Friday, February 15, 2013

Contender or Pretender? Memphis

Ben Fishman

    The Memphis Tigers started the season ranked in the top twenty of both major polls to begin Josh Pastner’s fourth and most anticipated season in the Bluff City. Their ranking was based more on what they hadn’t done and could do rather than what they’ve accomplished previously. Josh Pastner brought in another top twenty five recruiting class featuring McDonald’s All American Shaq Goodwin and added Geron Johnson, a player many believed to be the player of the year in most JUCO circuits.
    Memphis returned most of its core players from a team that made its second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament and won Conference USA for the second straight year. They met the late Rick Majerus’s St. Louis Billikens, losing 61-54.
    The Tigers opened the year in the Bahamas, losing to VCU and Minnesota before rebounding to pick up a win over Northern Iowa, a win that counts as a Top 100 RPI win.

    Yet Memphis fans expected more from fourth year coach Josh Pastner, perhaps expecting at least two wins and the possibility of playing Duke in Atlantis. As the seat got warmer under Pastner, he quietly moved the struggling Joe Jackson to shooting guard and let Geron Johnson move to the point. And that’s where we find Memphis today. They are winners of fifteen straight and finally look to be putting it together after two convincing routs of its top two challengers to its conference dominance, one on National TV last weekend.

    The question now remains. Is Memphis a legitimate contender to the National Championship? Let’s examine.

    First and foremost I think that Josh Pastner needed at least three years to finally get the train rolling in Memphis. His first recruiting class was ranked #2 by, right behind the man whose job he took, John Calipari. But even with his recruiting success he still had to learn the ropes of coaching a college team amidst one of the most impatient fan bases in America. Also, let’s be honest, John Calipari spoiled Memphis. Over his last four years in Memphis his teams won one hundred and thirty three games, a record that was obviously wiped clean following the Derrick Rose scandal, but a stunning record nonetheless. The Tigers won four straight Conference USA Tournaments and went Elite Eight, Elite Eight, Championship Game and Sweet Sixteen before Calipari departed for Kentucky.

    Barring that in mind I believe Memphis fans are finally getting what they want out of their coach. This team is doing what his last three teams didn’t do and that’s enjoy the ride. Watching the Tigers play it’s clear to see that this team enjoys each other.
    The on court result is pretty good too. They lost to a VCU team without Geron Johnson who is arguably their best player right now averaging 11.9 points per game. He’s a perfect player to look at when discussing how to truly understand the game. In the last three games he’s averaging 21 points, 8 rebounds and 8.5 assists. And he’s only getting better.
    Since moving Joe Jackson from point guard to shooting guard, the Memphis native is averaging 13.9 points while shooting a career best 54% from the floor.    
    Memphis is a very balanced team as well. The Tigers have eight players who average between 6.8 and 13.9 points per game, meaning on any different night it could a different guy stepping up. That doesn’t just spell balance, that spells dangerous.

    To further break down the Tigers numbers is the perfect way to see how this team operates. They currently rank 18th in the country in field goal percentage and are 10th in the country in assists. They’re even better on defense, ranking 6th in blocks and 14th in steals. They are one of only two teams in America to be in the top 15 of both those categories, the other being Syracuse.
    Now time for the knock on the Tigers. There really aren’t that many but the few holes you can poke in the Tigers armor are rather large.
    For starters Memphis missed out on their chances to beat a quality opponent. They own six wins over teams in the RPI Top 100 and just one over a team in the RPI Top 50. The loss to VCU doesn’t look terrible but Minnesota has dropped from the top ten in January to unranked. Granted those are still two losses to RPI Top 50 teams. Furthermore Memphis had Louisville down at home 25-9 in the first half and let the Cardinals claw back and pick up the win. Were they outdone by turnovers and the referees? Maybe, but that can’t be an excuse.
    The Tigers are at team that doesn’t excel at rebounding but they do a good enough job and control the boards inside. Tarik Black however has to be a concern for Memphis fans. He averages a lowly 4.8 rebounds per game, an extremely low number for a guy who is 6 foot 9 and 262 pounds. By comparison, do it all guy D.J. Stephens averages 6.6 rebounds at 6 foot 5 and 188 pounds.    
    The Tigers also give up a pretty high field goal percentage of 39.6 and allowed Southern Miss to shoot 47% on them last Saturday. If there is any gnawing weakness for this squad, it’s on defense. Kentucky won the championship last season by suffocating teams to shooting 37.4%. Not a huge difference but something to keep an eye on.

    So back to our original question. For me, a team must have five things to win a National Championship: Scoring, rebounding, defense, a bench and intangibles. Memphis has the scoring as evident by their production during their fifteen game winning streak averaging 75 points per game. They rebound well enough to contend with most teams and their size could force many teams into submission. A finesse big man inside with the skills of a Cody Zeller or Kelly Olynyk could force problems for Memphis. The Tigers bench is well suited and primed to make runs at any time which leaves the intangibles.
    Intangibles really revolve around the team. Can the coach lead them to the second weekend and Final Four? What happens when they’re down three with two minutes left in the Elite Eight? How do they respond leading by ten at the half as opposed to losing by ten at halftime? And finally, do they get a good matchup and seed? The intangibles are there for Memphis, but I’m not sure the seeding will be. I believe Memphis would be deserving of a top four seed had they beaten Louisville. Now I think they’re in the five to seven range which hurts them tremendously.
    So are they a contender for the National Championship? I actually think yes. The seeding in the tournament will be tough to maneuver but we’ve seen what a Butler or a VCU can do and with the parity in basketball this year I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Indiana or Michigan either not make it to the Final Four, or be joined there by a lower seed or two.
    The Tigers seem to be peaking at the right moment and who knows, if they win out, which would include another victory over Southern Miss plus a road win at Xavier on ESPN2, who’s to say they won’t get a four seed? They’d be on a twenty five game winning streak. And the committee looks at how they play on the road. Spoiler alert: Memphis hasn't lost on the road this year. Yeah. It’s just that kind of season.

    Either way, I would be very surprised to not see Memphis playing on the second weekend of the tournament.

Memphis = Contender

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