Despite being in the shiny new American Athletic Conference the Memphis Tigers are still in must-win situations more often than not. Back in the days of C-USA, every conference game needed to be won so that the selection committee for the NCAA tournament would give the Tigers something better than a 10 seed. So naturally many people welcomed the idea of a new conference where the Tigers could slip up a few times but still get into the Big Dance with a decent seeding.
Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati should not have been one of those slip-ups. If you look at top-level teams in quality conferences, you see teams that win games they are supposed to win, always win at home, falter a time or two on the road, and move up in the rankings by beating teams that are as good or superior to them. Teams that deserve a four seed or better usually only lose four or five games, if that.
The Tigers did not perform like a top-level team on Saturday. They lost at home to a team they should have beaten. And unfortunately, unless Pastner and co. can go out and beat Louisville and UCONN a couple of times and/or win the AAC tournament, people are going to remember that loss (read: embarrassment) from this past weekend.
There was point in the game where Cincinnati held a seven-point lead over Memphis with about six minutes left. I thought to myself at that moment, “If Memphis is really a top-15 caliber team, then they should come back and win this one.” They promptly did the opposite and instead let the Bearcats run roughshod over them for the rest of the game. FedExForum was filled with boos for the first time all season and sadly there was nobody to blame for this one but the players.
After the game, Joe Jackson during his media availability said, “They really wanted to beat us. We didn’t really want to beat them.” I understand that a basketball season is long. And I still believe that Memphis will make the tournament and play well in the new conference, but gone are the days of being able to win on talent alone. Gone are the games that you don’t have to care about but can still win handily. This is a team that needs to play every game like it needs to be won. This is a team that needs to be aware it still has a target on its back, but the people hunting them are now a lot bigger and stronger and better at basketball. This is a team that needs to give a damn, now more than ever.
The easiest way to forget a loss is to go out and win; everyone knows that. But with away games against Louisville and Temple and a home game against always powerful Connecticut looming, that adage will be easier said than done. Winning two of those three would help right the ship a great deal, but the team I saw play on Saturday, the players I saw give up at the end of the game, they don’t give me a whole lot of confidence to think that two out of those three is feasible right now.