Tag Archives: AAC

Realignment Revisited: Memphis Is Actually In A Decent Basketball League

Memphis fans are accustomed to Tiger basketball playing in boring, weak basketball leagues.

American-Athletic-Conference-LogoThe Tigers competed in Conference USA from 1995-2013. After Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette defected prior to 2005, the conference was significantly watered down. As a result, Memphis dominated the league annually.

The lack of competition in CUSA was a regular topic of discussion for college basketball pundits critical of Memphis. Every March, Memphis dominated the CUSA tournament and listened to experts denounce the accomplishment.

When Memphis was selected for BIG EAST membership in February of 2012, the excitement was short lived. Before Memphis could officially enter the league, it was torn apart by defections. Louisville left for the ACC, Rutgers joined the B1G, Marquette and other basketball schools (Georgetown, Villanova, etc…) split off to form their own league. They took the BIG EAST brand with them.

Memphis was left in something called the American Athletic Conference.

After all the movement, amid a disappointing / rebuilding year for Memphis basketball, a positive development for the Tiger program has been obscured: the American Athletic Conference is a pretty darn good basketball league.

The American is certainly a major improvement from the final version of CUSA that Memphis left in 2013.

Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Television. Almost every single conference game is on national television (either on the ESPN family of networks, or CBS Sports Network). This is a far cry from the CUSA days where Memphis Basketball disappeared from the national conversation during the final 3 months of the season – even if they were highly ranked. Not only is the contract good for watching Memphis games – but you can turn on the TV almost any night and see an interesting conference game.
  • Cincinnati. Memphis had lost all traditional rivals in CUSA v2.0. UAB – after the incredible 2008 match up with Memphis in Birmingham – started to feel like a legitimate rival, but at some point you have to win a game in the series to be considered a true rival. The Blazers lost 15 consecutive games to Memphis over their final few years together in CUSA.
  • Larry Brown.  The SMU of CUSA was a laughingstock. Brown – a Hall of Fame coach – was hired in 2012 and almost overnight turned SMU into a nationally relevant program. The Mustangs are currently ranked 23rd in the country and add a certain credibility to the AAC.
  • UConn. Though the Huskies are having a disappointing year in 2014-15, they administered a huge boost to the fledgling league in 13-14 by winning the NCAA tournament. The Huskies presence in the league – in light of their 4 national titles since 1999 – is a long term game changer.
  • Tulsa resurgence. Let’s be honest, when Tulsa was announced as a replacement for Louisville nobody was particularly excited. Sure, Tulsa has a proud basketball history which includes names like Bill Self, Tubby Smith and Nolan Richardson – but they were mostly a steppingstone and none of that success had taken place in the last 15 years or so. Now, the Golden Hurricane are sitting atop the league standings at 10-0 and new coach Frank Haith should be able to capitalize in recruiting.
  • Traditional Temple. Temple, who took a major step back in the first year of the AAC, is currently 7-3 and in good position to return to the NCAA tournament under veteran coach Fran Dunphy. The tradition rich Owl program is a key conference member for basketball purposes. Temple’s success will make the AAC more interesting going forward.

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  • Overall Competitiveness. Memphis, even during parts of the Josh Pastner era, totally dominated CUSA. At a certain point it felt like the Tigers had mind control. CUSA competition just didn’t believe they could beat Memphis – and they couldn’t. The AAC is a highly competitive league (see current standings to left). Any of at least 6 teams will enter next month’s AAC tournament in Hartford, CT believing they have a legitimate chance to win. That makes for an exciting event.

In the winter of Tiger fans’ discontent, the fact that Memphis is is a pretty entertaining, competitive basketball league shouldn’t be taken for granted.

 

Flashbacks & Tidbits Following Tiger Win (2/4/15)

The Tigers defeated Jacksonville State 74-48 on Wednesday night in the final non-conference game of the season.

In light of some recent research regarding the dangers of anger on the internet, Negative Nellie has the night off.

So let’s jump right in and hear from some of our other friends:

Flashback Freddie:

  • Jacksonville State is coached by a guy named James Green. If Green looked familiar to Tiger fans – it’s because he used to coach Southern Miss from 1996-2004.
  • Those years covered the end of the Larry Finch era, the entirety of the Tic Price / Johnny Jones era, and the beginning of the John Calipari era.
  • In other words, the Tigers had some very average years during the time James Green was at Southern Miss.
  • As a result, Green was 9-7 in 16 games vs. Memphis. Some of them weren’t even close.

