Do the Memphis Tigers realize that they have something to prove? If so, John Calipari and his charges seem strangely oblivious.
Memphis entered the tournament as the darling of the Pomeroy Ratings, sporting a top-ranked expected Pythagorean winning percentage of 97.9%, a figure based upon efficiencies that have been adjusted for strength of opposition. While the rankings aren't quite gospel, they're about as good a method of comparing teams from the 31 Division I conferences (plus independents) as you're going to find.
Still, the Tigers have had to bear something of a scarlet letter on their chests because of the sins of their conference brethren. Conference USA was not a great league this season, ranking eighth in Pomeroy's system. If you remove Memphis from the equation, the league might drop to ninth, but probably not if you consider that each CUSA team would probably have two fewer losses on its schedule. So CUSA isn't great, but it's not like Memphis has been playing the New Jersey Institute of Technology every night. No offense, Highlander fans.
Perhaps part of the reason Memphis gets so much flak for its conference is because of the degree to which it has dominated the league. That will happen when you've won 61 conference games in a row. With four more CUSA wins, Memphis will break the record for most consecutive wins in any conference, now held by John Wooden's UCLA squads that ran roughshod over the Pac-10 from 1970 to 1974.
Coach Cal's Tigers haven't lost in CUSA play since March 2, 2006, when UAB knocked off Memphis 80-74 in Birmingham. To bring this full circle, the coach of the Blazers that night was entering his final days at the helm for UAB. About three weeks after handing Calipari his last league defeat, Mike Anderson packed his bags and headed for Columbia, Missouri, to pick up the pieces of a basketball program shattered by the mad ways of Quin Snyder. Anderson, of course, has Mizzou in the Sweet 16, with a date tonight with his old pal John Calipari.
For many, this will be Memphis' first true test since it lost to Syracuse on Dec. 20. To think that is to overlook a convincing 68-50 win at Gonzaga on Feb. 7. The Zags, ranked No. 6 by Pomeroy, are also trying to win the respect of the mainstream, which they would surely have with a win over North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
Those who doubt Memphis aren't entirely without justification. After all, besides Gonzaga, the Tigers have lost to the three strongest teams on their schedule: Xavier, Georgetown and Syracuse. Those losses predated Tyreke Evans' move to point guard; Memphis has won 27 straight since making that change. Still, to win national respect, you have to beat teams from the ACC, Big East, Big 10 and Lawrence, Kansas. That's how it works with the talking heads.
I have to admit that I've had a particularly close eye on Memphis in this tournament. On Selection Sunday, I plugged Pomeroy's numbers into a log-5 tournament simulator that I created in Excel. The application sims the tournament 1,000 times and, to my surprise, it pegged Memphis as an overwhelming favorite.
North Carolina 12%
West Virginia 4%
CH%: percentage of simulations team won tournament
When my system spit out those percentages I admit that I asked myself, "I wonder just how much Conference USA is in those numbers?" That is also what was on my mind when Memphis arrived in Kansas City last week for its first two NCAA Tournament games.
In their first game against Cal State-Northridge, Memphis moved like a pack of somnambulists for three-quarters of the game. Northridge was repeatedly beating the Tigers down the floor for easy shots. Memphis appeared to be taken aback by the speed of Matador point guard Mark Hill, who wasn't even a full-time player for most of the season. Hill was the starter in Northridge’s attack while the frontcourt of Willie Galick, Kenny Daniels and Tremaine Townsend were all finishers, as each of them were whipping their Memphis counterparts in transition. When the Matadors' two-guard, Rodrique Mels, caught fire midway through the second half and the crowd at the Sprint Center suddenly converted en masse into Northridge boosters, an upset actually seemed possible.
If Memphis' Roburt Sallie had not scored 35 points--22 more than his previous career high--the Tigers may well have lost and proven the naysayers right. However the Tigers won and as we all know, the thing in the NCAA Tournament is to simply survive. The events of one game do not necessarily bleed into the next. They certainly didn't in Memphis' case, as the Tigers came out in the second round and batted around Maryland, a middling team from the vaunted ACC that was lucky just to be in the bracket.
