Last Thursday night in Austin, Texas, the Tigers had their opportunity for a breakthrough win. The 15th-ranked Longhorns wanted to give a game away, missing free throws and turning the ball over enough in the second half to blow a 9-point lead. But Memphis couldnt make the big shot . . . when they got a shot at all. (It would have been nice to see a timeout on one of the two disjointed possessions late in the second half when the U of M couldnt even take a shot with the game on the line.) In seasons other than this, moral victory might work for the Tigers seventh loss. But with dreams of an NCAA tournament bid now all but dead, the program needs victories that actually show up on the left side of the standings.
Which brings us to Sunday night, and the opening of Conference USA play, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles playing the foil at FedExForum. Shooting a cool 50 percent from the field on their way to a 43-18 halftime lead, the Tigers beat an undersized USM squad to alleviate some of the pressure building since mid-November. At least until Tom Crean brings his own flock of Golden Eagles -- those that call Marquette home -- to town this Thursday, the U of M can call themselves undefeated . . . in conference play.
Fifteen games in, there are three lessons with which Tiger hoops devotees should grow comfortable as conference play unfolds:
Minus a true post presence, this teams offense is built from the outside in. When the Tigers are hitting their three-pointers -- and they dropped eight on Southern Miss -- they typically win. When they dont -- and they were under 30 percent in six of their previous seven games -- they typically lose. This makes for fan-friendly basketball in good times, and dreadfully ugly, desperate-looking strategy when the rims arent friendly. Rodney Carney (five of eight from behind the arc Sunday) and Anthony Rice (the schools alltime leader in treys) have to be hot for a winning streak of any length.
As much as their coach might like it otherwise, the players who make the difference for this team -- Carney, Rice, Sean Banks, and Darius Washington -- are offensive players first. The Tigers wont hold many opponents to the 46 points they did Southern Miss last weekend. They average 64 points allowed per game. Back to the first lesson, when the U of M shooters are connecting, they can outscore the opposition. Asking this team to win with defense isnt being honest with the skills on the roster.
For good or ill, the Tigers fortunes are going to have a lot to do with the mood of Mr. Banks. He remains the most talented player in uniform, and about as consistent as a Memphis winter. Sporting a shiner delivered by teammate Arthur Barclay after the game in Austin last week, Banks was in a giving mood (quite literally) Sunday night, dishing out a team-high five assists with nary a turnover. Memphis won a blowout with their top player getting only five points. If Banks plays angry, if he sulks and draws the ire of his mates, itll be a long winter indeed for Tiger Nation. But if he can regain the hunger he played with as a freshman, if he works in the context of Caliparis plan -- move the ball! -- Banks is the kind of player who can win four or five game +s by himself.
The 2004-05 Memphis Tigers must take the rest of the season as a challenge in itself. Play the underdog . . . which means use some humility to advantage. After a loss, concede the better team won, no finger-pointing. Dont act like an official is the sixth opponent on the floor. But if things get rough, go down fighting. Take some pictures of that shiner Banks is carrying these days, and post them in the locker room. This has been one black-eye of a season thus far. With conference play now upon us, its time for the counterpunch.