Memphis Basketball Point-Counterpoint: Can the Tigers Make the Final Four?

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IMarch 2, 2009

It's fashionable for the media and fans alike to speculate this time of year whether or not the local or favorite team will receive an NCAA Tournament berth at all (for bubble teams) or how deep they will advance in the tourney.


It’s difficult for true fans to be objective in the matter. In fact, in many circles, it is sacrilege to be anything except obsessively optimistic about your team’s chances. Forget that the team star just broke his arm or that the team has a losing conference record.


Come March Madness, the home town (or state, in some instances) team is going to catch fire and prove all the detractors wrong!


Memphis fans, in particular, have a (richly deserved) reputation as blue Kool-Aid drinking zealots, loyal to the point of irrationality. While that’s not all bad, as any elite team needs that sort of fan to invigorate them, it can be irritating at times.


As Memphis fans demand recognition for the program’s recent successes, the actions of some make it that much more difficult for the nation at large to stomach what’s going on here.


Respect is earned, after all. Good sportsmanship, graceful acceptance of defeat, objectivity, and dignity go a long way. Sometimes that is lacking with Tiger fans, but the same could be said of any team’s fans.


So, in an effort to speak for the thousands of Memphis Tigers fans who try to remain open-minded and realistic about the team’s chances to advance to this year’s Final Four, or perhaps even beyond, I offer this point-counterpoint session to allow avid basketball fans across the nation an opportunity to analyze the team’s relative strengths and weaknesses:




Point 1: The 2008-09 Tigers Are the Best Defensive Team in the Country


There is very little to argue about in this regard. This team flat-out gets after it on the defensive side. No one has scored more than 79 points against them in a single game, and that was Georgetown way back on Dec. 13. The Hoyas actually scored 70 in regulation, nine more in overtime.


The highest regulation point total was 75 by Lamar (of all teams).


No team in the month of February has scored more than 66 points in a single game against the Tigers.


In fact, here are the opponents’ final point totals for February contests with Memphis: 66, 50, 37, 47, 47, 63, 60, and 42. Among that number was Gonzaga (50), one of the most efficient offenses in the country (No. 10 nationally, according to the Pomeroy Ratings), and Alabama-Birmingham (60), Conference USA’s leader in field-goal percentage and points per game.


The Memphis defense is performing at near historic levels. Opponents are being held to a stingy 58.6 points per game, while shooting just 37.1 percent per contest, and only 30.5 percent from three-point range. According to the Pomeroy Ratings, the Tigers give up 80.6 points per 100 possessions. This is by far the lowest figure recorded in that statistic since Pomeroy began to calculate it in 2006.


The Pomeroy Ratings tend to substantiate that dominant defensive teams trump strong offensive teams in the NCAA Tournament. No Final Four team since 2006 has been ranked lower than 19 in the Pomeroy defensive rankings; offenses ranked 28, 49, and 50, however, have made it, all on the strength of top 20 (Nos. 3, 18, and 4, respectively) defenses.




Counterpoint 1: The Tigers' "D" Has To Be Historic To Overcome a Pedestrian Offense


The Memphis Attack has, by most any measure, sputtered considerably this season. For instance, the flip side of the low point totals by opponents in February would be the low point totals by the Tigers during the same span. There was the high of 90, achieved against Southern Mississippi on Feb. 18; other than that, they scored 79, 68, 63, 72, 70, 71, and 58.


Not exactly setting the world on fire.


Memphis itself is shooting just 44.3 percent from the floor overall, and an anemic 32.8 percent from behind the arc. Memphis makes 6.2 treys per contest, while Tiger opponents connect on 4.8 per outing, far from an overwhelming advantage.


According to the Pomeroy Ratings, Memphis is No. 42 in the country in offensive efficiency, scoring 111.9 points per 100 possessions. This is a good but certainly not elite figure.


