Calipari now optimistic about the Tigers

September, 5, 2008
Memphis coach John Calipari has changed his opinion on this season's team. Following the trip to China in May, Calipari said he was down on his squad's potential. But after he worked out the Tigers for the first time this fall on Monday, the coach has renewed optimism about what he said will be an even "longer" and "more athletic" team than last season.

Since the trip to China in May:
Doneal Mack transferred to New Orleans but changed his mind and went back to Memphis.
Robert Dozier and Antonio Anderson withdrew from the NBA draft.
• Freshman Roburt Sallie came on board from Nebraska.
• Freshman Tyreke Evans arrived on campus as the most heralded newcomer.
• Freshman Wesley Witherspoon was one of the last players cut on the U.S. Under-18 national team that played in Argentina.
• The Tigers added Lamont Peterson, Bilal Batley and Jason Walberg to administrative staffing positions with the team.
• C.J. Henry joined the team for this season.

The addition of Nebraska signee Sallie -- who failed to meet the Big 12 Conference eligibility guidelines -- has changed the look of the team. Calipari said the 6-5 guard could play point. But more impressive for Calipari was Sallie's ability to shoot the ball.

"It jarred me," Calipari said. "He's pretty good."

Weight loss and weight gain have changed the coach's opinion of the team, too.

Calipari said Pierre Niles is down to 310 pounds from 350 pounds. He said Shawn Taggart has put 25 pounds on his thin frame.

"We had an overweight guy in Pierre and an underweight guy in Taggart who got manhandled," Calipari said of the way both big men played on the trip to China in May. "Willie [Kemp] got outmanned. Antonio Anderson and Doneal Mack were OK, and Jeff Robinson didn't play well, so I was looking at my team and saying, 'Oh my gosh.' But now the guys are coming in pretty good."

That team is looking even deeper with a recent addition in Henry, a 6-foot-3 guard who is also a New York Yankees prospect. The 22-year-old Henry signed with Kansas out of high school in 2005. But Henry, selected by the Yankees in the first round (17th overall) in the 2005 draft, opted to play baseball the past few years. Now he wants to return to basketball, and the Yankees are contractually obligated to pay for his education, so Calipari said it is worth taking a "flier on the kid." He said he doesn't know how much Henry, who has been an outfielder in the New York Yankees' minor league system, can contribute this season.

Henry's younger brother, Xavier Henry, is the No. 1 player in the ESPN 100 for the Class of 2009.

Due to NCAA rules, Calipari can't talk about the effect having C.J. Henry on the team will have in recruiting Xavier Henry.

But Calipari did say the Tigers could go from 6-5 to 6-10 in their starting lineup this season.

"We could be that big," Calipari said. "I've never had 12-13 guys like this. This isn't normal for me."

He said Sallie, Kemp, Henry and Anderson could all share time playing the point in the absence Derrick Rose, who was the No. 1 draft pick in June.

On Calipari's staff, the coach added a trio of new personnel. Walberg is the son of former Pepperdine coach Vance Walberg (now a UMass assistant with former Memphis assistant Derek Kellogg). He will serve as Memphis' recruiting coordinator/manager. Peterson, now an administrative assistant with the team, has trained Evans since the highly rated freshman was 15 years old. Batley, the assistant director of operations/manager, worked under former NBA coach John Lucas as a developmental coach in Houston.

Calipari said all of the positions are stipend positions and none of them receive benefits.

"I've got people begging people for jobs," Calipari said. "I didn't have a position open when Tyreke committed to us. Do you understand these are eight-month positions without benefits and don't pay that much? Do you think I need to help in recruiting kids? Do you think I need to hire someone to recruit a kid?"

That last salvo was in response to any suggested impropriety of hiring Peterson to get Evans, who committed to Memphis in April. Calipari did once hire Milt Wagner, father of Dajuan Wagner, a former Tiger.

The Tigers' staff, which included new hires Josh Pastner (from Arizona) and Orlando Antigua (from Pitt) after assistants Chucky Martin (Marist) and Derek Kellogg (UMass) got head-coaching jobs, is now 13 deep. The Tigers have 14 players on the roster.

• Calipari said the Tigers still need one more game for this season. He said he's willing to play a neutral-site game, although Pitt said it offered a game in Madison Square Garden to the Tigers but they turned that down.

The Tigers have road games at Tennessee, Georgetown and Gonzaga. They will play three games in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic and also host Syracuse, Cincinnati, UMass, Drexel, Marist, Fairfield and Lamar.

• Kansas coach Bill Self said he couldn't be more pleased with what he got out of the Labor Day weekend trip to Canada. The Jayhawks played the weekend without the highly touted twins, Markieff and Marcus Morris, who weren't eligible yet. They were declared eligible Thursday after going through the NCAA Eligibility Center. Sherron Collins, who has had an injury-plagued summer, played in just one of the three games, scoring 10 points in a win over Carleton.

"Our two best players are going to be Sherron and Cole [Aldrich]," Self said. "In the three games, three different newcomers led us in scoring [Travis Releford, Tyshawn Taylor and Mario Little]. We know we're going to get points from Sherron and Cole, but it was encouraging to get it from others."

Defensively, the Jayhawks are way behind, but that's to be expected, Self said, adding that there were plenty of times in the games when no player on the floor had made an appearance in the national title game last April.

• Pitt couldn't get someone to play the Panthers in Madison Square Garden. Instead, the Panthers got Siena to play them at home on Dec. 17. That won't be an easy game. The Saints should be the favorite in the MAAC and a potential Sweet 16 team if last season's win over Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA tournament is any indication.

• The Big East schedule came out. Seton Hall coach Bobby Gonzalez will serve his one-game suspension (for his antics against Rutgers on March 9) when the Pirates travel to Syracuse on Dec. 30.

Other games to circle are: Notre Dame at Louisville, Jan. 12; Pitt at Louisville, Jan. 17; UConn at Notre Dame, Jan. 24; ND at Pitt, Jan. 31; UConn at Louisville, Feb. 2; Louisville at Notre Dame, Feb. 12; Pitt at UConn, Feb. 16; ND at UConn, Feb. 28; UConn at Pitt, March 7.


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