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KANSAS CITY -- In search of a lesson in avoiding an upset when you're an overwhelming favorite on the opening day of the dance, SI went behind the scenes with No. 2-seeded Memphis for the lead-up to its first-round game against No. 15 Cal State Northridge. What we unwittingly saw was the prelude to a near-Cinderella moment, as the Tigers came out struggling on Thursday and trailed with under eight minutes to go, before pulling out an 81-70 win.
Wednesday, 11 a.m., Mason-Halpin Fieldhouse, Rockhurst University
The Sprint Center, where Memphis will play on Thursday, is a transparent orb with an exterior of 139,932 square feet of glass panels, less than two years old and overwhelmingly modern in style. Mason-Halpin Fieldhouse, where the Tigers are practicing on Wednesday, five miles to the south, is the opposite: Built in 1939, it has a stone exterior and a wood-paneled interior that's straight out of a basement rec room. The team picture for Division II Rockhurst hangs on one wall, and six rows of seats -- chairs on the sides, bleachers on the ends -- line a sunken court. It's beautifully retro, all the way down to the BASKETBALL SHOES ONLY ON FLOOR sign bordering the parquet surface.
Memphis coach John Calipari is the first one off the Refuse To Lose Express -- the Tigers' lead bus has the coach's signature slogan plastered on its front and back -- and the first one through the door. Westminster College, a school from Salt Lake City playing in the NAIA tournament in town, is finishing up its practice, and its players linger to gawk at the Tigers as they trickle onto the court.
Calipari gathers his team around him after they finish stretching, and sets the tone. "Last year the first two days were hard," he says, "because everyone said it was Final Four or bust for us. It's not like that this time. Nobody is expecting you to get there. You've got nothing out in front of you. Everything we do from here on, is just letting it go."
I had imagined that Calipari would play the no-respect card harder, but this message is of a different ilk, focused more on playing free of the weight of heavy expectations. President Obama may have put the Tigers in his Final Four, but there is less stress on them in the year after Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts lifted the team to a No. 1 national ranking. Being free and easy as a coach during the NCAAs is impossible, though; a few minutes later, Calipari stops a full-court drill and takes forward Shawn Taggart to task for dogging it. "Did he go as hard as everyone else?" Calipari asks the team, and then says to Taggart, "You've gotta act cool, don't you. This weekend is a big weekend. We don't have time for B.S."
Later, when Calipari stops a play to forcefully remind sixth man Wesley Witherspoon that he must talk on offense, the coach then asks his team a rhetorical question. "This stuff now," he says, "is about what?"
Calipari then makes a "W" sign -- by joining his hands at the thumbs and sticking his pinky fingers out -- and then puts it on his forehead.
"Winning," he says, and so do the players, but more quietly.
There are 20-30 people scattered about stands -- including a few Rockhurst students who wandered in -- and a couple of visitors with ties to the Tigers. Standing courtside is Calvin Thompson, who played on Kansas' 1986 Final Four team while Calipari an assistant there under Larry Brown, and now lives in the area. Thompson gets introduced to the team by Calipari with a one-line scouting report: "This guy shot the ball every time he had it."
Looking on from one of the passageways down to Mason-Halpin's court is Jawan Davis, a junior on the Rockhurst team who had been warmly greeted by Memphis' Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier and Roburt Sallie when they saw him in the hall. They all played together at Laurinburg (N.C.) Prep in 2004-05, but hadn't been in much regular contact since. "I was expecting them to have turned into superstars," Davis says, "but they saw me and they were asking how I was doing, if I was getting minutes, all that stuff."
Soon the Tigers would board their bus to the Sprint Center for their NCAA-mandated public practice -- which ended six and a half minutes before their allotted time was up, with them doing a half-court shooting contest. Here at Rockhurst, though, the tone is more serious. Memphis runs through every step of Northridge's Carolina-style break, as well as the Matadors' halfcourt box sets and out-of-bounds plays.
When the Tigers switch to late-game scenarios, one of the plays they work on is a full-courter intended to generate a game-winning three-pointer. "There's five seconds left," Calipari tells them, "and I'm not calling a timeout." Ironically, in the press conference later that day, he'd be asked about his decision not to call a timeout during the final seconds of regulation in last year's national title game. Here, the scenario is different: The Tigers, and not Kansas, have the ball. "They're shooting free throws, miss or make, we're running this," Calipari tells them. "I'm not calling a timeout."
