a serious run at the national championship?

This much we know for sure: The Tigers won't be playing any more Conference USA teams along the way after winning their third straight Conference USA tournament championship Saturday with a 77-51 thumping of Tulsa that ensured that Conference USA will be a one-bid league for the second straight year.

For that matter, the Tigers (33-1) have faced just two NCAA tournament teams the last two months of the season, losing 66-62 to Tennessee at home on Feb. 23 and beating Gonzaga 81-73 at home on Jan. 26.

Otherwise, it's been all Conference USA all the time, culminating with the Memphis Invitational this past week at the FedExForum. Nobody came within 16 points of the Tigers in three tournament games.

You got the feeling the past few days that the Tigers could have played 100 tournament games, and 16 points would have been as close as anybody would have come.

Let's face it. Nobody in this league is, well … in the Tigers' league, which is why the "buts" keep cropping up.

It's a cross that John Calipari's team has to bear for playing in a conference other than the Big East or the ACC or the SEC or the Pac-10.

But it's a cross the Tigers eagerly bear because they know exactly what they're capable of and where they expect to be come the first weekend in April.

"We're not thinking about any of that," senior forward Joey Dorsey said. "We proved ourselves the whole year with one loss and 33 wins and back-to-back-to-back tournament championships. We don't really worry about anything else. We're just ready to play.

We've taken on all comers and had the No. 1 nonconference schedule in the country. They want to say we didn't play anybody. Come on. After a while, you just run out of buts and trying to give reasons.

--Memphis coach John Calipari

"That's all we've been thinking about all season: Let's get to that tournament."

Those who write off Memphis' soft conference schedule obviously haven't explored the slate the Tigers played outside their league. In addition to losing to Tennessee, they beat Oklahoma, Connecticut and Southern California at neutral sites and Austin Peay, Georgetown, Arizona, Siena and Gonzaga at home.

If you're counting, that's 8-1 against nine NCAA tournament teams.

"We're ready. We've been ready. They can talk all they want to about us playing in a small conference or not playing in the SEC or the Pac-10. None of that matters now," said Dorsey, who doubtless will be a key the next few weeks.

The better he plays, the better the Tigers typically play.

As the final minutes ticked down Saturday, the Memphis fans chanted "Joey, Joey." Having already been taken out of the game, Dorsey stood up and briefly serenaded the fans in his final appearance at the FedExForum in a Memphis uniform.

"That's the first time I've ever seen anybody come out of the dugout in a basketball game and give a tip of the hat," Calipari joked.

Six-foot-9, 265-pound Dorsey, who's been a bit of an enigma at times this season, was dominant from the outset Saturday. He was a presence inside on defense and with his rebounding. His teammates seemed to feed off his energy.

[+] EnlargeJoey Dorsey
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesJoey Dorsey capped his regular-season career in style with a C-USA title.
"That's how it is on this team," freshman point guard Derrick Rose said. "We have each other's back. We play for each other. But the big thing is that we're having fun. And as long as we keep having fun, we're going to keep on winning like we are."

And when the Tigers are hitting from outside the way they were Saturday, it's difficult to imagine anybody beating them. They finished 11-of-22 from 3-point range and started the game 4-of-5 from behind the arc.

Still, Calipari expects to see a heavy dose of zone in the NCAA tournament.

"They're probably going to pack it in and they're going to close their eyes and hope we don't make shots," Calipari said.

The reality is that the Tigers are streaky when it comes to shooting from the perimeter. They couldn't miss to start the game against Tennessee, but then couldn't make one when they needed to down the stretch against the Vols.

What doesn't fluctuate with this team is its defense. Memphis held Southern Miss to four first-half field goals in the semifinals, then came back and limited Tulsa to six field goals in the first half of Saturday's championship game.

The play that epitomized the Tigers' defensive tenacity was turned in by Rose early in the second half after the game long since had been decided. He had the ball stolen away from him by Brett McDade, who raced the other way for a layup. But Rose caught him and swatted his shot off the backboard.

McDade's teammate, Calvin Walls, came streaking in to grab the deflection. He was able to get around Rose, who tried to take the charge, but couldn't finish his layup attempt. Rose went skyward above the rim to grab the rebound and was off and running the other way.

"He watched my highlight tape and stole one of my plays out of there," Dorsey said admiringly.

Calipari, whose Tigers are one win from reaching the 100-win plateau over the past three seasons, went to great lengths after Saturday's win to urge the Memphis fans to enjoy all of this. He pleaded with them not to get caught up in the seeding process or the level of respect being shown to the Tigers by the national media.

Ultimately, that respect still has to be earned. And you don't earn it in Conference USA play, even if you do put together a 42-game winning streak against league foes.

"It's been a great run of 33-1, and, folks, we've been everybody's Super Bowl," said Calipari, who this season joined legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp as the only Division I coaches in history to record three consecutive 30-win seasons.

"We won 13 games away from home. We're the only other undefeated team away from home along with North Carolina. We've taken on all comers and had the No. 1 nonconference schedule in the country. They want to say we didn't play anybody. Come on. After a while, you just run out of buts and trying to give reasons."

Dorsey also has a promise to keep. He vowed to his teammates and to the Tigers' fans after last season's loss to Ohio State that he'd help deliver a national championship to Memphis.

After back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, this is Dorsey's last chance to live up to his word.

"It's a big promise," Dorsey said, his eyes narrowing. "But I plan on keeping it."

Chris Low covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at espnclow@aol.com.

Chris Low | email

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