Traditionally, National Title contenders show better balance between defense and offense. The Kansas Jayhawks of 2007-08 were first in Pomeroy defensive efficiency (82.8 points per 100, the lowest ever figure in that department) and second in offensive ranking (125.3).


Florida in 2006-07 was No. 12 in defensive efficiency and first offensively. The season before, the Gators were fifth (defensive) and second (offensive). Other Final Four teams displayed similar balance. Only George Mason in 2006 (No. 18 defensive, No. 49 offensive) was not ranked in the top 10 in either Pomeroy statistic and still made the Final Four.


Though Memphis would not be a shock to make the Final Four with an offense in the 40s or so, at the present time better balanced teams like North Carolina (No. 19 defensive, first offensive), UConn (three and 15 respectively), Duke (eight, six), and Kansas (seven, 17) would seem to be safer bets.




Point 2: Memphis Has Played a More Difficult Schedule Than Given Credit for


Memphis is always questioned because of the relative weakness of Conference USA. This argument has some merit, as C-USA is ranked No. 10 in conference RPI, and eighth in Pomeroy total conference ratings.


However, Memphis cannot control what the rest of the conference does. The Tigers can merely schedule as well as they can out-of-conference (OOC) and then win as many C-USA games as possible.


The Memphis Tigers are holding up their end of the bargain on all counts.


The Tigers 2008-09 OOC slate is ranked No. 49 in both RPI and Pomeroy ratings. Memphis has tackled Xavier, Georgetown, and Syracuse (all early-season losses). There were significant victories over Seton Hall, Cincinnati, Tennessee (on the road), and Gonzaga (also on the road).


Additionally, not every C-USA team is a patsy. Memphis has played home-and-home against Tulsa and UAB, teams that would be NCAA bubble teams if they participated in any other league in the country. Memphis has already swept both UAB (No. 32 Pomeroy, No. 43 RPI) and Tulsa (No. 54 Pomeroy, No. 61 RPI).


Houston (Nos. 56 and 94, respectively) has fallen in Memphis, with a contest Wednesday night at Hofheinz Arena. The Tigers have already clipped Texas-El Paso (88, 89) on the road.


The Tigers’ worst losses were at home to Syracuse (by seven) and on the road to Georgetown (in overtime, by nine). How does this compare to other members of the national elite?


North Carolina has lost games to Boston College (61 Pomeroy, 50 RPI) and Maryland (60 Pomeroy, 58 RPI). UConn lost at home to the same team that Memphis lost to on the road, Georgetown (20 Pomeroy, 40 RPI). Pittsburgh was tripped up by Providence (71 in both Pomeroy and RPI).


Duke numbers losses to Michigan (62 Pomeroy, 47 RPI), Clemson by 27 points (19, 15), and Boston College (61, 50). Kansas lost to the same Syracuse team (24, 25) that beat Memphis, in addition to losing to UMass (149, 162), whom Memphis evaporated, 80-58.


Louisville, a chic Final Four choice in recent weeks, has taken it on the chin at the hands of Western Kentucky (104 Pomeroy, 56 RPI), Minnesota (47, 37), UNLV (48, 52), and Notre Dame (31, 68). The Notre Dame loss was by 33 points (90-57), and no team that has won the National Title has ever lost by 30 or more points in the same season.


Add to all of this the fact that Memphis is undefeated (20-0) since moving Tyreke Evans to the lead guard position.


I’m not saying that Memphis is as good as or better than any team that I have listed.


But, everyone else in the country has some questionable blemishes on their record, so there is no need to punish the Tigers more severely than anyone else for them. The Tigers don’t get blown out, and they don’t lose to teams that they are supposed to beat, as the 56 consecutive conference wins substantiates.




Counterpoint 2: The Weakness of the Conference Simply Cannot Be Overlooked


It's difficult to look at the Memphis Tigers and merely gloss over the flaws of Conference USA. No, this hasn’t “caught up with” the team over the past three seasons, but what they are doing is historically unprecedented and surely will end sooner or later, if the rest of the conference doesn’t close the gap between themselves and Memphis.


