Monday, March 5, 2018

AAC Tourney Preview

Posted By on Mon, Mar 5, 2018 at 10:11 AM

Here we are again.

After winning five of their last six games, the 2017-18 Memphis Tigers finished their regular season with a record of 19-12. Which is precisely the mark they posted at this stage of the 2016-17 season. The Tigers again finished fifth in the American Athletic Conference, though one win better (10-8) than they were a year ago in league play.

Last season, fifth place earned the Tigers a bye into the AAC tournament quarterfinals. With 12 teams now, the AAC only rewards a bye to four teams, so Memphis will face the USF Bulls in a first-round game Thursday in Orlando. The game will take place precisely a week after the league's cellar-dweller embarrassed the Tigers at FedExForum.

The AAC tournament has not been kind to Memphis. In three of the four tourneys to date, the Tigers lost their opening game (last season to UCF by 30 points). They made a run to the tournament championship game two years ago, only to bow out against UConn in what proved to be Josh Pastner's final game as Tiger head coach.
click to enlarge Mike Parks Jr. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Parks Jr.

Memphis will not play in the NCAA tournament a fourth straight season, the longest such drought in these parts since 1997-2002 (six years). And only with a run in the AAC tournament might Memphis earn a bid to the second-tier NIT. (A miss there would mean no postseason play for a fourth straight season, which hasn't happened since 1978-81.) How can the Tigers find some fun near Disney World? There are three keys, and each of them has a name (and two arms, and two legs).

1) Mike Parks Jr. β€” The closest thing to a true center Memphis has suited up in years (though just 6'8"), Parks was averaging 4.2 points and 3.0 rebounds after the Tigers' loss to Cincinnati on December 31st. Seventeen games later (ten of them wins), Parks's numbers are 8.1 and 4.4. Not the kind of figures that land you on draft boards, but Parks generally plays well in Tiger wins (20 points and eight boards in Sunday's win over East Carolina) and poorly in Tiger losses (two points, two rebounds, and three fouls in 12 minutes in the loss to USF on March 1st). The Tigers enjoyed two four-game winning streaks in conference play and Parks averaged 15.5 points over these eight games.

2) Kareem Brewton Jr. β€” Brewton found some extra life in his game after point guard Jeremiah Martin (the AAC's scoring champion) went down with a left-foot injury in the first half of the Tigers' upset of Houston on February 22nd. His 12 points and seven assists helped fuel the Tigers' win at UConn on February 25th and he scored a season-high 22 points (with six assists) in the Memphis win over ECU last weekend. Like Parks, Brewton disappeared in the loss to USF (one for ten from the field in 37 minutes). Basketball teams don't generally win in March without steady play from their point guard. For this week, at least, Kareem Brewton is the Memphis Tigers' point guard.

3) Kyvon Davenport β€” The third juco transfer on this list is one of just four AAC players to average as many as 12.8 points and 6.0 rebounds this season. When you factor in Martin's late-season injury, Davenport has been the steadiest player at coach Tubby Smith's disposal for 31 games. He failed to score at least 10 points only six times. If the Tigers are to advance this week, multiple players will have to make up the absence of Martin's 18.9 points per game. Davenport is the most capable option for filling that void.

Even after the dreadful loss to USF, Davenport said his team "still has something to play for." It was optimistic talk in the aftermath of a defeat that may cost this team an NIT bid. But come Thursday, Memphis does indeed have something to play for. If three players rise to their best in Orlando, a few ugly memories from a rocky winter can be erased.


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