Anyone who saw as many as five minutes of the Memphis Tigers’ game in last week’s American Athletic Conference quarterfinals would have a hard time envisioning the team winning a game, let alone two, when the NCAA tournament gets underway this week in Raleigh (site of the Tigers’ sub-regional). In losing to Connecticut for a third time in three months, the Tigers looked worse than the 19-point margin of defeat suggested. No member of the Memphis eight-man rotation could claim to have played above average. Coach Josh Pastner and senior guard Geron Johnson used the words “embarrassed” and “disgusted” in facing the media after the game finally ended. They looked as beaten emotionally as they had been physically. Last Thursday was a late, sleepless night for much of Tiger Nation.
I’ve been asked since last fall if the Tiger season would be judged a failure if it ends short of the Sweet 16. Failure is a hard — and permanent — word. There are more than 200 Division 1 programs that would consider a single game in the Big Dance a successful season. (Ask the SMU Mustangs.) So if the Tigers can’t win two games . . . failure?
Define failure how you will. But there is much at stake for a proud program and its personnel this week. Among the areas of impact:
• Josh Pastner’s sunny disposition. If the Tigers lose their opening game (or even a second game, in the tournament’s “third round”), we’ll hear a lot about a fifth-straight 20-win season, and winning five games against ranked teams (including two against the defending national champs). But pulling back, examining the larger picture, we’ll see a five-year stretch of Tiger basketball with but one (or two) NCAA tournament victories. Short memories will forget the Tigers went ten seasons with but a single win in the Big Dance, from the 1995-96 campaign through John Calipari’s fifth as coach (2004-05). Those short memories remain heavy with images of four straight trips to the Sweet 16 (2006-09), a standard Pastner will be measured against as long as he keeps his current job. Lose this weekend and the season may or may not be a failure. But it will begin the longest, most trying offseason of Josh Pastner’s still-young career.
• Chris Crawford’s reputation. The senior guard has been an electric part of many Tiger wins. Only four Memphis players have hit more than Crawford’s 238 three-pointers. The Tigers don’t come back to beat SMU on March 8th without a three-shot flurry from downtown by Crawford. He and Joe Jackson will be just the sixth and seventh Tigers to play in four NCAA tournaments. But Crawford has been positively dreadful in his four tournament games (three of them losses). He’s taken a total of 32 shots and made six. He’s three for 19 from three-point range in NCAA tournament play. Crawford’s shooting can swing games, one way or the other. Perhaps he’s due for a positive swing.
• Joe Jackson’s legacy. Not every player leaves a legacy, but Joe Jackson will. This doesn’t mean the legacy will bring smiles. Good college players reach the NCAA tournament, as Jackson has four times now. Great players, of course, play on the second weekend (at least). Whether or not he embraced it, Jackson has been the face of this franchise for a while now. In ice cream terms, the Jackson years have been a swirl of revelry and disappointment. Upsetting a number-one seed in the Big Dance would change that.
• Faith in progress. In 2011, the Tigers qualified for the Dance only by virtue of winning the Conference USA tournament. In 2012, they were beaten in their first game, then in 2013, their second. The next step toward a shining moment would be the Sweet 16. Falling short of that would mean progress — on paper — has been stunted. Worse, the perception of progress would take a profound hit. Devoted fans would have to turn toward the likes of Markel Crawford, Pookie Powell, and Dominic Magee, wondering if the next group of players might be the one to return the Tiger program to national prominence.
Memphis fans must hope there are two versions of the current team. The one that went 0-5 against Cincinnati and Connecticut was on display last Thursday in all its horrific colors. Perhaps the one that went 23-4 against everyone else — a team that split with three opponents and dropped a narrow loss to top-ranked Florida — will show up to face George Washington Friday night. Only one of these versions will take a place in Tiger history.