As the regular season's final week unfolds, a few thoughts to ponder:
• Last Tuesday’s loss at Xavier may have proven, once and for all, that Conference USA is college basketball’s kiddie pool. The league champion — 13-0 against its conference brethren — travels to face a foe sixth in the Atlantic 10, minus its point guard . . . and loses? There will be no sugarcoating the defeat come Selection Sunday for the NCAA tournament. The Musketeers lost to Pacific (at home). They lost to Vanderbilt (at home). They lost to Wofford (at home). But they beat the C-USA-champion Memphis Tigers.
The Tigers returned to C-USA competition Saturday at UCF, played dreadful basketball for the first ten minutes of the game . . . and led by five at halftime. What a difference a league makes.
• If you think the loss at Xavier on ESPN2 hurt the nation’s impression of the Tigers, imagine what a loss to a C-USA opponent might do. If coach Josh Pastner felt pressure to win in Cincinnati last week, he should know that the last two games on the Tigers’ regular-season schedule (at UTEP, UAB) and every game Memphis plays in the C-USA tournament (save the championship . . . maybe) is a must-win.
Let’s say the Tigers finish the regular season 27-4 (undefeated in C-USA) and suffer a monumental upset in the C-USA tourney quarterfinals. That would inspire some lengthy discussion in the NCAA selection room. The loss at Xavier eliminated any margin for error the Tigers may have enjoyed. They must hold serve and get out of the kiddie pool for good.
• It’s looking like the Tigers’ biggest win of the season came in Knoxville on January 4th. Tennessee’s recent wins over the reigning national champs (Kentucky) and a top-10 team (Florida) put that Memphis victory in new context. If only this brand of math translates in the NCAA selection room. (For that matter, the loss to a Minnesota team that beat the top-ranked squad in the country could paint the Memphis record a new shade. And VCU manhandled 20th-ranked Butler last Saturday. We’ll see.)
• Evidence that pressure to perform at Xavier entered the Tigers’ heads: 12 missed free throws in 18 attempts. You would have thought John Calipari stood on the sideline as one Tiger after another left points behind by damaging the rim with a foul shot. A team that had made 20 of 24 freebies in its previous game could hit only one third of its shots from the charity stripe. (They weren’t much better at UCF, hitting 12 of 21.) D.J. Stephens entered the Xavier game shooting 71 percent from the line. He made one of seven shots, missing a critical pair late when the game was very much there to be won. Geron Johnson — a 74-percent free-throw shooter — missed the front end of a one-and-one near the end. How does a player bury three long-distance shots to bring his team back . . . and miss a critical free throw? It’s all between the ears.
• Is it possible for a team to go undefeated in its league and not have the league’s player of the year on its roster? Could happen with these Tigers. The U of M’s top scorer, Joe Jackson, is 13th in C-USA (13.9 points per game). The Tigers’ top rebounder, D.J. Stephens, is 12th in the league (6.8). The team’s top pro prospect may be Geron Johnson, but are his numbers (10.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists) POY stuff? Tulane’s Josh Davis could lead the league in both scoring and rebounding. Preseason POY Keith Clanton of UCF has hardly been a disappointment (15.3 points, 8.6 rebounds). Tulane and UCF could each finish the season with 20 wins (kiddie pool alert), perhaps enough to earn their guy a trophy.
• The memory of last year’s one-and-out loss to Saint Louis in the NCAAs is all too fresh among Tiger fans. Then came VCU last November and now a crushing loss at Xavier. Tiger faithful may be thrilled to be leaving C-USA behind. They may be just as glad the program isn’t joining the Atlantic 10.