Forgive the analogy, but college basketball before the new year is akin to primary season in the campaign of a presidential candidate. A lot of noise is made, a few headlines are stolen, and a buzz begins. But after the new year, when conference play begins ... that's when the votes, so to speak, really start to count. "We know it's not a football season," says coach John Calipari. "We know the out-of-conference play is to prepare us for our league."
With 14 Conference USA games coming up (Memphis is 1-1 in C-USA after Saturday night's win in Houston), Calipari's Tigers have a chance to make a lot of fans forget the struggles in Puerto Rico and that journey through the SEC equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. The Rebels, Razorbacks, and Vols will be distant memories if Memphis can handle the Billikens, Blue Demons, and Green Wave. Using the Memphis nonconference schedule as a guideline, here are a few keys to the Tigers finding the C-USA promised land and, perhaps, a berth in the big dance.
Roster resolution. One way or another, the university has to make a decision about the suspended Courtney Trask and John Grice. A mess to begin with, the doubts raised by the status of these players is a cancerous distraction. Fans wonder. The media wonder. You have to believe the players wonder. Suit them up or drop them from the roster until next season. Memphis can then go to battle knowing who its troops are.
Steady guard play. Show me a team that plays deep into March without talent and leadership in the backcourt and I'll show you an aberration. This is an area where seniors Shyrone Chatman and Marcus Moody simply have to step to the fore. They know what battles with Cincinnati are like. They're familiar with hostile territory like Louisville and Hattiesburg. They can be the stabilizing voice the young Tigers desperately need. If Chatman and Trask (assuming he returns) can minimize turnovers and coordinate intelligent shot selection from their teammates, the Tigers will give themselves a chance to win in more games than not.
Make The Pyramid a real tomb for opponents. This has as much to do with the fans as with the players on the floor. Emotion is a self-feeding force. The Tigers respond to what they hear from a home crowd, just as spectators respond to game action. It's been a few years since C-USA rivals really feared taking the court in Memphis. The U of M needs to scare teams again. One way to achieve this is ...
The big boys need to get nasty. Don't get me wrong. Let's leave the fisticuffs to the WWF and Central Hockey League. The Tigers, however, have more than enough size to bang with the best C-USA has to offer. The days of the undersized Omar Sneed leading the Memphis frontline attack are over. Shannon Forman is as tough as any 6' 5" forward in the country. Paris London is quicker than most of the men who will guard him. Kelly Wise, Modibo Diarra, Earl Barron ... count 'em up. Memphis is a big team. With enough grit, this can be an advantage for the Tigers. It can certainly help them.
Win the battle of the boards. Aside from Moody, this is not a team of sharpshooters. Rebounds will be aplenty. Offensively, the time Memphis can kill by grabbing second chances will be critical against teams with more overall skill. Defensively, it's Hoops 101: Limit your opponents' shots and you'll limit their point total.
Play .500 on the road. Goals should be lofty but realistic. For Memphis to reach the NCAA tournament, road wins are going to be a must. Seven games away from the Bluff City remain. The schedule is such that the Tigers never play three straight road games. So a dose of the home stuff will be there to help quell losing streaks. A key stretch of the season will come in mid-February, when Memphis travels to Charlotte two days after hosting Cincinnati and two days before hosting UAB. A win against the 49ers could mean two out of three over this five-day period, maybe even a sweep. Tournament officials will be watching. If the Tigers are to find success in the postseason -- be it the conference tourney, the NIT, or the NCAAs -- they're going to have to win away from home.
Get healthy. This may seem like an obvious factor, but it's especially important for this Tiger team. And it may entail getting healthy in the classroom, as well as the training room. To excel at the brand of basketball Calipari preaches -- frenetic defense, aggressive transition, constant ball movement -- requires depth. To compete with the likes of Cincinnati, Charlotte, and Southern Miss, Memphis must go at least nine players deep. You might see these nine each play as much as 15 minutes. An ankle-turn here, a knee-sprain there (or indefinite suspensions) and the engine will slow considerably.
Shine, Kelly, shine. Make no mistake: This is Kelly Wise's team if he wants it. At full strength, the Tigers have as deep a bench as there is in C-USA. And that will be critical if they are to contend for the conference title. But they have one player who can take over a game at either end of the floor. If Wise slumps, the offense will sag. If he gets in foul trouble, the defense will weaken. If he continues to show the maturity he has thus far and continues to adapt to the double-teams he will surely face, well, the sky's the limit. As Marcus Camby was to Calipari's last two teams at UMass, so Kelly Wise is to his first here in Memphis.