Besides Memphis, there is no other team in the conference in the top 25 of either of the wire rankings, the Pomeroy Ratings, or the RPI. The closest would be UAB, which checks in, as mentioned, at No. 32, according to Pomeroy, and No. 43 in RPI. That would put the Blazers squarely on the bubble, at best, particularly with their borderline OOC (64 Pomeroy, 67 RPI).


The conference has four teams that are below 150 in both the Pomeroy Ratings and RPI: Tulane (161 Pomeroy, 205 RPI), East Carolina (198, 208), Rice (222, 217), and SMU (208, 268).


Three more are below 100 in both listings, namely Southern Mississippi (164, 125), Marshall (142, 138), and Central Florida (109, 149).


Tulsa, UTEP, and Houston are all between 50 and 100 in both Pomeroy and RPI rankings. Tulsa checks in at Nos. 54 and 61, UTEP at 88 and 89, and Houston at 56 and 94. Tulsa won last year’s inaugural College Basketball Invitational (CBI) Tournament—which invited teams that even the NIT passed over—and instead of positioning themselves for an NIT or NCAA berth this season, they may be back to defend their CBI crown.


So, yes, 24-3 looks wonderful on paper. The Tigers are just two wins away from a third consecutive 16-0 Conference USA slate. This can be misleading.


Additionally, on the few occasions that Memphis has met major conference opposition, the team has lost. Early season or not, the Tigers lost to Georgetown (6-10, tied for 11th in the Big East) and Syracuse (9-7, tied for seventh in the same conference). Xavier leads the ninth-rated, mid-major Atlantic 10 by a mere one-half game over Rhode Island.


The Tigers may yet play deep into March. However, the body of work that they have put together simply doesn’t stack up impressively when compared to other elite teams. The AP (fifth) and ESPN Coaches’ Poll (third) rankings are largely a reflection of the fact that they have not been losing to other members of the top 25...because they have not been playing other top 25 teams.


It may not be their fault, but the fact remains that Memphis has not played a probable NCAA team since defeating Gonzaga on Feb. 7.




Final Analysis


Memphis is an excellent team with a resume that indicates that success in March would be no surprise. It is not certain, but there are no guarantees about the NCAA tourney.


Predicting what teams will make the Final Four is a subjective process, no matter how you slice it. It's just like creating a “Sexiest Women Alive” list—it all depends on what an individual finds attractive.


Some basketball fans (including the author) like to quote the Pomeroy Ratings as evidence of a team’s worth. Yet, Ken Pomeroy himself offers this disclaimer on his Web site:


“The first thing you should know about this system is that it is designed to be purely predictive. If you’re looking for a system that rates teams on how 'good' their season has been, you’ve come to the wrong place. There are enough systems out there that rank teams based on what is 'good' by just about any definition you can think of. So I’d encourage you to Google college basketball ratings or even try the opinion polls for something that is more your style.”


Some swear by a team’s RPI. Others rely on the AP and Coaches’ polls. Still others follow any of a half-dozen or more specialized rating systems. Perhaps some mathematically gifted fans have systems of their own.


Many so-called “old school” fans rely strictly on the "eye test." Does the team look good when they play on TV? Has the team defeated enough high-level competition to be considered a threat? Can the team win on the road? Have they had any bad losses?


It’s really rather sad that many fans resort to mud-slinging, name-calling, and conspiracy theories instead of letting the facts speak for themselves.


Speculating should be fun and mentally stimulating, not a means for polarizing fan bases. If we all love college basketball, we should be able to examine the facts in a calm, rational way.


Memphis should advance very far this postseason, but if they do not, it will not be because of the poor conference competition. If the Tigers make the Final Four (which I think they will), it will not have a thing to do with their RPI or Pomeroy ratings.


It will be because they out-scored their competitors on any given night during the Big Dance. They are more than capable of doing exactly that six times this March, which would produce a National Championship.