The loss at SMU was bad, but it’d happened before, so maybe that made it bearable. The loss at Marshall was bad, but it was just a bad game against an OK team. The loss to Tulsa was bad, but the Tigers followed it up with four straight wins, so maybe it was just a fluke.
But Memphis’ 67-52 loss to Rice on Saturday was bad because, well, it was completely awful.
The Tigers, riding a four-game winning streak, had somehow built a solid RPI in the 20s and crept back onto the NCAA Tournament bubble. ESPN’s resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi even had Memphis among the “Last Four In” late last week. Now that is no more. At least it seems that way.
Memphis’ up-and-down play has driven fans wild this season, but it should come as no surprise.
The Tigers lost back-to-back games to Marshall and Tulsa, but went on the road and won at Gonzaga — a place where few teams leave with victories. The slew of star freshmen have dazzled as much as they’ve disappointed. They’ve left crowds in awe as much as they’ve left them aghast.
The Tigers are what they are. Their talent is exceptional, but they’re not ready to utilize it in full.
Will Barton is the best player on the team, but he’s not going to look like it every night. Joe Jackson is fast, but he’s not at all used to the college game. Tarik Black has shown more development than any of the freshmen this season, but he — like a man named Joey Dorsey once did — hasn’t figured out how to stay out of foul trouble.
Throw in Wesley Witherspoon and Will Coleman being veterans in name only, and you’ve got the recipe for what you’ve seen out of Memphis basketball this season.
With four games remaining and only one of them against an above-.500 team (as if that matters), the Tigers’ focus needs to be on getting the absolute best seed possible in the C-USA Tournament.
As of Sunday, Memphis’ RPI, according to RealTimeRPI.com, had only dropped to No. 34, though it could continue to drop — even despite a win — with games against Tulane, Houston and East Carolina (in addition to UTEP) left to play. Throw in a few games in the conference tournament, and the Tigers could very well be hovering in the 40s or 50s come Selection Sunday.
Crazier things have happened and worse teams have probably tripped and fell into the NCAA Tournament field, but Memphis has to be realistic. And judging by how upset coach Josh Pastner in his postgame radio interview Saturday, the Tigers probably completely understand their predicament.
“I told the guys we’ll meet (Sunday) as a team,” Pastner said. “I said ‘Do not come in there tomorrow if you’re not ready to win four straight.’ We still control our destiny to win out, and if we win out, we win the conference title.”
If Memphis does reel off four straight and make a very strong run in the conference tournament — it would probably need to be an appearance in the championship game — the Tigers might have enough street cred to warrant an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament.
But with this Memphis team, that’s a big, big “if.”