Memphis clinched its second straight Conference USA title with a ho-hum win over a ho-hum opponent last week, and coach John Calipari was as ho-hum as anyone.
“I don’t even know if we addressed (the conference championship),” Calipari said after a 99-63 win over Rice. “So, we did win it outright? Huh. Congratulations.”
That about sums up the national opinion of Memphis, which has quietly won a national-best 17 consecutive games and climbed to the sixth spot in the most recent AP rankings. All of a sudden, the Tigers are threatening to claim a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
We’ve seen this script before.
Memphis turned a 31-3 regular season record into a No. 1 seed last year, then beat a No. 16, a No. 9 and a No. 13 to advance to the Elite Eight, where it lost to UCLA.
However, Memphis went 13-3 against top 100 teams last year with wins over RPI top-10 squads UCLA, Gonzaga and Tennessee. This year, the Tigers are only 5-3 against the top 100 with just one win (over Kentucky) against a team in the top 10 of the RPI.
They’ve won 17 straight, but the only win that stands out is a 78-77 overtime win at Gonzaga just days after the Bulldogs lost Josh Heytvelt to suspension.
In fact, Memphis’ Conference USA is starting to look a lot like Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference.
With Louisville, Marquette and Cincinnati in their second seasons in the Big East, Conference USA has become pretty darn weak. Memphis has lost just one league game the last two seasons, and the only other Conference USA team currently in the top 100 of the RPI is Houston, which checked in this week at No. 97.
That does not bode well for a Memphis program that fancies itself a national power.
“It’s not that I’m rooting for other people,” Calipari told SI.com. “But what happens is if those teams don’t improve, it’s hard on us too because now we’ve got to try to win every game.”
OFF THE BUBBLE
With two weeks remaining until the NCAA tournament field is revealed, ESPN on Sunday updated its list of teams that are locks to earn at-large berths even if they lose out.
Their selections included, from the ACC, Boston College, Maryland, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech; from the Big East, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Marquette; from the Big Ten, Ohio State and Wisconsin; from the Big 12, Texas A&M, Texas and Kansas; from the Pac-10, Arizona, UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington State; and from the SEC, Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
Mid-majors that were projected to earn berths regardless of their conference tournament results include Southern Illinois of the Missouri Valley, Memphis of Conference USA, Butler of the Horizon League, Nevada of the WAC and Air Force and Nevada-Las Vegas of the Mountain West.
Michigan State, Illinois, Stanford, Creighton and Brigham Young were not quite locks, but they were listed as teams that should be in regardless of future results.
As the clock wound down near the end of Illinois’ home win over Northwestern last week, students chanted “Save the chief! Save the chief!”
Thus began a week of grassroots campaigning (dubbed Chief Illini-week) to convince the university to reverse its decision to retire the school’s 81-year-old American Indian mascot, Chief Illiniwek. The news led to speculation that the school’s Fighting Illini nickname would go the way of the Indian and the Red Man.
The campaign, which concluded Monday with a candlelight vigil attended by about 40 students, might have worked. A member of the school’s board of trustees told the Daily Illini that the retirement is unofficial due to the lack of inclusion of the board in the decision-making process.
Only the chief’s halftime dance has been retired, for now. “This (candlelight vigil) was supposed to be the light at the end of the tunnel for the pro-Chief movement,” student organizer Paul Schmitt told the Daily Illini. “Chief Illiniwek is by no means dead.”
Chief Illiniwek isn’t the only college hoops personality in peril.
Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart issued a statement last week urging fans to wait until after the season to evaluate the state of the program and, by natural extension, coach Tubby Smith’s job.
“History tells us that the college basketball season can change quite a bit between February and March,” Barnhart said.
Smith, who has coached the Wildcats for 10 years and won the national title with Rick Pitino’s players in 1998, may coach his last home game tonight against Georgia.
“Certainly I’m not happy with four out of five losses, but I’m not going to jump off a building,” Smith said.