Nobody is perfect, as the New England Patriots proved in Super Bowl XLII.
John Calipari, like most every other red-blooded American, watched the Patriots’ quest for perfection end with its last-minute loss to the New York Giants 12 days ago in Glendale, Ariz.
That is why Calipari is not hung up on the idea that he has a chance to be the first coach since Bob Knight to guide a Division I college basketball team through a perfect season if his top-ranked Memphis Tigers can win the rest of their games and the school’s first NCAA title.
Memphis is 24-0 and a unanimous No.1 pick in the latest Associated Press rankings. The Tigers are No. 2 in the Pomeroy Ratings behind Kansas.
“We’ve won more consecutive games than any team in school history and we can only add to that,” Calipari said earlier this week. “We’ve been ranked No. 1 longer than any other team in school history and we can only add to that. We’ve won more home games in a row than team in school history and we can only add to that.
“The way we look at it is that we’re starting our season all over again each day. You’re going to have certain issues crop up that you have to get past. That’s what you have to focus on, not what our final record is going to be. We’ve accomplished a lot already this season but that’s in the past and you have to keep looking to the future.”
The present is awfully good as the Tigers are storming to the Conference USA regular-season title with a 10-0 record and a 2 1/2–game lead over Houston and UAB, who are both 7-2.
However, like most coaches, Calipari is a perfectionist. While the average fan sees Memphis as the only unbeaten team in the country, he sees a team that is vulnerable.
“We’ve got some good stuff going on but we also still have some holes,” Calipari said. “We’re like everybody else in the country in that we still have things to work on. We might have a perfect record but we’re not the perfect team.”
Indeed, the Tigers have some weaknesses.
The biggest one is at the foul line, as their 58.4 percent free throw shooting ranks 339th among 341 Division I teams. Only Prairie View A&M and Jacksonville State are worse. They are also only 204th in free throw rate at 20.1
That is why it seemed odd that Houston coach Tom Penders gave up during Wednesday night’s 68-59 loss to Memphis, refusing to foul in the final minute despite trailing by just nine points.
Memphis, though, plays outstanding defense as it leads the nation in adjusted effieciency (79.2), is second in effective field goal percentage (41.2), fourth in two-point field goal percentage (39.9) and ninth in block percentage (15.6).
Memphis also has one of the most-talented lineups in the country with junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts leading the way with a 16.9 points a game scoring average.
Freshman guard Derrick Rose is averaging 14.1 points and 4.3 assists, junior forward Robert Dozier is scoring 10.4 points a game and senior forward Joey Dorsey is averaging 11.1 rebounds a game while ranking seventh in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage (29.3) and ninth in offensive rebounding percentage (16.4).
Playing in a weak conference also gives the Tigers a chance at getting to the NCAA Tournament with a 34-0 record.
Memphis has seven regular-season games left, including a non-conference affair at home against No. 4 Tennessee on Feb. 23. The Tigers have conference games against Tulsa, Southern Methodist and UAB at home, and Tulane, Southern Mississippi and SMU on the road.
Memphis also figures to be a heavy favorite to win the Conference USA tournament.
Memphis has been criticized in some circles as an undeserving No. 1 because it plays in a weak conference. However, Calipari bristles at that talk and points to non-conference wins over Oklahoma, Connecticut, Southern California, Georgetown and Arizona.
“We’ve played the best non-conference schedule in the country and we’ve still got Tennessee left,” Calipari said. “Nobody has played the schedule we have outside their conference. Nobody.”
Yet, it can’t be disputed that Conference USA is in a down mode as Memphis is the only team in the top 60 in the Pomeroy Rankings. Houston is second at No. 64.
“Our conference underwent major surgery three years ago and it is going to take a while to recover,” Calipari said, referring to Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville and Marquette defecting to the Big East prior to the 2005-06 season. “But there are a lot of programs spending a lot of money that are making big strides right now. It’s not a case of everyone in the conference trying to pull Memphis back to the pack but a case of them trying to catch up with us.
“And I take that as a very big compliment to the program we’ve built.”
What Calipari would like to do more than anything is set the bar as high as it will go for the rest of Conference USA, and that is by winning a national championship.
“We’ve gotten to the Elite Eight the last two years but we haven’t figured how to get past that yet,” Calipari said. “We need to take the next step and get to the Final Four. I believe this team is very capable of doing that.”
