Commentary

Death, taxes and Tigers' C-USA streak

Originally Published: March 4, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The last time Memphis lost a basketball game against a Conference USA opponent, Tigers point guard Tyreke Evans was still a sophomore at American Christian School in Philadelphia.

"Brokeback Mountain" was still breaking the box office, and Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock were still Hollywood's oddest couple (or was it Britney Spears and Kevin Federline?). Duke was the best college basketball team in the land, and the financial markets were still a cash cow for investors: The Dow closed at just over 11,000 points only hours before the Tigers took the court before their most recent defeat.

[+] EnlargeTyreke Evans
Jim Brown/US PresswireTyreke Evans was a high school sophomore the last time Memphis lost in C-USA.

Remarkably, Memphis hasn't fallen to a Conference USA opponent in more than three years, last losing at UAB 80-74 on March 2, 2006 … nearly 1,100 days ago.

The No. 3 Tigers take a 56-game winning streak against C-USA foes into Wednesday night's game at Houston. If Memphis beats the Cougars, and then Tulane at home Saturday, it will finish unbeaten in conference play for the third regular season in a row.

And if the Tigers win their last two regular-season games and then win at least twice in the upcoming conference tournament -- on their home floor at FedEx Forum -- they would own the second-longest conference winning streak in NCAA Division I history.

At the moment, the Tigers trail only Kentucky's 1945-50 run, when Adolph Rupp-coached teams won 64 consecutive games against SEC opponents, and West Virginia's 1955-60 stretch, when Jerry West led the Mountaineers to many of their 59 straight wins over Southern Conference foes.

But while Rupp is still hailed as one of college basketball's greatest coaches, and while West is regarded as one of the game's greatest stars, the Tigers have largely been considered a good team that has beaten up very questionable competition.

In fact, the Tigers' current stretch of dominance has largely been overlooked nationally, despite being one of the greatest four-year stretches in the sport's history. With four more victories this season, Memphis will set the NCAA record for the most victorious four-year stretch of all time, with 134 wins.

"What's frustrating is that when you look at the record, everybody says it's because we play in Conference USA," Memphis coach John Calipari said, shortly after his team's 71-60 victory at UAB on Feb. 26.

"There are 25 leagues below us. If it were so easy to do this, then why hasn't it been done before? All I know is if we don't show, we lose."

And for much of the past three seasons, Conference USA opponents have wanted nothing more than to beat Memphis. Teams such as Houston, Tulsa, UAB and UTEP have wanted to be the Conference USA team that finally ended the Tigers' winning streak.

"The crowd is crazy every time you go out there," Memphis forward Shawn Taggart said. "It's the other team's Super Bowl every time we come to town. They're going to play their best every time we go out on the court."

But the Tigers have played much, much better than their Conference USA opponents nearly every time they've taken the court. Since their winning streak started with a 69-62 victory over Houston in the final game of the 2005-06 regular season, only 10 of Memphis' 56 games against league foes have been decided by fewer than 10 points.

During the streak, the Tigers have won 14 of their games by more than 25 points. This season, Memphis has won 14 conference games by an average of 17.8 points.

For those reasons, Memphis' winning streak has probably done more damage than good to its reputation. During its 56-game winning streak, Memphis has played only one ranked league opponent, No. 25 UAB in the 2006 C-USA tourney finals. Those 2006 Blazers are the only other conference team that has played in the NCAA tournament during the past three seasons.

[+] EnlargeRobert Dozier
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesRobert Dozier and Co. look to make it 57 straight when they visit Houston on Wednesday.

"The winning streak could be bad for the league, because a lot of other teams don't get the respect they deserve," Memphis forward Robert Dozier said. "But we've got some other good teams out there, like UAB and Houston. But they don't get any respect because they can't beat us."

UAB is the only other C-USA team currently ranked in the top 60 of the RPI ratings. Seven of the league's 12 teams are ranked No. 100 or worse.

"It makes me mad because people act like UAB, Tulsa, Houston and UTEP are ranked in the 220s," Calipari said. "We should have two or three teams competing for NCAA tournament spots, but everybody says they aren't any good."

A few Conference USA teams have come very close to ending Memphis' long winning streak. On Jan. 13, Tigers guard Antonio Anderson made a driving basket over 7-foot center Jerome Jordan at the buzzer to beat Tulsa 55-54 on the road.

Last season, departed Memphis star Chris Douglas-Roberts made a three-point play with 6.5 seconds left in the Tigers' 79-78 victory in Birmingham, a win that stood only after officials ruled Blazers forward Lawrence Kinnard's potential game-winning basket left his hand just after the buzzer.

UTEP has also pushed Memphis late into the game in each of the past two seasons. And in 2007, the Tigers had to hold on for dear life against Southern Miss and SMU.

No matter the circumstances, though, the streak has endured.

As it has, Calipari said his players haven't felt its weight. In fact, he said the Tigers' opponents are probably under more pressure to end it.

"I keep telling the guys that they want to beat you so bad they can't," Calipari said. "In the last four minutes, it's hard for them and easier for us. My kids are expecting something good to happen, and everybody in the building is expecting something not to happen."

At least a few coaches have noticed Memphis' achievements this season. After losing Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and Derrick Rose from the team that finished 38-2 and lost to Kansas 75-68 in overtime in the national championship game, these Tigers have won 20 games in a row, the longest winning streak any team in the country has had this season.

With its 26-3 record, Memphis received four first-place votes in this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. Along with their usual dominance of C-USA foes, the Tigers won at Tennessee 54-52 on Jan. 24 and routed Gonzaga 68-50 in Spokane, Wash., on Feb. 7. They also pummeled old rival Cincinnati before league play began.

The three Memphis losses were to Xavier, Georgetown and Syracuse, all by seven points or less and all before Evans -- the favorite for national freshman of the year -- shifted over to point guard.

But because of Conference USA's perceived mediocrity -- it is ranked 10th in conference RPI, behind the six major leagues, Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley -- Memphis' team is once again considered nothing more than paper Tigers by many college basketball fans.

"I feel like a lot of people out there disrespect our conference," Taggart said. "A lot of people act like it's the worst conference in the country. To keep winning like this is a big deal. I'm sure if you put North Carolina in this conference, they wouldn't go undefeated. It's very tough."

With his team on the verge of another unbeaten season in Conference USA, Calipari believes the Tigers have been more than battle-tested as they prepare for the NCAA tournament.

"Ask UCLA and Michigan State if this league hurt us when we played them last year," Calipari said, referring to the Tigers' 92-74 victory over Michigan State and their 78-63 win over UCLA in the 2008 NCAA tournament.

"We were up 50-20 on Michigan State. We beat Texas by 18 [85-67] in Houston. Teams in our league played us tougher than that."

Mark Schlabach covers college basketball and college football for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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