Photo © 2010, Leroy Watson, Jr.
Memphis Tiger basketball fans, spoiled by only 10 losses in three glorious years, are starting to get antsy, as the current edition of the Tigers checks in with a 15-6 record.
Of course, there is also this matter of the conference winning streak that was snapped at 64 games. Though it tied the longest run in NCAA Division I history, some are focusing only on the fact that Memphis did not break the record.
After seven Conference USA tilts this season, Josh Pastner and his Tigers are “only” 5-2.
For a little perspective, though, try on this Pastner quote for size:
“Here’s the bottom line: we’ve got a lot of basketball to be played,” he said emphatically. “We took it right on the chin on Saturday. I know a lot of people in the community are saying, ‘This is just awful.’
“Stop. STOP! You think back in April that we’d be 15-6 at this point, and one game out of first place, and people would be jumping up and down on Beale Street. I mean, those are the facts.”
Care to try to argue with that logic?
With just 10 scholarship players on the roster (including the injured Angel Garcia) and only six players with D-I experience (including Elliot Williams, pictured, whose experience was at Duke, not Memphis), what else, really, would have been a fair expectation for this team?
If anything, the Tigers might be overachievers.
As if Pastner hasn’t been compared to his predecessor enough, it is helpful to consider John Calipari’s maiden campaign at the helm of the basketball program.
The future Hall of Famer struggled to a 10-6 mark in C-USA, and the team only finished 22-15 overall.
Consider, though, that after being dispatched from the C-USA Tournament, 89-79 by old nemesis Cincinnati, Memphis was a mere 17-14 for the year. A run to the NIT Final Four and a win in the final consolation game catapulted the Tigers to their final mark.
Calipari had to make do with one blossoming star (junior power forward Kelly Wise, who often had to play out-of-position at the five spot), some youngsters who struggled more than they shone (Earl Barron, Shyrone Chatman, John Grice, and Scooter McFadgon, chief among them), and a bunch of role players.
Calipari brought in a slew of newcomers for the 2001-’02 campaign. Leading the way was All-Everything guard DaJuan Wagner, who promptly led Memphis to the NIT title.
But don’t think he did it alone. Barron, McFadgon, and Wise were still there, and when mated with the burly low post brute, Chris Massie, the frontcourt shone like new money.
The speedy, erratic Antonio Burks was on board for the NIT champions, too, although he was not a dominant figure on the team at that point. Freshman Anthony Rice brought his three-point range to the table and had a modest impact on the team, as well.
In short, a dramatic infusion of talent also led to a significant upgrade in number of wins (27) and the prestige of being one of only two Division I teams to end their season on a winning note, along with 2001 NCAA Champion, Duke.
That leaves great hope for 2010-’11, but what about the remainder of this season?
With UAB’s weekend loss to UTEP, no one in Conference USA remains undefeated in league play. As Pastner pointed out, the Tigers are just one game out of first place, alone in fourth place behind 6-1 UAB, Tulsa, and UTEP.
Memphis still plays both UAB and Tulsa twice, while the Miners still have to travel to Tulsa, Southern Mississippi, and Marshall, while also taking on UAB twice.
In other words, folks, the conference race is wide open. Memphis is far from dead yet.
“I’m going to try to stay really upbeat and positive,” Pastner emphasized. “We’re as good as anyone in this league. We can beat anyone on any given night, just like anyone can beat us on any given night. That’s the way the league is.”
The coach also projected what record the Tigers—or anyone else, for that matter—would have to achieve in order to win the C-USA regular season title.
“I think 13-3 will probably win the conference,” he said, “Or, at least share a tie of it. Maybe even down to 12-4. But I think 13-3 will at least share a tie for the conference (title).”
Tiger players are trying to bounce back from the loss, knowing that they can ill-afford many more slip-ups in conference play.
“They (SMU) were just a better team (Saturday),” said senior point guard Willie Kemp. “We’ve just gotta find our identity. We’ve lost some games that we should’ve won, so we’ve got to just come together and try to get better.
“We’ve just gotta try to keep everybody positive. (I need to be a) coach off the floor when we’re (not) around the coaches. I’m doing everything I can to keep everybody together, and I try to keep everyone together when (the coaches) are not around.”
Star junior guard Elliot Williams, shackled by SMU and harassed into only six points in the second half of the Mustangs' 70-60 victory, realizes that his team has to keep its collective chin up despite the upset loss.
“The team is let down after a loss like that,” Williams began somberly. “But we’ve got a lot of basketball left. Our goals are still not out of reach. We’ve got to still keep playing ball.”
Some offensive balance would help.
Williams (19), junior guard Roburt Sallie (17), and senior guard Doneal Mack (16) combined for 52 of the Tigers’ 60 points.
That’s right; the other five members of the Memphis rotation combined for eight points.
Even more distressing, though, is the team’s inability to close out opponents in the second half of conference games.
Through seven C-USA matchups, Memphis has outscored the opposition by 50 points (252-202) in the first half. In fact, the Tigers have yet to trail at halftime of a league game this season, the closest being a 39-39 halftime tie with Houston on January 23rd.
The closing period has been a dramatically different story, however. Though Memphis actually increases scoring output to 258 points, the opposition swells forward to 271, leaving Memphis a -13 cumulative score.
Is fatigue a factor?
“Someone asked me the other day, with us not playing a lot of guys, is that catching up to us?” Pastner mused out loud. “And I wonder, because you look at it in conference (play), we are +50 in the first half, and -13 in the second half.
“But I tell our guys, 'I don’t want to hear that as an excuse, because you have the mental and physical abilities that have been given to you to do unbelievable things. It is a privilege. You’ve got to be able to fight through that and suck it up.'”
The next chance to gut out a conference win is Wednesday night at the FedEx Forum against their always-tough rival, the Alabama-Birmingham Blazers. The winner will remain squarely in the forefront of the league race. The loser will be facing the mounting pressure to keep pace in a suddenly competitive Conference USA.
Leroy Watson, Jr. is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist as well as a credentialed writer for Rivals, assigned to cover the Memphis Tigers for both entities