“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.”
LAST WEEK: 4-2
Saturday's matchup in Tulsa is Conference USA's version of Alabama-Florida. This will be the third meeting between the Knights and Golden Hurricane since C-USA first held a football championship in 2005 (a Tulsa win over UCF). Tulsa is 1-2 in the championship game (losing to UCF in 2007 and East Carolina in 2008) while the Knights are 2-1 (in addition to the 2007 title, UCF beat SMU in 2010).
In addition to hosting the game (Tulsa beat UCF, 23-21, on November 17th), the Golden Hurricane will be playing for conference pride, as UCF heads to the Big East for 2013. Tulsa ranks third in total offense among C-USA teams (462.2 yards per game), while UCF's offense features tailback Latavius Murray (league-leading 107.1 yards rushing per game). Not surprisingly, the game will showcase the top two defenses in C-USA. (The third-ranked defense in the league? Memphis.)
Tulsa is coming off a loss to SMU, while UCF has won seven of eight (the only loss being at Tulsa).
I like home games in December.
Tulsa 24, UCF 20
The U of M baseball team opens its season Friday against Southern Illinois at FedExPark (5 p.m.). The Tigers aim to build upon last season’s 30-27 record, but in a league with Top-25 competition like Rice, UCF, and Southern Miss. (Conference USA is a stronger baseball league than basketball.) Coach Daron Schoenrock enters his eighth season with hopes of leading his team back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. I sat down with “Coach Rock” earlier this month to get a sense of where the program’s heading.
On the 2012 pitching staff:
“We have two experienced weekend starters returning: Dan Langfield and Clayton Gant [both juniors]. Dan is projected to be a high pick in the draft this year, so we’ll probably lose him [after the season]. Lots of scouts coming through to see him. Clayton had Tommy John surgery at Tennessee, left, and came here. He’s fully recovered. It’s taken almost two years to get his velocity back. Chase Joiner [a senior] has also recovered from Tommy John. He’ll be a big factor for us, whether it’s in the bullpen or a midweek starter. Sam Moll is a lefty who could be a midweek starter.”
On the mental component to a pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery:
“You go through the whole strengthening program, where you’re not throwing at all. Then you go through a phase where you progress to long-toss. Then you go to the mound. The last stage is actually attacking hitters in the box. The elevation of the competitive moment has you extend more . . . and that’s the biggest hurdle mentally. When you’re not thinking about your arm but thinking about making a certain pitch at this moment.”
How do you find left-handed pitchers? It’s hard enough for big-league scouts.
“In the last three or four years, there have been more, because of youth baseball and how many teams are traveling. You’re able to find more lefties. They’re playing year-round, so there’s more time to evaluate. We signed seven recruits last fall and three of them are left-handed pitchers. College baseball is a battle of pitching depth.”
Beyond pitching, what are the strengths of this years’ team?
“To overcome any lack of depth [in pitching], you have to be really solid defensively. You may have to run out a pitcher who’s just a strike thrower, who will put a lot of balls in play. Defensively, we have to be able to handle that kind of pitcher. Our senior captain, Jacob Wilson, is our returning third-baseman. He’s played here every day since his freshman season, and he made only three errors last season. [Sophomore] Ethan Gross will play shortstop. We’re really efficient on the left side of the infield.
“And we have all of our firepower returning offensively. Our RBI guys. We lost Chad Zurcher and Drew Martinez to the draft, so we’ll have to find [top-of-the-order] hitters.
On his longevity as Tiger baseball coach:
“We haven’t broken through and done amazing things in one big-splash year. It’s been steady. We’ve reached the point where we have some stability with our roster. When I took the job, I brought a different recruiting plan. For example, you never want to lose your entire weekend rotation in one year. When I took the job, all three starters from the year before signed pro contracts. Now we’re losing one or two. So you have some continuity. And you never want to lose your whole infield.”
On adjusting when players capture the attention of pro scouts:
“The key is communication with the individual player. I’ve never been a guy that stresses holding juniors back. If they’ve gone through three years and they’re attractive to pro scouts, that’s the only time they’re going to get paid [a signing bonus]. A junior for us who gets drafted may get a $70,000 signing bonus, then he’ll never be able to negotiate his salary again until he reaches the big leagues. Now, if he comes back as a senior and ends up getting drafted in the 20th round, he’ll get $1,000.
“I try and get them as ready — physically and mentally — as I can. It comes down to a player having to trust his ability [if he stays]. You become an advisor, a parent in some ways. We’ll have some seniors get attention, not so much as major-league prospects, but to fill out minor-league rosters. Then it’s a matter of how well you play in the minor leagues. And they leave here with a degree.”
