GU, Memphis Face the Music

John Calipari
Coach John Calipari's phone won't stop ringing with people looking for a ticket to Saturday's sold-out game. (Chip East - Reuters)
By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

MEMPHIS, Dec. 20 -- John Calipari has enough to worry about this week, what with fifth-ranked Georgetown coming to town to face his second-ranked Memphis Tigers, but his phone just won't stop ringing. This latest call, on Thursday afternoon, is from his friend and coaching colleague Doc Rivers.

Rivers, like so many others, is looking for a ticket to Saturday's sold-out game. He needs one for his wife, who will be there to watch their son, Jeremiah, a sophomore guard for Georgetown. Calipari promises to help.

It's been like this for days for Calipari. A capacity crowd of 18,400 is expected at FedEx Forum to watch the first game this season that involves two teams ranked among the nation's top five. He says that "we're just jamming seats in everywhere," to try to keep up with the demand, and that he's even heard rumors that tickets in the lower bowl were being sold for $3,000 apiece on

"Can you imagine? That's like a Super Bowl ticket," Calipari said, shaking his head. "Come on."

But this is the first time that Memphis has hosted a game involving two top-five teams. Both the Tigers (9-0) and Hoyas (8-0) have veteran squads that advanced deep into last season's NCAA tournament and have high expectations for this season.

Memphis's media relations department has issued between 75 to 85 credentials (of which 15 will go to NBA scouts) for the game, nearly double the amount it would for a regular season conference game. The Memphis football team faces Florida Atlantic in the New Orleans Bowl on Friday night, and assistant media relations director Lamar Chance knows of some fans who are planning to attend the football game and then wake up at 4 a.m. on Saturday to drive the 400 miles back to Memphis in time for tip-off.

"We haven't really had a lot of national attention with our games. To have this game, everybody's been marking this game down in their calendars for a long time," Georgetown junior guard Jessie Sapp said. "For the showdown to finally come is exciting. I live for it. I love it."

But players on both teams are trying to take the attitude that this is just another game against just another opponent.

"We just take it as a regular game," Memphis junior guard Antonio Anderson said. "We're not looking at the name on the jersey or what they did last year."

Said Georgetown senior forward Patrick Ewing Jr.: "Y'all are making it into a bigger deal than it needs to be. It's just another game. It's a game just as big as the other games we've played so far."

But the outcome of this game could become relevant in March, particularly if the two teams are vying for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, according to Jerry Palm, who runs the Web site

"This game could be what decides that," Palm said. "It's more important for Memphis, because if Georgetown loses, they have more chances to play against good teams in the Big East. Memphis has limited opportunities to play against good teams, because their conference doesn't provide them with that."

Indeed, that's one reason Calipari has created such a challenging nonconference schedule; his blueprint is designed, he said, "with one thing in mind: trying to get the highest seed in the NCAA tournament." So the Tigers, who are 29-1 in Conference USA over the past two seasons combined, have already played No. 25 USC, and they will host No. 19 Arizona (Dec. 29), No. 18 Gonzaga (Jan. 26) and No. 12 Tennessee (Feb. 23) in the coming weeks.

"The reason you play games like this is you need to do two things: you're trying to get your team better, but you're also trying to learn about your team," Calipari said. "You can't do it against Popcorn State."

Calipari's other goal is to play against teams that play different styles, so the Tigers are prepared for everything at tournament time. Thus far, they've played one team that used exclusively man-to-man defense (Connecticut), another that played a 2-3 zone with size (Oklahoma), and another that used a triangle-and-two (USC). Against Georgetown, Calipari expects to see a 2-3 zone with some man-to-man mixed in, and he is curious to see how his team will respond on defense.

"You're playing against a Princeton [offense]. Are we good enough defensively to play it?" Calipari said. "Now you're playing against a ball-control team, not a team that's trying to hold the ball. We've played teams that don't play that way but tried to against us. Now this team clearly plays this way."

Georgetown Coach John Thompson III also sees the value in playing teams with different styles, and putting his players in situations that will help them later in the season. The Hoyas haven't played against man-to-man defenses all that much this season, but will see that against Memphis. The Tigers have perhaps the biggest backcourt that Georgetown will face this season, with Anderson (6 feet 6), junior Chris Douglas-Roberts (6-7) and freshman Derrick Rose (6-3). Thompson wants to see how his players handle the Tigers' pressure.

"There's a lot of talk, a lot of hype about this game, and it probably should be," Thompson said. "At the same time, what we try to focus on is, okay, that's out there, great. Let's do what we do, how we do it, whether there's a lot of attention or no attention. It's about how we do things and just getting that mental toughness. Regardless of who the opposition is, we have to approach things the same way. . . . If we're going to be good, we have to get to that level of understanding where it's all about us."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company