“If you hear anything about Louisville, give ’em the hand. I don’t want to hear anything.” That was Memphis coach Josh Pastner last Wednesday night, after his team’s 26-point beat down of the Ohio Bobcats at FedExForum. Pastner extended his right arm as he warned the media contingent about looking beyond the Tigers’ next opponent . . . Austin Peay.
With the Governors now safely out of the way (on the wrong end of an 83-65 score last Saturday afternoon), anyone remotely connected to the Memphis Tiger program can scream Louisville insults to their heart’s desire. For this Saturday’s tilt at FedExForum is what the smart analysts call a BIG GAME.
Fact is, the Tigers’ win over Ohio last week may be the biggest of Josh Pastner’s four-year coaching career. It may not have been a top-20 opponent, and may not have been a postseason affair, but it was certainly the program’s most needed win since Pastner took over before the 2009-10 season. The Bobcats came to town with credentials: a 6-1 record, a Sweet 16 appearance in last March’s NCAA tournament, and top-dog status in the MAC. Had the Tigers lost to Ohio, ironically, it would have been more acceptable than the lifeless defeats Memphis took (to VCU and Minnesota) in the Bahamas last month. More acceptable on paper. But a loss to the Bobcats would have reduced an already anxious fan base to that state of twitching in dark rooms, talking to oneself about what could have been . . . and what should be if this were changed, or that player were gone, or that coach were gone. A blowout win over that Ohio team? All’s well, at least until Louisville comes to town.
Seasons have tipping points. Last year, three days before Christmas, the Tigers lost at Georgetown, dropping their record to 6-5. A players-only meeting ensued, which may or may not have been the spark for a 20-3 run and a thorough sweep of three games to win the Conference USA tournament at FedExForum. Spark or not, that meeting was the season’s tipping point.
This season, the Tigers have played to a form growing too familiar to their legion of followers: beat up on lesser competition, but struggle when the big boys flex. VCU and Minnesota are sound programs, but neither can suit up three McDonald’s All-Americans. If the Tigers can’t impose their talents on the Rams or Gophers, what will happen if the road leads to Tar Heels, Hoosiers . . . or Cardinals?
This is not the 1980s. There is no Metro Conference, and Dana Kirk and Denny Crum will play no role in Saturday’s game at Third and Beale. But Louisville at Memphis still has a ring to it, wouldn’t you agree? The last time the Cardinals played at FedExForum (March 12, 2005) the teams played an epic C-USA championship game, Louisville winning by a point when Tiger guard Darius Washington —some would say tragically — missed a pair of free throws that cost Memphis an unlikely NCAA tournament berth. (To date, that remains the finest college game I’ve ever seen live.)
The seven years that have passed between visits from Louisville is the longest drought since the teams first played on January 6, 1949. And with the Cardinals’ pending move to the ACC — just as the Tiger program seemed to have chased them down in the Big East — games like Saturday’s are not a given, not “just another” important game as Pastner’s players are taught. A win over a top-five team that just happens to be the Memphis program’s Green Goblin (or Joker, Batman fans) would be this season’s tipping point.
A win means a return to the Top 25 for the Tigers. A win would be Pastner’s first in 11 games against ranked opponents. A win would be Pastner’s seventh (against 13 losses) against a team from one of the country’s six power conferences. Best of all, a win would become a calling card (pardon the pun) for this team’s legitimacy as not just an NCAA tournament participant, but also an NCAA tournament contender. If there are low points this winter — and there will be — Memphis players, coaches, and fans can all “Remember Louisville.”
Tipping points are made, not granted. When the ball goes up Saturday afternoon, Louisville in the way of the Tigers’ seventh win, Memphis players should lock onto that image of their coach, his right arm flexed and extended: “Give ’em the hand.”