On the evolution of the Tiger program:
“I had no idea [FedExPark] would happen as soon as it did. A lot of people advised me against taking the job because Memphis had never really done anything to elevate the facilities. I felt like if we improved the product on the field and did the right things off the field, something good would happen. We went to the NCAA regionals in 2007. Then it was a two-year project to get this facility done. We had to play in Millington one season, and that was tough. Now that we’ve been here, the stability of the program is at an all-time high.”
On the possibilities of Memphis reaching the College World Series in Omaha:
“There’s a school like Memphis that reaches Omaha every year, just like Butler in basketball. You get into the field of 64 and then get hot for two weeks. Fresno State won a national championship a few years ago and at one point they were 14-17.”
On adding Tennessee to the schedule for the first time since 1995 (the Tigers play in Knoxville on April 4th then host the Vols on May 9th):
“It’s huge for the Memphis Tiger fan base. I worked really hard to get this done. I had tried on our end continuously. The logistics of baseball travel make it a challenge. We bus. We’re playing them on our way to Marshall, then they’re playing us on their way to Ole Miss. That only happens every other year. I’ve known [UT coach] Dave Serrano a long time. I don’t want to go on the road a lot if we don’t get something in return. Being able to do a home-and-home thing, it makes sense. I like to keep games like this on the schedule for the challenge, the quality of competition.”
On big-league managers he admires:
“I guess I’m more like Bobby Cox. Every day is the same routine. Make the players feel like they understand, and they’re comfortable with what’s going on. Not too many highs, not too many lows. If I have to figure out a way to get you excited 56 times, I may not have the right player. It’s more about establishing continuity through routine.
“And since moving to Memphis — it’s such a Cardinal-based town — I’ve come to admire Tony LaRussa, too. I don’t get in players’ faces a lot. I challenge them in other ways. I like to keep the dream of the big-league experience alive in the locker room. That creates a different kind of work ethic, outside what we’ve prescribed.”
On handling players who don’t realize the dream of pro baseball:
“You want to never look back and think, if I would have done this or that . . . . I coach them like they’re all going to play in the big leagues. In that process, we’re going to impact them in other ways: you are going to class, you are going to make your study-hall hours. We’ve had the highest team GPA in Conference USA two years in a row now. We’re here to reach the pinnacle of this game. Let us, as coaches, handle all the ‘Plan B’ things. They’ll take care of themselves by how we operate on a daily basis.”
The Memphis Tigers and Louisville Cardinals have played each other on the basketball court 85 times. (The only other program Memphis has faced as many as 70 times is Southern Miss, with 86 games in the books.) These teams played each other every season from 1967-68 to 1990-91, then 11 more — as Conference USA members — from 1994-95 to 2004-05. Which makes it a sin that six full seasons have passed without a Tiger-Cardinal blood match. That ends this Saturday when the Tigers take the floor at Louisville as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Shootout. If you have holiday shopping to do, get in your car at 3:00 Saturday afternoon. Traffic will be light.
Tigers-Cardinals may not be an “ancient” rivalry, but it’s a hardwood feud that knows few equal in legacy. (The teams first played on January 6, 1949, a 72-53 Cardinal win at Memorial Gym.) I spent my high school winters playing basketball in frigid Vermont, and there were three rivalries that captured the attention of my roundball buddies: Syracuse/Georgetown, North Carolina/Duke, and Louisville/Memphis State. Cable television was limited and ESPN hadn’t begun airing five and six games a day. But the exploits of Keith Lee and Milt Wagner mattered to teenagers who turned very little of their attention south of the Mason-Dixon Line. (For the record, the Tigers won seven of 11 games between 1983-84 and 1986-87 while I was suiting up for the Northfield Marauders. The Cardinals own an overall lead in the series, 51-34.)
These are teams that played each other three times in a season 13 times, which means few Metro Conference tournaments were held without the marquee matchup of Memphis-Louisville. The Tigers beat the Cardinals for the Metro tourney title in 1982 and ’87, and Louisville beat Memphis for the title in 1986 and ’88. Dana Kirk vs. Denny Crum. Elliot Perry vs. Pervis Ellison. John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino.
And how about Anthony Rice vs. Francisco Garcia? The 2005 C-USA tournament championship at FedExForum remains the best college basketball game I’ve seen live at an arena. During one 60-second stretch late in the first half, the teams traded the lead on four consecutive possessions, each field goal a three-pointer. Riveting.
