TIGERS WHIP SPARTANS, ADVANCE IN NIT

TIGERS WHIP SPARTANS, ADVANCE IN NIT

| March 15, 2002
On a night when 32 other Division I college basketball teams were tipping-off the NCAA tournament’s March madness, the University of Memphis Tigers took the floor at The Pyramid to take on UNC-Greensboro in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. For the second time in as many years under John Calipari, the U of M was relegated to the “B” brackets. But while last season’s club may have overachieved to a degree in winning 21 games and reaching the NIT’s semifinals, the 2001-02 squad had bigger things in mind last fall (see Sports Illustrated’s preseason ranking of #11 in the country). If the Tigers were going to face any Spartans in March, they had their sights set on those of Michigan State, not one of three clubs to share this season’s Southern Conference title. Say this for the U of M: somewhere amid all the disappointment, they found motivation. Playing before the smallest home crowd of the season -- 6,826 -- the Tigers rode a hot Scooter McFadgon and a stifling defense to beat the Spartans, 82-62. Better yet, they seemed emotionally engaged, even confident, despite senior star Kelly Wise sitting out with a sprained knee. Whether it was a lesser opponent than they’ve faced recently, or merely a chip on their shoulder over being slighted by the NCAA tournament committee, Memphis looked like the team advertised last fall. “I thought we were really aggressive,” said Calipari after the final buzzer. “That’s what I like. I’m starting to take the approach I did at UMass: if you don’t go after a ball, you come out. I’m talking about effort. I once subbed five guys 12 seconds into the game. Anybody that was going to question if this team would come out hard needs to walk away knowing they did.” Despite their leading scorer, Dajuan Wagner, being limited to nine first-half minutes after a pair of early fouls, Memphis (now 23-9) shot 52 percent in the first half on their way to a 37-29 halftime lead. Remarkably, 28 of those points were scored by Tigers playing their very first postseason game...a promising sign for the future of the program. Point guard Antonio Burks held his Spartan counterpart, Courtney Eldridge, to 4 first-half points (and only 7 for the game). Memphis doubled its 9-point lead midway through the second half. Wagner was joined by McFadgon, Chris Massie, Anthony Rice, and Earl Barron in the double-figure club, Scooter leading the way with his top scoring performance (21) since the Tennessee game December 20th. Wagner’s 16 points carried his season total to 671, the fourth highest single-season mark in school history. Depending on how far Memphis can advance in the NIT, the freshman honorable-mention All-America has a shot at Penny Hardaway’s team record (729 points in 1992-93). Might Wise return for the second-round battle with BYU Monday night? “It’s up to him,” said Calipari. “I’d like to see him play to help his standing in the [NBA] draft. My mentality, though, is that he’s not playing. And really, it’s nice, because this is next year’s team.” If you look to the rafters of The Pyramid, the number of banners is rather striking at first glance. But, like a brilliant Impressionist painting, the collection is more powerful the less you focus on the detail. There are the eight retired numbers, dating from 1952 (Forest Arnold) to 1993 (Anfernee Hardaway). You see ten banners honoring conference championships (an 11th will be added next year, as the Tigers won the 2002 Conference USA National Division). But be careful in Counting the postseason acknowledgments. You’ll find 16 paying homage to NCAA tournament teams (the most recent from 1996). Count the NIT banners, though, and you hit 14, going on 15. Come next fall, the four most recent banners will say “NIT.” Has some luster come off this proud program’s armor? Don’t tell the head coach. “[This was] a step toward where we want to be,” explained Calipari, “and now we march on.”

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