MEMPHIS, Tenn. – John Calipari has started referring to his unbeaten Memphis Tigers as "America's Team," which seems strange for a squad that so many people want to see lose.
That's the feeling Memphis' players had as they took the court for Saturday's nationally televised showdown against Gonzaga at the FedEx Forum.
Antonio Anderson heard television pundits question whether the top-ranked Tigers should be considered a "true No. 1" because of the soft schedule they play in Conference USA. Chris Douglas-Roberts made reference to the large media contingent who flew in from all parts of the country to see how Memphis would fare against a "legitimate" opponent.
"I guess I can't blame anyone," Douglas-Roberts said of the Tigers' doubters. "People like to turn on the TV and watch the No. 1 team go down, but that didn't happen today."
And it might not for the rest of the season.
Memphis improved to 19-0 with Saturday's 81-73 victory over Gonzaga, meaning the Tigers need just 11 more wins to become the first team since St. Joseph's in 2003-04 to finish the regular season without a loss.
Calipari, though, refuses to look that far ahead. Asked if he's embracing his team's opportunity of going unbeaten, Calipari said: "I will embrace an undefeated season on April 7 (after the national title game). I will embrace it, and I promise our fans that I'll do everything I can to do a backflip with one hand."
Calipari might want to start stretching.
A Feb. 26 home game against No. 3 Tennessee is the Tigers' only remaining contest against a Top 25 opponent. Still, Calipari said there are plenty of other teams in Conference USA that could upset Memphis if it isn't careful.
"I think we'll lose two league games," Calipari said. "We almost lost to SMU a year ago. I think there will be two games where the other team plays out of its mind and we just won't have it."
"I've been wrong before," he said. "I think it was 1979. Either that or '77. But I've been wrong before."
Finally tested after 11 consecutive double-digit wins, Memphis looked capable of just about anything in Saturday's victory over the Bulldogs.
Trailing 32-31, Memphis grabbed the halftime momentum on a tip-in by Douglas-Roberts and a follow-slam by Derrick Rose just before the horn began to sound.
A three-pointer by Austin Daye pulled Gonzaga within 46-41 early in the second half, but the Tigers responded with a 16-5 run and the Zags never threatened again.
Memphis outrebounded Gonzaga 15-8 on the offensive end and led by as many as 16 points.
"We're going to go from being Tennessee's Team to being America's Team," Calipari said. "Why? Because of how we play.
"We're doing more with less and making each other better. It's about each other and loving one another. The more people see it, the more they're going to fall in love with it."
Gonzaga coach Mark Few was certainly impressed. Few praised Memphis for its depth, athleticism and physicality, adding that the Tigers' halfcourt defense often seems impenetrable.
"They are a legitimate No. 1 team," Few said. "They're playing so hard and so together. When you miss a shot, they're on the other end before you can even blink. It's tough for us to simulate that up in Spokane. Our scout team can't quite muster up that speed and athleticism with a 5-11 walk-on from Quincy, Washington."
Memphis could be in for a tough test in Wednesday's road game against Tom Penders and the Houston Cougars. After that the Tigers play four consecutive home games.
Even though Memphis doesn't compete in one of the so-called power conferences, Few said it wouldn't be right for Tigers fans to expect their team to win the rest of their games.
"I don't think that's a fair thing for anyone to hang on their head," Few said. "It's not accurate to portray their conference as something they're going to roll through. That's what people always put on us. There are good teams out there with good coaches. I don't think that's a fair thing to do to them."
Calipari is trying his best to keep the Tigers grounded. He said he talks to them often about the NFL's New England Patriots and the way they've managed to stay focused throughout the season. He said one of his favorite quotes comes from linebacker Junior Seau: "Major in the major and minor in the minor."
Translation: "Let's worry about what really needs to be worried about," Calipari said. "Someone says something derogatory on the air … does it matter? I need to worry about my team and each individual player. Are they getting better? Am I spending enough time with them? How do we continue to get better? How do we take it up a notch and stay hungry?
"Each week I'm going to try to do something to keep playing at a different level."
Memphis' fans certainly seem to approve of the level at which the Tigers are performing. Despite sub-freezing temperatures, fans began camping at 6 a.m. Saturday outside the FedEx Forum, where a capacity crowd of 18, 152 watched the Tigers' victory.
That's nearly triple the attendance of Friday's game featuring the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.
"If you don't have a season ticket, go to (Stub Hub)," Calipari said. "They're selling for about $300 or $400 a ticket."
Prices will probably keep rising as the Tigers continue to win. So will the expectations and buzz. Even though Calipari doesn't discuss Memphis' unblemished record with his players, they can't help but think about it as they walk through campus.
"We hear it every day," said Douglas-Roberts, who scored a team-high 21 points Saturday. "We're trying to eat our humble pie, just like the Patriots. We don't feel any pressure at all. If it happens, it happens. It would definitely be a great thing."
- John Calipari
- Memphis Tigers