That game will forever be remembered, of course, for the three free throws Darius Washington had after time had expired with the Tigers down two points. Had Washington made all three, the Tigers would have earned an unlikely — undeserved, really — NCAA tournament berth. He made the first, winked at coach John Calipari, and then missed the next two. Washington had to be helped from the floor by Calipari and teammates after collapsing in defeat.
More tears would surely have fallen that afternoon six years ago if Tiger fans knew it would be this long before the only rivalry that really matters to the Memphis program was resumed. Memphis has played SMU ten times since last facing Louisville. UCF and UTEP have been annual foes since the 2005-06 season. The Tigers faced Gonzaga, for Pete’s sake, six straight seasons . . . without Louisville on the schedule. This is a town that loves its ’rasslin’ and relishes a good “bad guy.” Replacing Louisville on the Tiger schedule with Gonzaga is like removing the Mongolian Stomper from a wrestling card in favor of Cyndi Lauper.
Sports are at their best when longtime rivals clash. Ali-Frazier. Nicklaus-Player. Bird-Magic. There’s a reason you can’t avoid Yankees-Red Sox during the summer if you own a television. These are the games that cause divorces, end friendships, stir the foulest language from the depths of a fan’s cheering soul. They’re games in which money, rankings, and star power don’t matter. Only the final score and bragging rights.
Says Tiger coach Josh Pastner, “Since I got this job two years ago, our fans have talked to me on numerous occasions about the Memphis-Louisville rivalry, and how much they want to renew the series. This is a great rivalry not only for the schools and their fans, but it’s also one of college basketball’s top rivalries.”
We’re in the final days of a six-year drought; the longest Tiger (or Cardinal) fans should have to suffer. So get your sleep, take your vitamins, and hide anything red in your living room (including, yes, all images of Santa Claus). Memphis and Louisville are playing this Saturday. Nothing else matters.
Wednesday, 7 p.m., FedExForum
• The Tigers are looking to extend their winning streak to four games, their longest since starting the season 7-0. Memphis has won its only two home games in Conference USA play (over East Carolina and Marshall).
• After starting the season 14-0, UCF has plummeted to the bottom of the C-USA standings, where they are 1-4. After beating Marshall on January 5th, the Knights have lost four straight (Houston, Southern Miss, East Carolina, Rice). Nonetheless, in their first year under coach Donnie Jones, the Knights are on the verge of matching their 2009-10 win total (15).
• A pair of sophomores are the top scoring threats for UCF. Marcus Jordan (Mike’s kid) is averaging 15.8 points per game and Keith Clanton is averaging 15.6. They are 10th and 11th, respectively, on the C-USA scoring chart. Clanton ranks fifth in the league in rebounding with 8.7 per game and third in field-goal percentage at 52.9.
• As a team, UCF ranks fifth in C-USA in scoring with 73.3 points per game. (The Tigers lead the league with 78.1.) But UCF has had the stingiest defense in the conference, giving up only 60.4 points per game. (The Tigers are last in this category, giving up 71.0 points per game.) UCF also paces C-USA in scoring margin at plus-12.8 (the Tigers are plus-7.1).
• UCF had two big intra-state victories before C-USA play started. The Knights beat Florida on December 1st, then knocked off Miami on December 18th.
• The Tigers enter Wednesday’s game tied atop C-USA with UTEP, each team 4-1 in league play. At 15-4, Memphis is one game ahead of its pace a year ago.
• The Tigers have won all eight contests they’ve played against UCF, including a 76-70 win last February. These teams started playing annually when UCF joined C-USA for the 2005-06 season. They had played three times previously, all in the Seventies.
• It’s been a while since Memphis has not had a player near the top of the C-USA scoring chart. But Will Barton is currently pacing the Tigers (12.6 ppg) and ranks 20th in the league. More disturbing may be the fact the Tigers don’t have anyone in the league’s top 20 in rebounding. No Tiger is pulling down as many as five boards a game. Freshman point guard Joe Jackson is fifth in the league in assists with 4.2 per game.
• Wednesday’s game is part of a stretch that has the Tigers playing five of seven games on the road. Their only home games between January 9th and February 11th are the UCF game and February 2nd, when they host Tulsa.
Wednesday, 8 p.m., Knoxville (Thompson-Boling Arena), ESPN2
• The Volunteers enter the game with a record of 9-4. After a 7-0 start, UT has lost four of its last six games, including a pair of ugly defeats at the hands of Oakland and the College of Charleston. The Vols took down a pair of Top-10 teams from the Big East: Villanova on November 26th and Pittsburgh on December 11th. Tennessee will open its SEC schedule this Saturday at Arkansas.
