March 13, 2009

By Anthony Oliva

March 2, 2006. The last time Memphis lost a game in Conference USA play.

December 20, 2008. The last time Memphis lost a game of any sort.

The Tigers will play Houston on Thursday in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament after they beat Tulane, 51-41, on Wednesday to extend the nation's longest winning streak to 23 games.

And still, even as the Tigers sit at No. 4 in the nation with 29 wins on the year, there are some naysayers about the Tigers and their ability to play with the nation's best.

While conferences like the Big East and ACC get most of the headlines, Conference USA is normally overshadowed - and Memphis coach John Calipari has taken offense to that.

"I'm disappointed that people are trying to minimize what we're doing with the number of wins we've had in our league and they're doing it by trying to diminish the league," Calipari said. "Tulsa, UTEP and UAB should all have opportunities to be in the NCAA Tournament."

Overall, Memphis has won 59 straight in conference play, and as it stands, Memphis is the only Conference USA team that is a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. Teams like UAB (22-10) and Tulsa (23-9), which play each other in Thursday's other semifinal, will generate some discussion from the selection committee on Selection Sunday, but may have to win the Conference USA tournament to get an invite.

"I'll come back to last year when we went to the NCAA Tournament," Calipari said. "The league played us better than Michigan State, Texas and UCLA. And it bothers me. It all comes back to trying to diminish what we're doing, what they're doing. And it's really disappointing.

"This stuff kind of aggravates me, but people that know me know I normally don't speak my mind - but in this case I guess I will"

On the surface, the Memphis players, however, do not seem concerned with how they're perceived by the rest of the nation. When senior guard Antonio Anderson was asked about the perception of Conference USA basketball, he was quick to downplay any interest in it.

"I don't have anything to say to that," said Anderson. "That's their opinion and they're entitled to their own opinion. We just have to go out and continue to play basketball."

What makes Memphis' success so remarkable is not the sheer numbers of their winning streaks, but how it has managed to rebuild on the fly.

Last season Memphis went 38-2 and lost to Kansas in OT in the national championship game. Departed from that team are star point guard Derrick Rose, the No. 1 overall pick of the NBA draft to the Chicago Bulls; Chris Douglas-Roberts, a second-round pick of the New Jersey Nets; and forward Joey Dorsey, drafted in the second round by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Amazingly, without them Memphis hasn't skipped a beat. C-USA Freshman of the Year Tyreke Evans is playing the role of Rose as the star freshman point guard. He's averaging 16.8 points a game and was named to the Conference USA First Team and is being touted by many as the national freshman of the year.

But Evans hasn't been the only one to step in and replace the departed stars. A diversified scoring attack with four players - Evans, Anderson, Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggert - scoring in double figures and a stingy team defense that is allowing only 57.7 points per game makes up the difference

"Everybody on this team has been leading scorers in their life," Anderson said. "We're just playing basketball. We're playing as a team. Nobody is being selfish and we're winning."

Winning is an understatement. This year Memphis is 29-3, one win shy of its fourth consecutive 30-win season. Out of conference, the Tigers have impressive wins over SEC regular season co-champ Tennessee, WCC regular season and tournament champ Gonzaga and a split against Big East, beating Cincinnati and falling to Syracuse - its last loss.

The record from this year to last may be similar, but Calipari says this team has a different feel.

"We don't have the viciousness we had a year ago and we don't have anyone on this team besides Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier that really understand what they're getting into," Calipari said.

They are about to get out of the comforts of Conference USA play and go into the unforgiving NCAA Tournament. And, if the selection committee doesn't diminish the conference in which they play, the Tigers could very well be a No. 1 seed.

"We don't focus on being a one seed," Anderson said. "We just go out and try to play and win ballgames. If we get a one seed we get it, if not we don't. In the tournament once the seedings come out all the numbers are thrown away and you need to win games."

And, regardless of conference, that's something Memphis has done better than anyone this year.