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Last laugh

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

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Memphis Season Highlights

SAN ANTONIO – They all abandoned him and his Memphis Tigers for the Big East, left John Calipari to rot away in mediocrity, in charge of a fading program in a failing league. Deep down, of course, that's just how the irascible coach likes it – underdog and underappreciated; the black sheep son of the big time.

Given his choice, sure, he'd rather still have Louisville and Cincinnati and Marquette and the spotlight back in Conference USA. He didn't need them not just running off but laughing out the door.

"Cal's now the highest paid mid-major coach in the country," Bob Huggins cracked.

Rest assured no one enjoyed that line more than Louisville's Rick Pitino.

But a funny thing happened to the program that was supposed to die, to the coach whose career was supposed to suffer. They are still going strong, still playing deep into March, back in the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year following a thrilling 65-64 victory here over Texas A&M.

Huggs, Pitino and Tom Crean? Perhaps they watched on TV.

"The league killed them," Cal mocked, repeating the well-worn criticism of the Tigers from all the doom-predicting talking heads.

"Yeah. Maybe we could have won by more."

This was Classic Calipari on Thursday, him stomping and slamming on the sidelines, his dress shirt untucked by the first TV timeout. Him pleading with his guys on every dribble. His making this 33-3 team on a 25-game win streak feel like the Sisters of the Meek with the entire world was against it.

Hey, if they are going to call you a mid major you might as well get the positive out of it. Poor little Memphis was messing with the entire state of Texas.

So what if Cal has so many athletes that he rotates them in like hockey lines – three or four at a time.

"Nobody picked us, except (two guys)," said Cal in the locker room after and there was no doubt he had kept notes. He hoped it would stay that way, "Don't pick us. Don't."

Someone mentioned one prognosticator in particular. "He better not pick us. That (expletive) better not pick us."

With Cal it's always theatre. He doesn't really care. It's all fun and games, just a way to win. If everyone had picked the Tigers, he'd have found a way to spin it to his advantage, to get his kids fired up about that, too.

The truth is you can pick against Memphis at your own risk because the Tigers might be out of C-USA but half their players are headed to the NBA.

Calipari has always maintained conference affiliation wouldn't hurt him on the recruiting trail and it hasn't. This team is loaded and next year he has another top-10 class, headed by top-five recruit Derrick Rose from Chicago. He beat the Big Ten, ACC and SEC for the star guard.

"What a basketball league does is give you a schedule in January and February," he said. "When (early in the season) we're playing at Arizona, at Gonzaga, at Tennessee, playing in Maui, the teams in the tougher conferences are playing Popcorn State. It's just switched around."

Then again, there are times he can't believe this either, can't believe that the Tigers are making consecutive Elite Eights for the first time in school history, that they are 40 minutes from Atlanta.

"We lose 50 percent of our scoring (from last year), 50 percent of our rebounding, two players to the NBA," Cal said.

And they go beat one fierce Texas A&M team on a less than neutral court. Of course, the way Cal saw it there was something like 250,000 Aggie fans at the Alamodome, A&M found a way to slip Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili into maroon uniforms and the refs were all named Gillispie.

Davy Crockett faced shorter odds.

"To go on the road in a signature game and get it done?" he asked. "Come on? Come on? Come on?"

Yeah, he was rolling all right and that's fine. To the victors go the locker room sermons and Calipari was in full force. Taking Massachusetts to the 1996 Final Four was probably more impressive than this – the Tigers are a resource rich, historic winner – but not much.

Everyone left Memphis and Calipari for dead and he's still standing, gaining strength, throwing zingers at all his old rivals and loving every single moment. Winning is great. But winning with a how-do-you-like-me-now smile is even better.

Pitino, meanwhile, can only wonder what an annoyance Calipari could be to him if he winds up in Lexington, barking as usual only this time, at last, with a program where he can be the big dog, not the underdog. Cal and the Big Blue?

Not that on this night you were getting a straight answer or a single word about anything but his heroic Tigers.

What do you think of Kentucky?

"Why," he smiled. "What happened?"

All he wanted to talk about was this great game. What were you thinking when Antonio Anderson got to the line for the two game winning free throws?

"Oh my God, we won again."

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