Two years from now, when the Memphis Tigers are preparing for their first Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, the 2012 Conference USA tournament at little ol’ FedExForum will likely seem as distant as Hickory High taking the measure of that enormous, shiny arena in Indianapolis. But here, now — in March 2012 — it’s the main event for Mid-South college basketball fans.
Over the last two weeks of the regular season — since Memphis coach Josh Pastner ripped the names off his players’ jerseys in the name of solidarity — the Tigers have played better than they have in any such stretch under the third-year coach. The U of M blew out three of the other four teams with realistic hopes of winning this week’s tournament: Marshall (by 20 on the road), UCF (by 29 at home), and Tulsa (by 12 on the road). Only Southern Miss — victors over Memphis on February 1st — escaped the Tigers’ recent tear. Barring an upset on either side of the bracket, the Golden Eagles and Tigers will face each other in Saturday morning’s championship game.
How to explain the Tigers’ peaking at the right time? To begin with, the team’s star is playing a starring role. Will Barton led C-USA in scoring (the first Tiger to do so), became the first Tiger to score 30 points in more than two years against Tulsa last Saturday, and became just the ninth Memphis player to reach 1,000 career points in his first two seasons. Furthermore, two players with mercurial college careers — senior Wesley Witherspoon and sophomore Joe Jackson — are contributing at both ends of the floor. Add the inside presence of Tarik Black and the possible return of two injured rotation players (Antonio Barton and Adonis Thomas), and it’s hard to envision a Tiger loss on their home floor.
Here are eight more tournament angles to chew on:
• If you like crunching numbers, this tournament is the Tigers’ to lose. Memphis led C-USA in field-goal percentage (49.5 percent) and field-goal-percentage defense (38.8). The other team that may be considered for an NCAA tournament berth even if it falls shy of the championship — Southern Miss — finished the season 12th (last) and 10th respectively, in those two categories.
The Tigers are tops in the league in blocked shots (5.7 per game) and tied for first in steals (8.0). One category where Southern Miss is superior: offensive rebounds. The Golden Eagles average 13.8 while the Tigers pull down just 9.6.
• This is the eighth time Memphis has hosted the C-USA tournament. The Tigers hosted the 1996 and 2000 tourneys at The Pyramid (splitting a total of four games and never reaching the finals). Memphis then hosted the tournament five years in a row (from 2005 to 2009) and reached the finals all five times. After losing to Louisville in 2005 (still the greatest basketball game I’ve seen live), the Tigers won the trophy the next four years. Overall, Memphis is 15-1 at FedExForum in C-USA tournament play.
• The Tigers are 5-1 in C-USA championship games. The only team they’ve faced for the title twice is Tulsa (2008 and 2009). Their other wins have come over UAB (2006), Houston (2007), and UTEP (in El Paso last year).
• Over their four-year championship run (2006-09), the Tigers won all 12 of their games by at least 10 points and five of them by more than 20.
• Among the five Tigers to earn C-USA tournament MVP honors, three of them were freshmen: Shawne Williams (2006), Tyreke Evans (2009), and Joe Jackson (2011). Chris Douglas-Roberts took the prize as a sophomore in 2007 and Antonio Anderson was honored as a junior in 2008.
• Among C-USA’s current 12 teams, only three have never faced Memphis in the tournament: UCF, Rice, and SMU. The Tigers’ most frequent foe has been Houston. Memphis is 3-2 against the Cougars and beat them for the 2007 championship.
• The Tigers’ three top scoring performances in the C-USA tournament all came in years Memphis did not win the title. Cedric Henderson scored 26 in a win over DePaul in the Tigers’ very first C-USA tourney game (in 1996) then Lorenzen Wright scored 27 in a loss to Marquette the next day. John Grice holds the Tiger mark with 29 points in a loss to Louisville in 2003. In last year’s run to the championship, Joe Jackson topped the Tigers in the scoring column with 24 points in their semifinal win over East Carolina.
• The Tigers are aiming for their 10th conference-tournament championship. In addition to their five C-USA titles, the Tigers won the Metro tournament in 1982, ’84, ’85, and ’87.