A season of extraordinarily high expectations for the University of Memphis basketball team has evolved into one where the ceiling for what the 2007-08 Tigers might achieve is the highest it's been in more than 20 years. So why not ask the two most far-reaching questions out there: (1) can the Tigers reach the number-one ranking in the country and (2) can they go undefeated? With Conference USA play starting this week (the Tigers host East Carolina Wednesday and play at Marshall Saturday), the answer to the first is yes, with an air of probability to it. The answer to the second question? Unlikely, but keep watching.
In the December 31st AP poll, the second-ranked Tigers trailed North Carolina by merely 28 points. Were it not for a buzzer-beating three-pointer in overtime by the Tar Heels' Wayne Ellington Sunday night at Clemson, you'd be reading about the number-one Memphis Tigers right here, right now. And while conference play presents the U of M with a stretch of should-win contests (ECU, Marshall, Rice, Southern Miss, and Tulsa before Gonzaga comes to town January 26th), the Tar Heels will face North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, and Boston College before the calendar turns to February. Among those games, find the most likely upset. (I'd watch the UNC-Maryland game on January 19th.) Should North Carolina stumble, it's all but certain Memphis will reach the national-ranking mountaintop for the first time in 25 years, and only the second in the program's history. (The 1982-83 Tigers won their first 11 games and were ranked number-one for exactly one week before losing to Virginia Tech on January 10, 1983.)
And hear this, ye critics of C-USA: a number-one ranking for the Tigers would be well earned. Memphis has faced and beaten six teams from college basketball's "power conferences, including three wins over top-20 teams, with only one of those games even close at the end (USC on December 4th). As for North Carolina, their pre-conference schedule included but three teams from power conferences: Kentucky, Ohio State, and Rutgers. If the Tar Heels pull away from their ACC competition, they will wrap themselves in a top-ranked blanket of powder blue. But if they fall from the ranks of the unbeaten, a worthy Tiger team awaits, no blanket required.
And what of the chances for an unbeaten season? Not since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers of Kent Benson and Quinn Buckner ran the table has a Division I college team cut down the championship nets without a blemish on its record. The closest any team has come over the last 32 years is the 1990-91 UNLV team (featuring Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon) that won its first 34 games before losing to Duke in the national semifinals.
Over the last two seasons, Memphis has gone 29-1 in C-USA play, so it's hardly unreasonable to think the Tigers might run the table over their 16 remaining league games (and three conference-tourney contests). Alas, there are two enormous non-conference games left to be played: Gonzaga on January 26th and Tennessee on February 23rd. The good news for Tiger fans is that each game will be played at FedExForum. Having witnessed the Bulldogs and Vols in action at the "Battle in Seattle" last month, I'd consider Gonzaga a legitimate test for the U of M, but a team without the speed, size, or perimeter defense to beat the Tigers if the home team plays its standard brand of basketball. But the Volunteers? They put up 82 points in a hostile environment, with only 11 coming from preseason All-America Chris Lofton. Mark this down: the Memphis-UT game - to be televised live on ESPN's GameDay - will be the biggest intrastate contest in Tennessee basketball history. And if an undefeated season for the Tigers hangs in the balance? Even bigger.
After Saturday's win over Pepperdine pushed the Tigers' record to 13-0, reserve center Shawn Taggart didn't exactly light up at mention of the "U" word. "[Coach John Calipari] brings up the [NFL's unbeaten] Patriots now and then, but that's about it," said Taggart. "But we're playing one game at a time."
As for Calipari himself, he's realistic about the bumpy road between early January and March madness, to say nothing of an unbeaten record. "It's hard for [my players] to be at a high for every game," he said after Saturday's win. "There will be games where [our opponent] is going to be playing the best of their lives, and we're not gonna be quite ready. They're gonna beat us to balls, beat us to rebounds. Hopefully, we'll adjust at halftime and get things right."
An undefeated college basketball season? Well beyond reach for almost every team in the country. But for a team that's won 40 home games in a row? For a team that lost exactly one game in all of 2007? The "U" word may not be so ugly after all.