Calipari: "We're definitely a top-20 team"

January, 6, 2009

Memphis is 10-3. A year ago at this time, there was chatter the Tigers could go 40-0.

The latest ESPN/USA Today coaches poll came out Monday, and the Tigers weren't in it for the second straight week. Before that, Memphis had been ranked for 67 straight weeks, tied with UCLA for the most in the country.

So the roster has been reshuffled and the quality wins simply aren't there … yet. But that's fine. This is exactly the motivation Memphis coach John Calipari needs.

"We're a top-20 team," Calipari said. "If we're not rated, that's fine. Our defense is very good. Our offense is catching up. We're definitely a top-20 team, whether we're rated there or not.

"It doesn't bother me. I know what a top-20 team looks like. We lost three games, and we could have won all three. It's not like we got buried."

The losses were to Xavier by five in Puerto Rico, at Georgetown by nine in overtime and to Syracuse by seven at home. Memphis still has nonconference games left at Tennessee (Jan. 24) and at Gonzaga (Feb. 7).

"If we can get our act together offensively, you don't want to play this team," Calipari said. "We just have to get more physical and tougher."

The difference for Memphis now, Calipari said, is the move of freshman Tyreke Evans to the point. Over the past three games, Evans had eight assists and seven turnovers in a win over Cincinnati, four assists and five turnovers in a win over Northeastern and five assists and just one turnover in a win over Lamar.

And his scoring hasn't dipped, with 27 points against Northeastern and 25 against Lamar. Evans also made a high percentage of his shots in those two games, going 9-of-13 against NU and 11-of-16 against Lamar. He was a combined 6-of-7 at the free-throw line and 6-of-10 on 3-pointers. He also had 11 steals.

"I should have done this from day one," Calipari said of moving Evans to the point after experimenting with Antonio Anderson and Wesley Witherspoon in place of Derrick Rose, last season's freshman phenom and the 2008 No. 1 draft pick.

"I tried to put him in Chris Douglas-Roberts' hole [as a slashing wing], but he didn't fit there. He's better with the ball. This is better for Antonio and [senior forward Robert] Dozier. They're more comfortable with him at the point."

Calipari said a big difference with Evans is getting him to jump stop in the lane and not "run over people" when he's driving to the basket.

• Calipari said sophomore Jeff Robinson received his release and will transfer. According to Calipari, Robinson has mentioned Seton Hall and Saint Joseph's as possible destinations. Robinson is from Trenton, N.J.

• An Oklahoma spokesperson said coach Jeff Capel might have to spend another day in the hospital as he battles a stomach virus.

• Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said his team is risking becoming a .500 team if it doesn't shake out of this slump. The Vols are 4-3 since starting out the season 5-0. The losses for the most part are understandable, in that they came to Gonzaga in Orlando, Temple on the road and at Kansas. Still, Pearl said he has to find a way to make some tweaks, notably getting Renaldo Wooldridge some more minutes and shots.

• Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he's not surprised there have been so many "upsets" to start conference play. But he said that to him, North Carolina still is the best team in the country. He also said he doesn't think there is a player who is more valuable to his team than Davidson's Stephen Curry.

• Usually, a U.S. president calls a college basketball coach only after a national title. Well, never has there been a president with a direct link to a coach like there is now. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Craig Robinson's brother-in-law, President-elect Barack Obama, telephoned him Monday morning to congratulate him after Oregon State upset USC 62-58 Sunday night in Corvallis. Robinson said Obama always has called him after big wins.

• Lost amid the Pitt love is how well Notre Dame's Luke Harangody is playing. He's making a strong case for Big East player of the year after tossing up 31 in a win over Georgetown.

• Northeastern had erratic nonconference results against a difficult schedule, but the Huskies have resumed their place as a CAA favorite with a 3-0 start after a 23-point win over Hofstra on Monday. George Mason also is off to a 3-0 start after beating Georgia State.

• Mississippi State tied a school record with 14 3-pointers in a quality 95-67 win over Western Kentucky on Monday in Starkville.

• SMU got picked on here for losing at home to Arkansas-Pine Bluff. So Matt Doherty's Mustangs deserve credit for knocking off Colorado 70-67 on Monday at home.

• Niagara continued a strong start in the MAAC by beating Loyola, Md., by 12 to go to 3-0 in the conference, 12-3 overall.

• I've been remiss in not mentioning the recent exploits of Marquette's Jerel McNeal. He scored 24 points in a win over Villanova on Thursday and 26 in a win over Cincinnati on Sunday. He was a combined 16-of-24 from the field, made 7-of-15 3s and dished out 13 assists with just four turnovers.

• From my colleague Dana O'Neil, who was at the Kent State-Temple game Monday in Philadelphia:

Juan Fernandez made his much-anticipated debut for Temple on Monday night.

The Argentinean point guard that Davidson coach Bob McKillop called, "Pepe Sanchez with a jump shot," was anything but a disappointment. Dribbling as if the ball was on a string, Fernandez kept his eyes up and searching for an open man the entire 21 minutes he played, finishing with eight points and four assists in the Owls' win over Kent State.

Inserted in the first half, Fernandez was greeted with a student section chanting his name. He rewarded them with some dazzling plays, including one where he zinged a fastball from the top of the key to a wide-open Craig Williams underneath and another where he left a Kent State defender practically falling the wrong way, using a killer crossover to drive the lane.

Fernandez said he barely slept the night before his debut because of nerves and admits to being wide-eyed at the spectacle that is American basketball.

"We don't have the kind of show like this," he said. "I'm used to the presentation of the five starters and that's it. There's no cheerleaders or anything like that."

Asked what it was like to hear people calling his name, Fernandez smiled. "It was weird," he said. "But I started to enjoy it."

Fernandez arrived in Philadelphia just before Christmas, but coach Fran Dunphy wanted to give him time to acclimate himself to the game and his players before putting him in the lineup.

Now that he's in, it's hard to imagine Fernandez coming out anytime soon. Though he committed three turnovers, Fernandez fills the biggest void for Temple. The Owls have a great scorer in Dionte Christmas and solid forwards in Lavoy Allen and Sergio Olmos, but are in desperate need of a savvy point guard to direct them.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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