Sports » Sports Feature

On Course?

Fans are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward a Tiger team that's beginning to show a pulse.



Shut up dick-head!"

The command/insult, reverberating throughout the chilly confines of half-full C.M "Tad" Smith Coliseum (aka the Tad Pad), was but one of many jeers directed at Memphis head coach John Calipari last Saturday. References to the coach's "GQ" wardrobe and bellowed sarcastic questions about how the Tigers would do "when they played a national program" were also part of the off-the-court pageantry. But the Tigers and Calipari had the last word, with a decisive 73-62 win over the Rebels.

"We're a good road team. We've been a good road team," Calipari said afterward. "You need a swagger to win on the road," Calipari added, before providing a final synopsis taken directly from The Wizard of Oz: "And we've got a lot of guys with courage on the court."

Maybe these Tigers are beginning to become a team rather than the "group of players" Calipari has harped on recently. Perhaps the toiletry bag, at least, has been unzipped.

It was the same theme Calipari talked about in 2001-02, the Tigers' last visit to Oxford. Things were different then: The Rebels delivered a Top 25 knockout punch with a 71-67 victory over the then 22nd-ranked Tigers.

During that game, individual jeers couldn't be heard in the Tad Pad. Instead, there was just the roar of thousands of standing students in a sold-out arena. Those fans knew they had a good Rebel team, even though the Tigers had the reputation and the ranking.

That season, the Tigers were considered by many as a dark horse to make a multiround run in the NCAA tournament. But they didn't even make it into the tournament. Even with the presence of Dujuan Wagner, Chris Massie, and Kelly Wise, that bunch only mustered an NIT title.

But just as the Ole Miss game was different this year, so is this Tiger team. And it's changing still.

The media consensus is that the Tigers currently rank third in fan interest, behind Tiger football and the Grizzlies. But that popularity contest may soon have a new leader.

In his Ole Miss postgame interview, Calipari displayed an emotional about-face from his almost sullen mood after the UT-Martin game three days before. Cal seemed, for the first time in weeks, optimistic.

"I'm just happy right now because it seems like we've got it," he said. He was referring to the Tiger defense, but fans won't have long to wait to find out if "it" could mean something more.

Third-ranked Missouri, with 6'9", 270-pound center Arthur Johnson comes to town December 27th. Calipari has said the Tigers will "double-team that guy and play some zone." Will that work with essentially only undersized Ivan Lopez and Duane Erwin to counter Johnson? And if the Tigers' streaky shooting falters, will they still be able to contend with Top 25 teams -- like number 11 Illinois this Saturday?

Once the Tiger football season ends December 16th in the New Orleans Bowl and the collegiate spotlight is squarely back on Tiger hoops, will this team still have "it"? Here's the question many fans are asking: Is Tiger basketball behind or ahead of schedule in Calipari's fourth season?

The team is still looking for its own theme. So far, emotion has been hard to come by, though Calipari has charitably lent a hand in that area. And it may yet spill over to the team, as evidenced by the Tigers' first unified defensive floor-slap midway through the second half Saturday. Calipari had been demanding it all game.

"We're just trying to get them to say, 'Let's go. Let's lock up. Let's play,'" Calipari said. "We're just trying to get them fired up."

With a couple more quality wins, the Tigers may do the same for the notoriously fickle Memphis sports fans.

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