This weeks challenge: spin something positive out of the Memphis Tigers dreadful showing at last weeks Conference USA tournament in Cincinnati. Well . . . if youre going to play a clunker in March, better to do so in your conference tourney than the NCAAs. (Hows that?)
The University of Memphis aims to win its first NCAA tournament game since 1995 this Friday. John Caliparis squad limps into the Big Dance with precisely the seeding they deserve (7), having lost three of their last four, and with a losing record (6-7) on the road this season. It takes six wins to become national champion, so here are six keys for the Tigers as they head to Kansas City and a showdown with South Carolina.
Hit the long ball. Memphis was 9-3 when they made at least 10 three-pointers this season. This is easy math. Ten made threes is an incremental leap of 10 points over the same number of conventional field goals. Most NCAA tournament games are decided by fewer than 10 points. The Tigers have to capitalize on this strength, as their lack of size and bench strength will be targets for the opposition.
Antonio Burks has to be a factor. The U of Ms senior point guard played his worst game of the season against Saint Louis last Thursday (2 for 11 from the field). Odds are he wont have two duds in a row. Not since the days of Elliot Perry has a point guards role been more critical for the Memphis Tigers. Burks must distribute the ball to hot hands, he must slow the offensive pace of his playmaking counterpart, and yes, he must score.
Win the rebounding battle. Ho-hum. This is a key for all 65 teams in the field. But for Memphis, its especially critical. Had the Tigers not given up 20(!) offensive rebounds to Cincinnati in their regular-season finale March 6th, theyd be outright champions of C-USA and more than likely a higher seed than the seventh they received. The burden i çs on Duane Erwin, Ivan Lopez, and Arthur Barclay to provide the hard-hat work inside, particularly on the defensive side of the court. With Burks pushing the offense, the Tigers will have their share of runs. They simply cant allow second-chance points to negate the offensive production.
Dont Bank on Sean for round one. The Tigers freshman star will be in the media spotlight from the opening tip. Dont expect him to live up to the hype. Carmelo Anthony and the 1991-92 Michigan Wolverines aside, few freshmen do during their first exposure to March Madness. The opening round is a time for those Memphis players returning to the tournament -- Burks, Erwin, Anthony Rice, Rodney Carney -- to carry some extra weight for the rookies. Survive the opener . . . then strap yourself tightly to the gitter-free freshman stud.
Start fast. For good or ill, the 2003-04 Tigers are a team that thrives on momentum . . . and they are not very good at swinging i t. In two losses this season (Southern Miss in January, Saint Louis last week), the Tigers found themselves way behind before 10 minutes had been played. And despite outscoring each of those opponents over the last 30 minutes, they left the floor losers. When the Tigers have started fast -- even when a big lead is reduced -- theyve shown themselves to be solid finishers.
A new star to be born. Barclay? Erwin? Lopez? It seems one of the blue-collar big men Calipari has utilized will have to turn things up a notch for Memphis to reach the tournaments second weekend. He may not need to score all that much, but some offensive presence (read: drawing fouls inside) would be invaluable for this teams much-heralded perimeter shooting.
A couple of wins in the Big Dance would allow Tiger Nation to forget last weeks debacle in Cincinnati. One and done? Itll be a loooooong offseason for John Calipari.