Winning in Memphis

Published: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
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Coach John Calipari has Memphis at 14-2 and ranked No. 5 in the nation.

The Associated Press
The day Memphis introduced John Calipari as the Tigers' new basketball coach, local radio and television stations carried his news conference live to fans and boosters eager to anoint him the program's savior.
Now in his sixth season, Calipari is finally living up to expectations. The Tigers are ranked No. 5 and, at 14-2 after a 77-67 win over East Carolina on Wednesday night, are off to the school's best start since 1985-86.
"Sometimes I get a little stunned," Calipari said. "Wow! It took us six years."
This wasn't the timetable Calipari had in mind when he left his job as a Philadelphia 76ers assistant under Larry Brown.
The fans were a little more optimistic, too.
After all, Calipari took previously downtrodden Massachusetts to No. 1 rankings and a Final Four appearance in 1996. Memphis had strong playoff history with two Final Fours, including a loss to UCLA in the 1973 title game, but was in worse shape than the new coach first thought.
The Tigers were coming off consecutive losing seasons, the second coming under a 38-year-old interim coach who took over when Tic Price quit a week before the season after an affair with a student. Off the court, they had a zero percent graduation rate.
Calipari had to recruit more talent and deal with issues such as stocking a weight room, refurbishing a new practice gym that now has NBA-quality video, meeting and locker rooms and renovating an academic center that now has graduated eight of 11 players.
"I said 'I'm coming in here to build a program to get us into the top 10 and give us a chance to win a national championship,' and I haven't wavered from that," Calipari said.
His first five teams weren't bad, delivering no fewer than 21 victories with five postseason appearances, including the 2002 NIT title, two NIT Final Fours and two NCAA berths.
The revival was slowed when marquee recruits Amare Stoudemire, Qyntel Woods and Kendrick Perkins went straight to the NBA. Calipari lost talented Sean Banks to academic trouble last January, and he dismissed senior guard Jeremy Hunt Oct. 4 after the latest in a series of off-court problems.
And Dajuan Wagner stayed only one season before Cleveland made him the sixth pick overall in the 2002 draft.
"These players all know that I'll be the first one to say, 'Hey, you know what? It's time for you to go,"' Calipari said. "I'll be the first guy. If it's time to stay, I'll be honest with them."
That approach and Calipari's ability to drop names like Allen Iverson, Kerry Kittles and Keith Van Horn when referring to former players has helped him land a top recruiting class for this season, led by 6-foot-9 Shawne Williams, a Memphis native who initially declared for the NBA draft.
Williams, who turns 20 next month, spent last season with three other Memphis-bound players at Laurinberg Prep in North Carolina. He's enjoying himself because Calipari lets the Tigers play and feels he's learning from the coach.
"He's experienced at his job. He's got a resume longer than me probably," Williams said. "I look at it as listening to him will get me where I need to go."
Calipari uses his freshmen too, frequently starting three with sophomores Darius Washington and Joey Dorsey, and they play unselfishly. Six different Tigers have led the team in scoring this season.
"We've never been like this," senior forward Rodney Carney said. "The guys, we're all happy with each other, and we love being around each other, to come to practice. I couldn't say that about us a couple of years ago."
Calipari compensated for playing in the weaker, revamped Conference USA by setting up the nation's second-toughest schedule. The Tigers are 3-2 against ranked teams, with the losses to No. 1 Duke and eighth-ranked Texas.
As the only ranked team left in C-USA, the Tigers are already thinking about the conference championship. That would mean the conference tournament would be held on their home floor, and a third NCAA berth under Calipari would be likely.
But the coach does have one regret about his young squad.
"How I wish this was 1994 or 1995," he said. "I'd have that team for three more years."

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