This is the second in a five-part review of the 2009-10 Tiger basketball season.
• THE ELUSIVE BIG W
There’s no getting over this blemish on the Tigers’ performance this season. However close that Elliot Williams jumper at the buzzer in St. Louis may have been, the Tigers didn’t beat Kansas, and they didn’t beat Tennessee, and they didn’t beat Syracuse. Sure, these were monster contests: Kansas and Syracuse each spent time atop the national polls and Tennessee finds itself playing in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. But Memphis needed to claim an upset somewhere among these titans to shed the “big fish in small C-USA” label the program gets every winter. You can be sure the NCAA selection committee noticed the scar on the Memphis schedule. (The Tigers received at least a number-two seed in the previous four NCAA tournaments, and this had more to do with the way they handled foes like Kentucky, Georgetown, and Connecticut than with any undefeated C-USA run.)
You have to go back 21 years — to the 1988-89 season — to find a Tiger team that didn’t knock off at least one team from the ACC, SEC, Big East, Big 10, Pac 10, or Big 12. The opening-round victory over St. John’s in the NIT, of course, will keep Elliot Perry’s sophomore season in the record book for a dubious non-achievement. (That team actually made the NCAA tournament despite losses to Michigan, Missouri, Washington, and Tennessee.) But a solitary upset this winter over the Jayhawks, Vols, or Orange would have punched the Tigers’ ticket to the Big Dance.
There’s another important reason Memphis needs to win games against power-conference teams: they’re auditioning. Conferences are sure to realign in the decade ahead, some expanding, others perhaps shuffling programs to find the right regional — and revenue-generating — mix. The possibility of the Tiger program moving to the Big East has been discussed at least since former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese was hired by U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson to advise on possibilities. With every win over a major program, the Tigers enhance their curb value to the decision-makers among the big six. At the very least, they need to beat the Big East’s 13th-place team. So in that sense, mission accomplished.