Mixed Signals 

Surprising developments for Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen.

So it's the University of Memphis football Tigers who are now role models for the basketballers? Wow!

It must be an interesting view from Tom Bowen's desk. Not quite six months after entering his new office, the U of M athletic director is surely checking his notes on his department's two primary revenue generators.

The flagship men's basketball team, long the backbone of Tiger athletics, seems to be tottering on the edge of a cliff — overrated, underperforming, and in the same rut toward mediocrity it found itself in a year ago at this time. Meanwhile, over the last three weeks of its season, the football team (on a 6-39 win-loss death spiral a month ago) looked like a version of the early-Seventies Nebraska Cornhuskers, blowing away its last three opponents and scoring six touchdowns last Saturday against arch-rival Southern Miss only because it didn't need to score seven.

Next, surely, the Mississippi River will be seen flowing north. Wet ribs will carry the day. And the Jungle Room will be closed for good at Graceland.

The basketball team came perilously close to losing three games in three days — to three unranked teams — at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. By storming back to beat Northern Iowa(!) Saturday, Josh Pastner's squad avoided a return to Memphis with the program's first losing record since an opening loss to the 2003-04 season. Worse, though, Pastner's veteran team looked shy in the "want to" department, playing the kind of perimeter defense expected of second-tier programs. When a single shooter is able to drain five three-pointers — and this happened in both losses last weekend — it leaves a scar on a team's defensive reputation. The Tigers will be fighting this reputation, starting Thursday night at FedExForum.

And the football team? In scoring 125 points over its three-game sweep of Tulane, UAB, and Southern Miss, the Tigers not only salvaged a distinctively positive vibe for the 2012 season (even with a 4-8 record) but provided a bold statement on their competitive worth entering the Big East next year. Quarterback Jacob Karam looked poised in a well-protected pocket. Brandon Hayes topped 100 yards rushing in each of the last two games. Martin Ifedi led a reborn pass rush that dropped Golden Eagle quarterbacks four times in the season finale. All three players will return for the 2013 season.

More than likely, the extremes we've seen in each program this month will become just that in memory: extremes. Joe Jackson is a better basketball player than the one we saw in two losses on Paradise Island. A team that suits up the number of athletes at Pastner's disposal can be inspired to play better defense, can be infused with more "want to." There's simply too much bench time awaiting those players, who, well, don't want to.

And the football team has climbing to do. There will be no Tulane, UAB, or Southern Miss on next year's schedule. Though there will be UT-Martin and Middle Tennessee, programs that handled Justin Fuente's bunch before their late-season revival. There is renewable value, though, in finishing a season the way the 2012 Tigers did. When adversity hits next fall — a two-game losing streak? four? — will Karam or Ifedi dig a hole and hide? Not after spending nine months savoring a kind of winning streak quite foreign in these parts.

There's a juicy coincidence to the basketball team's return to the Forum this week. The Tigers will tip off against UT-Martin, the very school that beat the football team in Fuente's debut almost three months ago to the day. The way Pastner's team approaches the game — between the ears — will say as much about what Tiger fans can expect for what remains a long season ahead. The basketball players would be wise to heed the words spoken last week by Fuente, the football coach aiming desperately to establish a new baseline for his program's strength: "We're not in a position to judge anyone in our program right now. We have to make sure that we focus on ourselves and our preparation."

A Memphis basketball team inspired by a Memphis football team, Mr. Bowen. Imagine that.

Frank Murtaugh is managing editor of Memphis magazine and a regular sports columnist for the Flyer.

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