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NEW BEGINNING...OR ENDING? I’m not as good as John Calipari at whistling through the graveyard. Maybe it’s the worry wart in me, perhaps the skeptical (cynical?) journalist. But at the dawn of the 2003-04 University of Memphis basketball season, I can’t help but tremble at the thought of what our Tigers’ Conference USA may look like a few short years from now. Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul, and South Florida are going to the Big East, while Tulsa, Rice, SMU, Marshall, and Central Florida will join C-USA. By every measure imaginable, Memphis winds up on the losing end of this exchange. (A quick litmus test for measuring the impact of a college athletic program: name the cities that are home to Marshall and Central Florida.) You’re looking at a conference schedule where the highlights would be . . . Southern Miss and Saint Louis. (Or maybe not. The Billikens have been invited to join the Atlantic 10, along with Charlotte.) The Tigers open their fourth season under Coach Cal Thursday night against Wake Forest, part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic to be held at the U of M’s new home away from home, Madison Square Garden (this will be the fourth consecutive year the Tigers have played in Manhattan). After this clash with an ACC standard bearer, Memphis will get the kinks out against Fordham (Nov. 22), Austin Peay (Nov. 29), and UT-Martin (Dec. 3) before a nationally televised showdown with Ole Miss on December 6th. To be perfectly honest, it’s hard for me to get my teeth into college hoops before the New Year. With the football Tigers having their best season in a generation, it’s particularly difficult to shift attention to the hardwood and to a team with the lowest profile the U of M has suited up in years. Chris Massie, Earl Barron, and player/mascot Nathaniel Root are all gone (the latter two having, yes, graduated). Senior Antonio Burks will be among the best point guards in C-USA, if not the entire country . . . but he’ll never sell tickets on his own. His supporting cast will be made up of the role-playing Anthony Rice and a trio of players with but a single season in The Pyramid under their belts (Rodney Carney, Jeremy Hunt, and Billy Richmond). Add rookies Ivan Lopez and Sean Banks to the mix and you have an athletic -- if less than intimidating -- group to carry out Calipari’s frenetic, baseline-to-baseline style of basketball. But alas, where are the stars? Easy answer, actually: check the U of M bench. With the prep-to-NBA pipeline now wide open (nice to know ya, Dajuan, Carmelo, LeBron), college basketball has become a starless enterprise where the only faces left to sell the game are the men in wing tips signing the shoe contracts . . . men like John Calipari. Listen to ESPN’s Dick Vitale and count the number of references Dicky V makes to coaches in relation to players. It’s a clipboard-toting cult of personality that fuels the college game these days. And in that regard, Memphis is in the top tier. Which brings us back to the sorry state of affairs with Conference USA. Calipari has claimed that the “national” schedule he’s building will be that much better than the 16-game C-USA slate Tiger Nation is used to seeing. And who knows? He may just pull it off. I’ve been dreaming of ACC, Big 10, Big 12, maybe even Pac 10 powers visiting The Pyramid since Anfernee Hardaway was lacing ‘em up. The Memphis program is big enough -- and has the kind of following -- to warrant such inter-regional matchups. It would trump the status quo, where local fans will see the likes of Belmont, Samford, and Oakland (interrupted by a visit from Missouri) before conference play opens in January. But if Calipari’s forecast doesn’t hold? With Bob Huggins’ Bearcats and Rick Pitino’s Cardinals in the Big East, what will we have left? Worse still, what happens when our “star” finds pastures just a little greener elsewhere? (I’d venture to guess such pastures won’t be found in Huntington, West Virginia, or Orlando, Florida.) This is where the optimist reader pounds fist to desk and screams, “Keep the faith!!” Since his arrival three seasons ago, Calipari has put an average of 16,000 fans in The Pyramid, and that number includes games against the likes of Furman and Austin Peay. This is still Tiger basketball we’re talking about, with the longest running, highest profile sports following this city has known. It’s weathered storms before (from Dana Kirk’s tax troubles to Tic Price’s wandering eye). We’re left to rely on the program’s flagship status as being enough to carry it through a mass exodus in C-USA, not to mention the grand entrance of FedExForum and its glamorous bear of a tenant. If there is one thing John Calipari can do better than coach, it’s sell. Here’s hoping he continues to sell U of M basketball for the worthy institution it is. Furthermore, here’s hoping the man in the mirror is buying.

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