Commentary

Calipari plays game of semantics in us vs. world talk

Originally Published: April 4, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- After Andre Allen was suspended for the entire Final Four due to a violation of a team rule, John Calipari -- back firmly up, defense mechanisms kicking in -- turned the table on the suspension, insisting Allen's banishment would serve not as a team distraction, but rather as a team rallying cry.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
AP Photo/Eric GayJohn Calipari insists he doesn't play up us versus the world.
"It may elevate us, because if something is taken away, the team comes together," the Memphis coach said.

The suspension was just the latest chisel to the chip that is as finely carved on Memphis' shoulder as one of Chris Douglas-Roberts' tattoos. Memphis is quickly becoming this Final Four's Florida.

That team had Gator Haters. These guys have Tiger Tamers and are rolodexing every perceived slight and possible criticism for use at a later time.

Except, Calipari doesn't see it that way. Playing a game of semantics that would make an English professor proud, he explained Thursday that he's never played the us-versus-them theme and that he's never rallied the team with the ole "we'll show 'em" cry.

He said he did point out that "most analysts picked us to lose," and he admitted that yes, maybe he used that as inspiration.

But that's not us versus them? Yeah, right.

Not even his mentor, the man Calipari said threw him a career life raft after the New Jersey Nets fired him, is buying that argument.

During the practice sessions Thursday, Larry Brown sat at a media table, suffering the most severe case of multiple fan disorder in San Antonio. If you think current North Carolina coach Roy Williams is conflicted about playing his former school, Kansas, try being Brown. His alma mater (North Carolina), two schools he coached (UCLA and Kansas) and one with a coach he adores (Memphis) are here, and Brown doesn't know where to sit, what to wear or whom to root for.

He is fairly certain about one thing. Calipari has a shtick, and he's sticking to it.

They may try to poke the armor of my team, but it will have no effect on my team. If you really want us to win, then do that kind of stuff.

-- Memphis coach John Calipari

"I told him he's got to get rid of this whole blue-collar, us-against-them thing," Brown said, laughing. "He's won about 100 games over the last three years. He's got a great tradition going there. He's got to get rid of that -- c'mon."

Asked what Calipari said, Brown replied, "He just laughed. He always laughs at me."

In the past three weeks, Calipari news conferences have become good enough to warrant tickets for admission. They are at once filibustering, heartwarming and confronting, a combination of grandma's homespun cooking and Uncle Earl's defensiveness after a three-day bender.

In this who's who of Final Fours, Memphis is the stepsister at Cinderella's ball, the one that doesn't belong in the old Sesame Street game. But the Tigers do belong this season. Of course they do. Ranked in the top five all season, rolling up a 37-1 record and earning a No. 1 seed, they have just as much right to be playing on the final weekend as anyone here.

But to say Memphis hasn't used its renegade status and its Conference USA knocks to fuel a team that doesn't really need fueling would be almost as foolish as Joey Dorsey saying he's going to shut out Greg Oden.

Oops.

Current revisionist history aside, Calipari has been banging the drum all season, insisting his Memphis team has been disrespected. He took out billboards around town before the season to tout the Tigers' No. 1 ranking. He questioned and wondered what the selection committee would do after the Tigers lost to Tennessee. ("He's going at the committee. I love it. I told him, 'John, you've got to beat the best eventually, anyway,'" Brown said about that.)

Calipari is not entirely paranoid. The Tigers, more than any other team, have been dissected and bisected for holes in their game. People have been waiting to see them drop the other shoe.

"Everybody doesn't expect us to lose," Douglas-Roberts said. "It's just some. And it really doesn't affect us at all because we're a pretty good basketball team. … We aren't really paying attention to what people are saying. We're creating our own happiness."

But part of that happiness, part of what made Memphis not just beat Michigan State and Texas last weekend but annihilate them, is this sense that no one believes in the Tigers. In a sports world more transparent and me-centric than ever before, it seems almost quaint that the troops can be riled up because they feel slighted -- but it does work.

[+] EnlargeMemphis
AP Photo/Eric GayAs Memphis prepares for the Final Four, it would like to silence the Tiger Tamers.

Ask the New York Giants.

And whether he'll wink at the notion or not, ask Calipari. He spent the eve of the Final Four pointing out how his team differs from the other three programs here. UCLA has 11 national titles, North Carolina four and Kansas two.

Memphis? Zero.

"Now, the other programs are more highly thought of than Memphis, and they should be," Calipari said. "Between UCLA and Memphis, we've won 11 national titles."'

Which kinda sounds like us versus them. Maybe a little bit.

And he pointed out how, as a non-BCS school, the Tigers don't have the perks the other three teams do.

"The BCS leagues, you have a training table because of football, and your players eat on that training meal," he said. "You don't have that at the non-BCS schools. You got to figure it out. How do we feed these guys and make it right? How do we travel so we don't beat up their bodies? Do we bus nine hours, or do we do this right?"

(For the record, the Tigers aren't eating Twinkies and bologna sandwiches or riding in vans).

And go back to Thursday afternoon, when Calipari had to talk about Allen's suspension, a fit of foolishness that cost the Tigers their backup point guard and gave the program a decent shiner on the sport's biggest stage.

Calipari knew what was coming. He saw the firing squad loading its latest rounds of artillery to take a clean shot at a Memphis team already labeled renegade, and he shot back immediately.

"They may try to poke the armor of my team, but it will have no effect on my team," Calipari said. "If you really want us to win, then do that kind of stuff."

Us against the world? Nah.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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