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The schedule may be their biggest ally as the Tigers reach the season’s midpoint.

by Dennis Freeland

ith a perfunctory 74-62 victory over South Florida last Saturday, the University of Memphis basketball team reached the midpoint in its inaugural season under head coach Tic Price. Thirteen games, seven wins, six losses.
“Certainly there are some games we felt we should have won, but that’s part of the growing pains, part of the process,” Price said after the South Florida game. “Losing is always disappointing. I always tell our kids, ‘When you lose, make sure you don’t lose again, because then losing becomes a habit and it’s hard to stop it.’”
Most disappointing were home losses to Arkansas and Tennessee. Memphis could possibly be 9-4, if they had executed better down the stretch against the Vols and Hogs. If the Tigers repeat their first-half performance during the next six weeks, they would enter the C-USA tournament with a record of 14-12, needing to win the conference tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament. At 14-12, Memphis would also probably need to win a pair of games to get an NIT bid.
But there’s good news. The toughest part of the schedule is behind them. Memphis benefits from 12 of the final 13 games being against C-USA opponents, mostly from the weak National Division, where only UAB and Southern Miss have the talent to compete with the Tigers. For a realistic shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, Memphis probably needs to win 10 or 11 in the second half, giving them 17 or 18 victories entering the conference tournament in Cincinnati. Tough, but not impossible considering the schedule.

Jermaine Ousley: a power forward forced to play center.

The one word that best sums up Tic Price is “tough.” The term applies to how he handles his players – the coach isn’t afraid to demonstrate his displeasure by benching star players – and to how his players, in turn, respond to pressure. The final record may not bear this out, but with impressive wins at Oklahoma and Saint Louis and close losses at Cincinnati and Vanderbilt, this appears to be the best road team Memphis has had in a number of years. Last year Memphis was 5-11 away from The Pyramid.
Price has said several times that he likes this team, a hodge-podge of eight transfers and two true freshmen. With a 6-8 power forward (Jermaine Ousley) starting at center and a 6-4 power forward (Omar Sneed) leading the team in scoring, rebounding, steals, and minutes-played, Price is probably squeezing about as much as can be expected from his team. For most of the first half, the coach only saw four players when he looked down his bench for help, and two of them – freshman James Harris and senior Cody Hopson – are role players with limited offensive skills. Lack of depth has forced Price to abandon the pressing, attacking style of play he prefers.
The biggest challenge facing Price at this point may be reconstructing the damaged psyche of his gifted freshman, Marcus Moody. After scoring 41 points on December 13th, leading Memphis to an exhilarating last-second win at Oklahoma, Moody has completely lost his game. His scoring average has plummeted from 20 points per game to 10.7. His shooting stroke has vanished. In the nine games following Oklahoma, Moody hit only 8 of 41 three-point shots. Against the Sooners, he hit 7 of 14. After that big night in Norman, opposing teams got physical with the young freshman. Moody didn’t turn 18 until the school year started and his body is not as mature as many college players. The book on Moody is to play him tight and muscle him away from the spots where he likes to shoot along the left wing. A more experienced player might turn to other parts of his game – defense, rebounding, and passing, all areas in which Moody can excel. But Moody has lost his confidence. It’s up to Price and his assistants to lead the young guard out of the wilderness.
A quick look at Conference USA statistics tells the Memphis story. In a 12-team league, Memphis ranks 9th in scoring defense, 11th in free-throw percentage, 9th in field-goal percentage defense, 8th in rebounding margin, and 11th in both assists and assists-to-turnover margin. The Tigers shoot pretty well (4th), block shots (5th), and are a scrappy, athletic team (2nd in steals). But this is a team with obvious weaknesses that good teams will exploit.
Tic Price won at least 20 games in his three previous seasons as a head coach, all at New Orleans. That streak will likely end in 1998. For him to even salvage a trip to the NIT may require a Herculean effort from both his coaches and players.

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