Anderson races up the floor with the ball, and hits Sallie in the right-hand corner with a pass. Sallie swishes the three.
7:28 p.m. Wednesday, Salon III, Floor B, Intercontinental Hotel
The Tigers' evening walk-thru will be lit by chandeliers -- four massive fixtures hanging from the ceiling of a vast ballroom in the Intercontinental. Freshman Tyreke Evans, the point guard who has led them on a 25-0 run to close the season, is asleep on the floor, a few minutes before it's set to start. Assistant coach Josh Pastner nudges Evans to wake him up and says, jokingly, "Nice picture of you in USA Today this morning. Maybe now you'll be able to get a girlfriend."
This hotel business isn't S.O.P. for the Tigers, who typically take a charter flight into a city the night before a road game, go straight to the arena and conduct a walkthrough, then do another walkthrough the next morning. But their first-round game's early start time -- 11:25 a.m. CT -- combined with the fact that the NCAA only allows teams to touch basketballs an hour before tip, has relegated them to the Intercontinental, where a crude outline of a lane is taped on the floor. Most players are in shorts and sandals, but guard Doneal Mack stands out with Polo pajama pants.
Assistant coach John Robic, the point man on the Tigers' scouting reports, says they rely primarily on context. "We try to relate things to teams that we've already played," Robic says. "It's a quicker reference point for these guys in a shorter amount of time."
Therefore, the reference point for Northridge's offensive box sets is UAB, which runs similar sets; and the reference for the Matadors' extended, gambling pressure is UTEP, which, they're reminded, goes after every ball, but can be gashed through the middle by a strong penetrator.
"[Calipari] doesn't inundate them with other teams' stuff," Robic says. "They haven't seen any film on Northridge yet, and won't see it until tomorrow at the pregame meal. We're not a big film team."
Instead they go through every step on foot, working on defending positioning, and "stunting" drivers. The game plan is centered around stopping "33," who isn't given a name (it's Tremaine Townsend). It's imperative, Calipari says, for Dozier not to allow Townsend to easily catch the ball.
Robic, Pastner and Orlando Antigua, the third assistant, are among those on the scout team walking through Northridge's plays. At one point Calpari points to Robic, who's emulating the Matadors' point guard, and says, "This is the guy from Tulsa. You guys played against him. Antonio, do you remember him?"
Anderson says no. They all say no. The name of the guy from Tulsa is Mark Hill.
7:45 a.m. Thursday, Dining room, P Level, Intercontinental Hotel
Breakfast time. Omelettes. Bacon. Pancakes. Fresh fruit. O.J. A sign says "Bus 9:40." A Sony flatscreen is set up with Robic's scouting presentation, which begins just after 8 a.m., once the players have loaded their plates and Bill Lofton, the Associate AD for finance, has distributed their stipend envelopes.
Robic's report opens with a series of text-only frames, covering the Matadors' personnel. Anderson is assigned to shooting guard Rob Haynes ("probably their most athletic guy"); Evans has small forward Kenny Daniels ("play him as a driver, not a shooter"); Dozier has Townsend ("he's the one they try to run everything through in the Carolina break"). Taggart has utility man Willie Galick ("an offensive rebounder, will go for loose balls"), and Mack has Hill, the point guard, or reserve Rodrigue Mels ("this kid has been playing real well of late -- he scored 28, 23 in his final two games").
Finally, they turn to to the film, all from Northridge's Big West title game win over Pacific, which aired on ESPN2 Saturday. The clips start with Townsend, and then the UAB-style box sets. The Tigers only watch three minutes and 28 seconds of film, total -- and this is the only video they've seen of Northridge all week. Like Robic said, they're not a big film team.
The last bit of business at hand -- before a prayer session in the corner of the room -- is deciding what to eat for the postgame meal.
Lofton is mulling over a trip to California Pizza Kitchen. Robic confers with Anderson, the team leader and elder statesmen, who says they'd like to return at the Intercontinental and eat the spread there at 3 p.m. Anderson also has one request for the staff: "Make sure the chicken tenders aren't overdone."
