Tigers may have to be close to perfect
Memphis doesn't have to run the table in Conference USA and win the league tournament at home to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But it certainly would help.
The Tigers potentially have one more nonconference game against a ranked team -- if Tennessee can get back in the Top 25 by the time the two play on Jan. 18. There's also still a chance UAB or Houston could crack the polls.
The reality, though, is that Memphis will have to clean up against lesser competition in C-USA -- something head coach John Calipari is wary of.
"How many went undefeated in their league and won their conference tournament?" Calipari asked. "How many? It's got to be only a handful."
Calipari is correct. In the past five seasons, it has happened only three times -- Gonzaga (2003-04 in the WCC), Kentucky (2002-03 in the SEC) and Weber State (2002-03 in the Big Sky). And Calipari would like you to know that asking the Tigers to accomplish that probably is requesting too much of his squad.
"It's way too early, way too early [to talk about being a No. 1 seed]," he said.
The Tigers have lost twice already this season -- albeit to our preseason top two (Duke and Texas). Memphis also has won on the road (Cincinnati, Alabama, Providence and Ole Miss), on a neutral court (UCLA) and at home (Gonzaga, Purdue and Wisconsin-Milwaukee).
Calipari has experienced this before. He took UMass to the Final Four in 1996, although the Minutemen had a dominant player in the middle (Marcus Camby), which is not the case with the Tigers. Memphis has a potential All-American in Rodney Carney, but he's not a player who can take over completely the way Camby could at both ends of the court.
This Memphis team also relies heavily on freshmen, with five of them in the top eight.
"I knew we were going to be pretty good, but I didn't know how we would mesh," Calipari said. "I had never coached this way."
What way? It seems Calipari has changed his style a bit. He went out to Fresno, Calif., in the fall to meet with Fresno City College coach Vance Wahlberg, a proponent of uptempo offense, and the Tigers' offense this season is based on a lot of quick hitters which give them much more offensive freedom, according to Calipari. He also has a player who can lead the offense in sophomore Darius Washington, although he has been ailing all season with a thigh bruise.
The Tigers had worked the offense well until the Texas game Monday, when their shooting fell flat: 20-of-70 overall, 6-of-32 on 3s.
Calipari said before the Texas game,that Memphis certainly would get dinged along the way. He didn't plan on it being the game against the Longhorns, but does anticipate that it will be hard to run the table in C-USA -- even though the league did Memphis some favors in scheduling, with the Tigers avoiding road games at Houston and UTEP.
Two years ago, Saint Joseph's ran the A-10 table but was routed in the conference tournament quarterfinals by Xavier. The Hawks still landed a No. 1 seed, even though there was a lot of talk about whether the Hawks should have been a 1-seed because of their conference and their nonconference schedule.
Although the new C-USA and the A-10 are comparable, Memphis' nonconference schedule has been more difficult than the Hawks' was. Saint Joseph's beat Gonzaga in New York, beat BC at home, Cal on the road and Villanova on the road. That was decent then, but it wasn't the same as what Memphis has done so far.
Still, the Hawks were so clearly the best team in the A-10 and one of the top four teams in the country that they earned a No. 1 seed. Memphis might have to do the same. We'll all have to keep tabs on the Tigers because they won't be on national television much, with only two more games on the ESPN networks the rest of the season (Feb. 22 UTEP and March 2 at UAB) and a handful on CSTV.
Duke, barring a collapse, should be in a position to get a No. 1, but the other three are up for grabs. Memphis put itself in the chase through the first two months. We'll see whether the Tigers can stay in the race over the next six weeks.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com
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