After the Northridge game, in the intimate atmosphere of an NCAA postgame interview room, I asked John Calipari if playing in the CUSA prepared his team for the NCAAs as well as, say, playing in the Big East or the ACC would.
"We'll find out if that's true, won't we? Right now, we're still marching on. I would tell you that UTEP did this to us, had their chances to beat us, Tulsa did it to us down there, had their chances to beat us.
"You had UAB [doing] stuff in the zone and different things like [Northridge] and in all those cases, we found a way to win. But there are people in our league--Central Florida played us great and did a lot of zone and mixing it up.
"Our league is way better than everybody gives it credit. A lot of times, it's to minimize what we've done."
Well, on one hand, you wouldn't expect Calipari to respond any other way. However, the Pomeroy rankings of the teams he mentioned (UTEP #72, Tulsa #60, UAB #42, Central Florida #135) aren't going to win over many dissenters. No matter how you slice it, Memphis has played a weaker schedule than every team left in the Sweet 16 except for Gonzaga--a team the Tigers have already beaten.
We look to numbers to put sports issues in context. Without an extensive body of work against strong competition, those of us who have backed the Tigers in our tournament prognostications have to rely on those numbers. Memphis' statistical resume is awfully impressive. The Tigers have the top adjusted efficiency margin (+32.5) in the nation. Their adjusted defensive efficiency (81.2) is also tops, as is their defensive effective field goal percentage (40.9%). The defensive efficiency figure is the best of the four years' worth of data easily accessible at KenPom.com.
From here on out, things get serious. As John Gasaway has already pointed out, this Sweet 16 is the strongest group of any since the NCAA went to the 64/65 team format. Tonight, Memphis faces a stern test against Mike Anderson's version of Tigers, this one from Missouri.
Mizzou does a number of things that could trip up Memphis. They play at a fast pace (29th in adjusted tempo). In its more competitive games, Memphis has generally played games in the 60-65 possession range. Missouri has played very few games at that slow of a pace. If Missouri can turn tonight's game into an up-and-down affair, it will play to its favor despite the impressive athleticism of Memphis.
Missouri's bread-and-butter is forcing turnovers and doing so will be the key to its chances of keeping the tempo fast. Memphis takes care of the ball well in its halfcourt set but as they showed against Northridge, Tyreke Evans can be forced into turning the ball over if you make him play too fast. Memphis will not be able to wear down Mizzou, but the opposite is also true--these are possibly the two deepest teams left in the bracket.
For Missouri's press-and-run attack to work, it will have to keep the scoreboard churning. That's where the chicken-and-egg problem comes in. I overheard one scout in Kansas City say that, on film, the length and athleticism of Memphis' defenders makes it seem like they have seven players on the floor. Missouri is inconsistent in halfcourt sets. They are patient and do a good job of moving the ball, with every player in the 11-man rotation showing a willingness to pass up a tough shot in order to create an easier opportunity for a teammate. Mizzou ranked 29th in assists per made field goals. However, the Tigers finished 109th in three-point percentage and, in general, are an inconsistent shooting team. They need to make baskets to force the tempo, but no team is more difficult to score on than Memphis.
A win over Missouri would begin to win over some of the doubters that remain about John Calipari's squad. Any remaining holdouts could be turned in a possible Memphis/Connecticut showdown on Saturday. It still seems odd to suggest that a team with 61 straight conference wins and a current 27-game winning streak, that also happens to be coming off an overtime loss in last year's national championship game, would have anything to prove. However, the fact of the matter is that as long as Memphis toils in a second-tier conference, the Tigers are never going to get their due until March rolls around.
Last year's Memphis team proved its mettle by nearly running the table in the Big Dance. This year's team, as strong as they look on the computer screen, hasn't proven anything yet. Memphis can still earn its stripes though, beginning tonight.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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