MEMPHIS, Tenn. The name has changed, but the fever for basketball remains it was just dormant for a few years.
"Oh, yeah," said sports information director Ron Mears, gazing at a photo of the 1985 Final Four game between Memphis State and Villanova. "For the first time in awhile, people are fired up about this Tigers team."
The University of Memphis, as it is now known, finished 21-15 this past season, closing the deal with an 86-71 victory over Detroit in the NIT consolation game. It wasn't the school-record 31-4 the 1984-85 team produced, but it was progress after two straight losing seasons and an NCAA Tournament drought that has gone five years.
John Calipari, in his first season as head coach, was widely credited with waking up the echoes. The school was so grateful, it ripped up his $450,000 annual contract and more than doubled his money.
"I think John has exceeded expectations," Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson said. "Some people probably thought that just because he was here, we would go to the (NCAA) Tournament. But, internally, one of the things I'm most pleased with is the improvement I've really seen from this team, from Puerto Rico, where the season began, to New York."
The last time Calipari had a team in the NIT consolation game, it went on to win five straight NCAA Tournament games. Of course, that University of Massachusetts team returned all five starters. Memphis loses four seniors, but has seven new players coming in, including Dajuan Wagner, who scored 100 points in a New Jersey high school game last January. Wagner, who averaged 42.5 points per game, is the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country and toyed with jumping straight to the NBA. Presumably his father, Milt, a second-round pick in the 1986 Draft who happens to be Memphis' director of basketball operations, stressed the importance of an education.
Of Memphis' first 12 games, six were against teams that were at one point ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. After a 4-8 start, the Tigers rallied to win 17 of 24 games, including an eight-game winning streak, and drew an average of 13,500 fans to the Pyramid.
There were, however, incidents that gave those critical of the Calipari hire some ammunition. Players John Grice and Courtney Trask were both suspended midway through the season for academic misconduct.
At UMass, Calipari had more than his share of controversy. There were academic irregularities and charges that the program rang up nearly a quarter-million dollars in travel expenses wining and dining supporters. Star player Marcus Camby illegally received cash and gifts, which led to sanctions by the NCAA against the school.
Noting that Memphis head coach Dana Kirk had run into similar problems, Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Conklin opined that the school and Calipari deserved each other.
"This is a marriage of convenience between consenting adults, which has become standard operating procedure in Division I athletics," Conklin wrote earlier this year. "Some role models: A table-hopping coach with a shady record and an institution of higher learning -- from the president on down -- that obviously has learned nothing from its past. Are Calipari and Memphis going to repeat their histories?"
Calipari, who did not return calls for this story, has been emphasizing the positive after the Tigers' rocky start.
"I'm proud of how these guys have worked all year and I'm so pleased with their improvement as individual players and as a team," Calipari said after the season. "The two suspensions ... everybody questioning ... and this team responded, and it says a lot about them. It's just been a pleasure to coach them."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com
|Memphis coach John Calipari wants to bring the Tigers the Final Four magic he fashioned at UMass.|
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