DJ Stephens and the Tigers are playing with a chip on their sholder.

DJ Stephens

Don’t look now, but Memphis Madness is coming.

No, not the season-opening extravaganza that happens every October. In this case, it’s a prediction, a foreshadowing of what Memphis will bring to March.

You’ll have to pardon the mediocre alliteration, the ho-hum pun, but proper erudition has proved elusive. The Tigers’ rapid rise through the college basketball ranks—literally and figuratively—has many a’ writer scrambling to accurately encapsulate just what’s going on down in the Bluff City.

Most of the college basketball cognoscenti are beginning to take notice, albeit with measured optimism. What’s the rub, you ask? That’d be Conference USA, the mediocre—and this year, some would say downright terrible—conference that the Tigers are doomed to play in.

“Memphis hasn’t beaten anybody!”

“They’re not blowing out every team in CUSA!”

“They can’t beat a ranked team!”

It makes sense, really, if you’re just glancing at their tournament resume. No one in Tiger Nation would fault those intimations as knee-jerk reactions. However, once you delve just the slightest bit deeper—and actually watch them play—you’ll see that this bunch is poised to make a deep tournament run come March. Experts aren’t entirely convinced just yet, however.

And that’s just how the Tigers like it.

Memphis players are staying hungry, using the media slight as motivation and are convinced they will sneak up on teams in the tournament.

Here, three reasons they are right, and why Memphis just may be the most dangerous team in the country right now.

All stats courtesy of StatSheet.com

Sharing is Caring

Memphis is one of the best passing teams in college basketball. Just ask Southern Mississippi coach Donnie Tyndall, whose Golden Eagles were defeated 89-73 in Memphis on Saturday.

“After playing them a second time, I think they’re arguably the best passing team in all of college basketball,” he told reporters after the game.

In that game, Memphis had a jaw-dropping 25 assists on 29 field goals. The thing is, this is the norm for the Tigers.

A quick look at the numbers:

  • 17.0 assists per game (6th in nation)
  • 1.14 assists-to-turnover ratio (65th in nation)
  • 459 total assists (10th in nation)

The middle number is a bit disconcerting, but the Tigers have done a better job of taking care of the ball as of late. In fact, Memphis sometimes needs to curtail their unselfishness, strange as that may sound, because they pass too much. The point remains, however, that Memphis is a team that finds the open man. In fact, it’s their credo.

“The open man is the go-to man,” head coach Josh Pastner is fond of saying. This makes for a balanced scoring attack, which makes Memphis that much harder to defend.

Next Man Up

Memphis is always long on talent—next year’s recruiting class is ranked #2 in the nation—but the management of said talent has come into question from time to time in Pastner’s regime. It’s been said that his recruiting dwarfs his actual X’s and O’s knowledge, that his teams lack cohesion and players are looking out for #1. Not so this year, as Memphis can do damage in a variety of ways.

Consider:

  • 3 players averaging double figures
  • 3 players shooting over 53% from the field
  • 3 players averaging over 1.2 steals per game

Worth mentioning is the absence of key contributor Antonio Barton, who went down with an ankle injury on Feb. 9th (He’s expected back in time for the conference tournament). No matter, as the Tigers keep finding ways to win.

If a team contains their perimeter shooters like Houston did on Feb. 19th? No problem, as big men Tarik Black and Adonis Thomas will tighten their games up, and the Tigers will win with an old-school inside-out style of play. Or, what if dark horse Player of the Year candidate Joe Jackson is having an off night? Well, Chris Crawford will simply light it up from beyond the arc, no big deal.

This is a team that can beat you in a variety of ways.

Battle-Tested, Committee-Approved

Joe Jackson.

Joe Jackson

As mentioned, many detractors like to point out Memphis’ weak opposition when finding holes in their tournament resume. Even worse, they say, is the pesky issue the Tigers’ occasional inability to crush inferior opponents (They only beat Marshall by one point on Jan. 26th, for instance).

This is a good thing, however, as a team that blows out its opponent every game might lack the ability to respond in close games.

Here’s a look at some key metrics that will bode well for the Tigers, both on Selection Sunday and beyond:

  • 11-game road winning streak (best in nation)
  • Undefeated in games decided by five points or less
  • 11-3 record vs. non-conference

Winning 18 games in a row will get some media attention, even though it’s lukewarm at this point. All told, however, the Tigers remain on the fringe of the national dialogue, and this is just fine with them.

“If they say we haven’t beaten anybody, we haven’t beaten anybody,” Geron Johnson told the media after defeating Southern Miss on Feb. 13th. “I go with politics, too. I don’t mind if they take us out of the Top 25. You’re going to see us in March. We’ll make our name there.”

 

 

 

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