To Be or Not to Be? Can Pastner’s Tigers Finally Beat a Top 25 Opponent?

-Photo by Justin Ford

To be or not to be? That is question. Okay, so the debate over whether Memphis can finally defeat a Top 25 team under Josh Pastner’s regime many not exactly rival Shakespearean drama, but it is definitely in the minds of both his most fervent supporters and his most vehement detractors. Right or not, it seems that as far as followers of the University of Memphis basketball program are concerned, Pastner is either revered or reviled. Just like any situation involving Tiger basketball, it seems that fans and media alike seem to take an extreme position.

So to silence his critics (at least temporarily), Pastner’s Tigers desperately need to beat a high caliber opponent, and the sooner the better. But what are the odds that it happens this season? The truth is, there simply might not be many opportunities. At this exact moment, only one team on the schedule is currently considered by the AP or USA Today/ESPN pollsters to be on the top 25 programs in the country. Their first opponent in the Bahamas, VCU, started the season just outside the top 25, but a loss in their opener quickly dropped the Rams from consideration. Of course if Memphis manages to beat Virginia Commonwealth, they likely have a meeting in store with a consensus top 10 program in Duke, but beating the Blue Devils might be a bit much to ask of the overmatched Tigers. And no one, including fans or pollsters, would be too shocked if Memphis comes up a bit short there.

So jump ahead to mid-December, and Louisville pops up on the schedule. The Cardinals will definitely still be in the rankings, but it will take a stellar effort from the Tigers to upset Rick Pitino’s team, even though Memphis gets them at home. Several publications have picked the Cards to cut down the nets in March, and it may take a Herculean effort just for Memphis to keep the game close.

And after that, the chances to knock off a ranked team drop off even further. Tennessee is on the radar in both polls, but it’s difficult to predict whether the Vols will crack the top 25 at some point this year, and what are the odds that UT will be ranked on January 4 when they face the Tigers? Add to that the fact that the game is on the road, and even though Memphis defeated Tennessee twice last year, that was prior to Jarnell Stokes’ being eligible. And you can rest assured that he will be looking to play his best against his hometown team.

It’s unlikely that a C-USA foe will be ranked at any point this year. Even if one of those teams gets hot and piles up an impressive record, the putrid reputation of the conference may be enough to keep them off of the voters’ radar.
The eye test will tell you that this team may not have what it takes to make the kind of push needed to post a trademark win. Early showings for this Tigers squad may not be a good sign either. So far Memphis has displayed: a lackluster narrow win over an undersized CBU, an uninspired second half against North Florida and a team that simply failed to show up against Samford. And the team showed that the same problems that have plagued them in recent seasons continue to fester. The players seem to be unable to get up for games against supposedly inferior opponents, although one would think that lack of motivation would no longer be an issue for a mostly veteran laden team. They seem to lack that killer instinct that big time programs seem to develop. And that is not the recipe for beating ranked opponents.

That’s not to say that the Tigers can’t have a remarkable record this season, but odds are this simply won’t be the year where Pastner gets his first victory over a top 25 opponent. At least in the regular season. What does it say about the current Memphis head coach? Honestly, not much. The guy is a recruiter beyond compare at this point in his career, and the Tigers are lucky that he chooses to be here. So though affinity for the man seems to wax and wane among Memphis fans, he is the no doubt the best option for this team. The bigger question is, is this the right core group of players?

The bonus here is, if Memphis does somehow pull out a couple of top 25 victories this year, it may just mean that something very special is brewing. So let the drama unfold. Even if it’s not quite Shakespeare.

Michael Jones covers Tiger basketball for MemphiSport. Follow him @MemphisMichaelJ.

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