11 a.m. Thursday, Memphis locker room, Sprint Center
The Sprint Center was built, it seems, to lure an NBA team to Kansas City, as its locker rooms are palatial, with multiple sections and lounges. Memphis' assistants are hanging out together in one room, watching ESPN on three flat screens. Antigua makes a phone call, and says, "The game's on in 22 minutes. Figured I'd remind you, so you can catch it online." His brother's in Acapulco for a bachelor party, and is going to monitor the game through March Madness On Demand. Pastner checks the text messages on his phone, and sees one come in from Brandon Jennings, the point guard who had committed to Arizona while Pastner was an assistant there, but then opted to be a trailblazer and play in Rome instead. It's 6 p.m. in Italy, and Jennings just wants to say good luck. Might March Madness be making him homesick?
In the main locker room, Calipari comes in and asks, "Who's got two logos on their socks?" There is a minor crisis because the NCAA only allows one logo, and multiple Tigers have two Swooshes showing. It's solved by having them just roll down the socks.
When Calipari addresses the team the before they take the court prior to the national anthem, he says, "The most important thing is to play like you're in practice. From this point on, this is what we're doing every time we walk out. Forget everything else. Just think, I'm in practice.
"The second thing is, you're going to be bashing people. You're not going to try to go out and be exciting, you're trying to bash people."
Robic runs through the scouting details once more. Calipari re-addresses them before they take the court. "I don't care what defense they're in," he says, "attack." He has four goals that need to be met for a win: 40 percent shooting, plus-six rebounding margin, 16 assists and 10 steals. "Expect these guys to come after you," he says. "Expect them to play well. If they can for 40, then it's been a hell of a year. But if you play like you play in practice, you won't let them beat you."
Calipari reminds them one more thing before they huddle as a team: "I don't want anyone in this tournament having any more fun than we have."
11:25 a.m., Thursday, Sprint Center court: The game
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There's no joy on the Memphis bench early on, as they fall into an 11-4 hole, and play tight -- very much unlike they do in practice. Evans picks up his second foul with 13:01 left in the first half, and has to go to the pine, where Calipari admonishes him ("You just got yourself out for a half. Real smart.") Dozier misses defensive assignments in transition, and Calipari lays into them at half. "He called the guys out," Pastner says. "Guys weren't playing at the levels we're used to seeing them play at. Everybody but Sallie and Taggart. They saved us in the first half."
Especially Sallie, who knocks down five of his seven three-point attempts to score 17 of Memphis' 34 points, and give them a 34-31 lead. Tigers coaches had joked in the breakfast about Sallie's level of alertness in the morning -- he had been a notoriously slow starter in early C-USA games -- but he's having zero problems in this game.
Sallie cannot make Northridge go away on his own, though, and they hang around for an uncomfortably long time, leading the game 64-63 with 8:10 left. The small faction of CSN fans -- only 15-20 strong -- holds up signs that read CINDERELLA STATE NORTHRIDGE and DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES, and the longer the Matadors fight, the bigger their cheering section becomes, growing to include the local Kansas fans who rooted against the Tigers last April.
Suddenly Northridge is within reach of becoming the first 15 seed to beat a No. 2 since Hampton over Iowa State in 2001. The kid from Tulsa whom the Tigers hadn't remembered, Mark Hill, is lighting them up for 13 points and six assists, against just one turnover. At one point Daniels crosses over Evans on the perimeter, And-1 Mixtape style, and sends him falling backwards to the floor. Calipari had told them, on Wednesday, "If Northridge goes zone, you need to attack it like it's man to man, and not get flat-footed" -- but they don't start doing that until late, and finally pull away to a 78-68 lead with 1:32 left.
Sallie, who saves them again and again from beyond the arc, scores a career-high 35 points, but none of them need to come on a last-second play, with Calipari refusing to call a timeout. He finishes the game with two timeouts in his pocket, fewer than usual -- a sign of tumultuous first-round ride. The Tigers meet three of his four goals, shooting 49.2 percent, assisting on 19 baskets and stealing the ball 14 times. (Their plus-three rebounding margin -- 35-32 -- is not up to snuff.) Afterwards, in the locker room, the hope is that Memphis has gotten the jitters out of its system, and can play free and easy the rest of the way.
Sallie, Dozier and Anderson return from the press conference, laughing about Evans getting crossed over and sent stumbling. "Where's 'Reke at?" they ask, ready to rib their freshman star. His spill might be the only tape they'll review, strictly for amusement. The rest of this frightening Thursday is better forgotten.