Sunday, July 18, 2004

Journey has made Pilgrim stronger


Purcell product looks forward to helping UC

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Mike Pilgrim keeps telling himself that everything works out for the best in the long run and that adversity will only make him stronger.

That's how he feels now that he's back in good standing as a member of the University of Cincinnati basketball program, but it wasn't so easy to adopt that attitude last winter when he saw his freshman season go up in smoke.

Pilgrim, a 6-foot-7 forward from Brewster (N.H.) Academy and Purcell Marian High School, began the season by suffering a stress fracture in his foot early in preseason practice, then discovered in January that he had been declared an academic non-qualifier because of questions over his test scores, rendering him ineligible to play as a freshman.

He can get that year back if he earns his degree in the next three years.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I think anything was going to happen like that," Pilgrim said, "but I think it worked out for the best. With all the struggles, there's always progress."

Pilgrim said he tried to keep his game sharp by playing in pickup games around town whenever he could find suitable competition. But that's not the same as participating in structured practices.

"For me, or any competitor, not to play is very heartbreaking," Pilgrim said. "Knowing that you can't do anything about it is pretty much what I was dealing with, just seeing everybody else out there having fun playing a game they love, playing for UC and coach Bob Huggins. That put a damper on my year."

Pilgrim, who averaged 13.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots at Brewster in 2002-03, said he probably wouldn't have come back to play last year, that he would have chosen to take a redshirt because of his foot injury.

Still, he said he was "shocked" to learn about the discrepancy over his test scores.

But that's all over now. He did the academic work he needed to become eligible and says he's looking forward to playing for UC this season.

"I don't feel like I lost anything," he said. "I'm building up my strength. I'm stronger now than I was last year and I'm hungrier than ever. Whatever the team needs me to play, I'm going to play."

Through it all, Pilgrim said, he never doubted that he eventually would get to play for UC, which could have awarded his scholarship to someone else this season.

"They were real loyal," Pilgrim said. "They always told me a scholarship was there for me."

BEYOND NO. 1? Memphis coach John Calipari, never at a loss for words, is expecting big things this season as the Tigers move into the new, 18,400-seat FedExForum they'll share with the NBA's Grizzlies.

And he's never shy about reminding anyone who will listen how good the Tigers could have been if not for early NBA defections.

"You now have other teams around the country going through what we were going through the past three years," Calipari said, "with players either not coming or leaving early. We had four players do that, and if those four were playing, we'd be the consensus No. 1 team in the country right now. We'd be way beyond No. 1."

Among the Tigers' losses were Dajuan Wagner, Amare Stoudemire, Kendrick Perkins and Qyntel Woods.

Memphis will leave The Pyramid, its home court since 1991-92, with a 21-game home-court winning streak, the nation's fourth longest.

The Tigers were 173-42 at The Pyramid.

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E-mail bkoch@enquirer.com




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