First Year's A Charm
March 26, 2001
By JOSH DUBOW
NEW YORK - John Calipari knows firsthand what a trip to the NIT semifinals can do for a young team.
The first-year Memphis coach used an NIT run 10 years ago at Massachusetts as a springboard for a team that made five straight NCAA tournament berths, capped by a Final Four appearance in 1996.
"This is good for our team," Calipari said Monday. "This is the best thing that can happen for a team on the rise. This tournament has helped a lot of teams get over the hump."
Seven of the final eight teams from last year's NIT made it to the NCAAs this season, led by round-of-16 teams Penn State and Mississippi.
That's a fact all four coaches in the NIT semifinals know well as they prepare for Tuesday's games. Detroit (25-10) plays Alabama (24-10) in the first game, followed by Memphis (20-14) against Tulsa (24-11).
"When you realize that you're one of only eight teams left playing in the country, it's an honor," said Detroit coach Perry Watson, who went to two Final Fours as an assistant at Michigan.
The NIT marks a turnaround for Calipari, who was fired two years ago by the New Jersey Nets after going 72-112 in two-plus seasons. Despite the ending, Calipari learned from his time in the NBA.
"I'm more calm now but there is still fire in my belly," said Calipari, whose rah-rah style didn't resonate with professional players. "The NBA was a great experience for me. I wouldn't trade the experience, but I might trade some of the people."
Calipari has resurrected Memphis, leading the Tigers to their first 20-win season in five years and putting together one of the top recruiting classes in the country.
Dajuan Wagner, the son of former Louisville star and NBA player Milt Wagner, is the most prominent player in the class, having scored 100 points in a game for Camden (N.J.) High School this season.
Wagner is in North Carolina with his father - who is also on Calipari's staff - for the McDonald's High School All-American game and might make it to Madison Square Garden on Thursday for the championship game.
The rebuilding is progressing even quicker than it did at UMass for Calipari. After a 10-18 record in his first season in 1988-89, Calipari went to the NIT the next two seasons, finishing fourth in 1990-91.
The Minutemen then went to the NCAA regional semifinals in 1992, the second round in 1993 and 1994, the regional finals in 1995 and the Final Four in his last season with the Minutemen.
While this final four lacks the big stage and notoriety surrounding the 1996 trip across the Hudson River at the Meadowlands, it marks a big step for a school that didn't even make the NIT the past two seasons.
"This works better for us in terms of building a team," Calipari said. "We probably would have lost in the first round of the NCAAs. Now we have something we can build on."
Tuesday's first game matches two schools that hoped for an at-large bid for the NCAAs but were denied, in part, because of their inability to win away from home.
The NIT has given both teams a chance to prove otherwise. The Titans have gone on the road to win at Bradley, Connecticut and Dayton.
The Crimson Tide only needed to pass one road test to make it to New York. But it was a difficult one, as Alabama took two overtimes to win 85-77 at Purdue.
"We were disappointed, obviously," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said of
the NCAA snub. "We watched the show thinking we would be part of the brackets.
But this might be best for our young team."