• Junior swingman Scotty Hopson paces the Vols in scoring with 16.4 points per game. He had a season-high 27 against Pitt and 24 in the loss to Charleston. Freshman forward Tobias Harris (6’8”, 226 lbs.) averages 15.0 points and 6.6 rebounds. Senior Cameron Tatum is a third threat (10.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists).
• Junior Wesley Witherspoon is looking for a “bounce-back” game, having accumulated more fouls (4) than points (3) against Tennessee State last Sunday. After missing two games following knee surgery, Witherspoon hit only one of five shots against Georgetown, but then erupted for 28 points and 14 rebounds against Lipscomb on December 30th.
• The Tigers have enjoyed balanced scoring, when measured across their last five games. (The goal, of course, being to get such balance within a single game.) Memphis has had a different leading scorer in each of its last five games: Chris Crawford (18 against Austin Peay), Joe Jackson (23, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi), Will Barton (18, Georgetown), Witherspoon (28, Lipscomb), and Antonio Barton (24, Tennessee State). And Tarik Black had a season-high 22 Sunday against TSU.
• Tennessee owns a 13-8 edge in the series, with the teams now meeting for a sixth straight season. The Tigers have lost three of the last four contests, including the epic showdown between the country’s top two teams on February 23, 2008. (In that game at FedExForum, #2 Tennessee beat #1 Memphis, 66-62, ending a 26-game winning streak for the Tigers.) In last season’s game at FEF, UT won 66-59. Witherspoon had 11 points and 7 rebounds in that New Year’s Eve battle. The Tigers are 3-7 in Knoxville.
• In the win over Tennessee State last weekend, the Tigers had 25 assists and only 11 turnovers. This marked the first time in eight games that Memphis had as many as four more assists than turnovers. In eight games this season, the Tigers have had more turnovers than assists. For the season, point guard Joe Jackson has 56 assists and 47 turnovers.
• Tennessee enters the game with an RPI ranking of 40, while the Tigers are ranked 67th (just behind UAB and Ole Miss). UCF (12-0) is currently the highest-ranked C-USA team at 16.
• Wednesday’s game will be the Tigers’ last before C-USA play starts this Saturday (East Carolina, FEF). Last year, Memphis entered league play with a record of 10-4.
• Memphis and Georgetown have developed a pretty decent cross-regional rivalry in recent years. This will be the third time in the last four seasons the Tigers and Hoyas have faced each other while ranked in the Top 20. On December 22, 2007, the 2nd-ranked Tigers beat the 5th-ranked Hoyas at FedExForum, 85-71. On December 13, 2008, the 17th-ranked Tigers traveled to Georgetown and lost in overtime, 79-71, to the 19th-ranked Hoyas. Memphis enters tonight’s game ranked 16th while Georgetown is number 9.
• The first time these programs met came during the 1983 NCAA tournament at Louisville, of all places. Each team sported an All-America sophomore then, Keith Lee leading Memphis while Patrick Ewing was bending rims for the Hoyas. On March 20, 1983 — in the second round of the Big Dance — Memphis (ranked 17th in the country) beat Georgetown (20th), 66-57. Lee won the battle of big men, too, with 28 points and 15 rebounds (compared with Ewing’s 24 and 9). The Tigers were ousted in their next game five days later by the Phi Slamma Jamma Cougars of Houston. The ’83 tournament was the only time in four years Ewing and Georgetown failed to reach the NCAA championship game.
• Overall, Georgetown holds a 7-2 lead in the series. Memphis has an alltime record of 127-139 against current members of the Big East. (This record includes marks of 31-36 against Cincinnati and 34-51 against Louisville.)
• Tonight’s game will be the fourth for Memphis against “power conference” teams. The Tigers have beaten Miami and LSU, and lost to Kansas. Tennessee (January 5th) is the only such team left on the schedule.
• The Hoyas enter the game with a record of 10-1, their only loss coming on December 9th at Temple. They have two wins over power-conference teams (North Carolina State, Missouri) and one win over a Conference USA squad (Tulane). They average just over 80 points per game, which ranks 18th in the country.
• Senior guard Austin Freeman leads the Hoyas in scoring with 18.5 ppg and has shot 55 percent from the field through 11 games. He topped 30 points in back-to-back games in late November, but hasn’t reached 15 in Georgetown’s last four games. Junior guard Jason Clark averages 14.2 points and Julian Vaughn leads the Hoyas in rebounding with an average of 6.7 per game. Chris Wright is the table-setter with an average of 6.7 assists per game.
• It’s early to be considering RPI rankings, but Georgetown is currently tops in the country (ahead of Kansas, Florida, Duke, and West Virginia). Memphis ranks 35th, behind C-USA rivals Southern Miss (25th) and UCF (31st).