Another Coach Falls
Louisiana State’s John Brady became the second coach from a BCS conference to be fired this season, as the ax fell on him last Friday with the Tigers off to an 8-13 start. Assistant coach Butch Pierre will finish out the season as interim coach but it not expected to be retained.
Brady led LSU to the Final Four just two years ago. The Tigers slipped to 17-15 last season and are on their way to a sub-.500 season this year. Brady was not the most-liked man in Louisiana, as he was critical of the LSU fan base on more than one occasion and often sparred with the media.
LSU has sold out just one home game in the last four seasons, which was also part of the reason Brady was fired with three years remaining on his five-year contract.
“Attendance, to me, is very important,” LSU athletic director Skip Bertman told the Baton Rouge Advocate. “Creating an environment that makes it easier for a team to compete is important. Basketball has been stagnant at about 7,000 season-ticket holders. Even though we went to the Final Four, we only had a few hundred additional season ticket holders. My opinion is that I’m not sure the answer is in the coach or whether it is this non-basketball town.”
Bertman, though, wants a coach with more personality this time around.
“We’re going to try and get a coach that’s fan-friendly, that can unite the community, that can get them excited,” he said. “The basketball coach has to have a winning team and that means playing in the NCAA tournament on a regular basis. He also has to regularly contend for the championships in the West (Division) and the SEC.”
The next coach will inherit the entire roster as LSU has no seniors. Speculation on that next coach centers around Baylor’s Scott Drew, Massachusetts’ Travis Ford, Virginia Commonwealth’s Anthony Grant and Mississippi’s Andy Kennedy.
Meanwhile, Drew and Grant are being prominently mentioned for another Southeastern Conference job as South Carolina will be looking for a coach when Dave Odom retires at the end of the season. Xavier’s Sean Miller is another name being bandied about, though he seems happy with the Musketeers.
The Dukes Are Up
Clinching a winning season might not seem like a big deal but Duquesne’s 63-61 win at Dayton on Wednesday night was a milestone win for the Dukes.
Duquesne improved to 16-7 and assured itself of its first winning season in 14 years and just the second plus-.500 finish in 21 years. Little wonder that Dukes coach Ron Everhart, who notched his 200th career win, continues to enhance his reputation as Mr. Fix-It as he also turned around struggling programs at McNeese State and Northeastern.
However, Duquesne is not getting caught up in its success just yet.
“This isn’t just about Duquesne being out there and competing,” junior center Shawn James said. “We’re out there to win every night. We want to do more than just have a winning season.”
Duquesne is a long shot to make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1977 unless it wins the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament. However, the Dukes, No. 68 in the Pomeroy Ratings, seemingly have a good chance to make the NIT for the first time since their last winning season in 1994.
Team to Watch
Gonzaga is this week’s Team to Watch as the Bulldogs are poised to move back into the AP Top 25 following consecutive wins over Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount that pushed their record to 19-6 overall and 8-1 in the West Coast Conference.
Gonzaga, No. 24 in the Pomeroy Ratings, is tied with Saint Mary’s for the WCC lead at 8-1 while San Diego is one game back at 7-1. The Bulldogs have three straight road games against San Francisco, San Diego and Portland before finishing the regular season at home against Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara.
Gonzaga has four players scoring in double figures: sophomore guard Matt Bouldin (12.4 points), junior guard Jeremy Pargo (11.9), freshman forward Austin Daye (11.5) and junior forward Josh Heytvelt (11.2) Pargo is also averaging 6.3 assists and Heytvelt is averaging 5.0 rebounds.
Gonzaga has shown good balance as it ranks 27th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (114.8) and 29th in adjusted defensive efficiency (90.2).
Games of the Week
The top five games for the week of Feb. 15-21, according to the Pomeroy Ratings, with all times Eastern
No. 6 Stanford at No. 22 Arizona, Saturday, Feb. 16, 9 p.m., ESPN Full Court
No. 12 Texas A&M at No. 19 Texas, Monday, Feb. 18, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 4 UCLA at No. 28 Southern California, Sunday, Feb. 17, 10 p.m., Fox Sports Net
No. 5 Wisconsin at No. 33 Illinois, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network
No. 23 Michigan State at No. 16 Indiana, Saturday, Feb. 16, 9 p.m., ESPN
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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