Philosophic Phil:

  • The Tigers have 10 games left this season – and therefore a real opportunity to rewrite the narrative of their season.
  • According to realtimerpi.com, the Tigers are projected to finish 8-2 over the final 10 games of the season.
  • In other words, the Tigers should be favored in their next 8 games (vs. Temple, @ECU, @ USF, vs. UConn, @ UCF, vs. SMU, vs. TUL) and then underdogs in their final 2 games (@ UConn, @ Cincinnati).
  • If the Tigers can live up to the statistical expectations by going 8-2, then they’d finish with a 22-10 record.
  • Given that they entered the year with 9 new players, it would be really hard – even for the most passionate fan – to be too disappointed with that kind of season.

Realistic Ralph:

  • The Tigers were playing Jacksonville State.
  • Jacksonville State – in case you were wondering – is a lower level Ohio Valley Conference team. Their current record in that league is 2-8, their overall record fell to 9-16 after the Memphis loss.
  • So we can’t glean much from the win – but we can see some of the, ahem, positive, things this Memphis team has begun to develop.
  • Perhaps the most encouraging sign of the season for Memphis? The major improvement in ball security. The Tigers finished with just 3 turnovers vs. JSU. It was the 3rd consecutive game in which Memphis’ turnovers were at 10 or less following Gonzaga (10) and ECU (6).
  • Turnovers were the Tigers’ biggest problem early in the year – so if that issue has truly been solved, then Memphis’ chance of finishing the season strong are enhanced.
  • Memphis continues to play together. The Tigers assisted on 20 of 30 made field goals. Josh Pastner has to be proud that this Memphis team – like its predecessors – play an unselfish brand of basketball.

Temple Tidbit Teddy:

  • The Tigers return to action this Saturday at Noon vs. AAC foe Temple.
  • Temple has won 4 games in a row.
  • Temple is 16-7 on the year and tied with Memphis and Cincinnati (in the loss column) for 3rd place in the AAC.
  • RealTimeRPI predicts Memphis to beat Temple 70-59.

 

AAC Digital Network features Austin Nichols

If you haven’t noticed – and judging by their number of YouTube views you haven’t – the American Athletic Conference’s Digital Network has been putting out some pretty slick videos every week during the football and basketball seasons.

The weekly AAC show is called The Rise and it’s hosted by a woman named Hali Oughton.

Lost amid the disappointing Memphis basketball season thus far – is that the AAC has turned out to be a competitive and interesting basketball league. It should be an exciting stretch run over the next 5 weeks.

CUSA transplant Tulsa sits atop the league standings at 9-0, just above pre-season favorite SMU (9-1). Cincinnati, Temple and Memphis are all tied in the next slot at 6-3. If the season ended today, all 5 would earn byes in the AAC tournament – which in reality starts next month in Hartford, CT.

The Huskies? The defending national champs sit in 6th place at 4-4. Crazy.

Anyhow – a few weeks ago, The Rise featured Memphis sophomore and pre-season all AAC forward Austin Nichols. The interview appears to have been filmed at the pre-season media day – but it’s nevertheless a good look at Nichols, who has emerged as the best pro-prospect on Memphis’ roster.

Nichols is averaging 13 pts, 6 rebs per game so far this season. He is 7th nationally in blocks per game at 3.05 per contest.

Nichols, as you would expect, has nice things to say about playing for his hometown. A few years back, Nichols chose Memphis over Duke, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Virginia and Auburn:

“Growing up – born and raised in Memphis, actually it’s great, its an honor and blessing to be playing for the city.  With such a rich basketball history, I’m just hoping I can kind of add on to that.”

If he’s going to add to that history this year, he’s going to have to do it by leading his team to an improbable finish to the season. Otherwise, Memphis is likely to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-2010 season.

In any event, here’s the Nichols interview:

Memphis Football Recruiting – Better than the Mighty Florida Gators?

Justin Fuente and his staff are busy recruiting in advance of next Wednesday, February 4th – otherwise known as National Signing Day. Coming off the school’s most successful football campaign in nearly a century, Fuente and Memphis – according to the national rating systems – appear to be making some minor but noticeable strides on the recruiting trail.

247Sports.com currently has Memphis’ 19-man class listed as the 80th best in the country. While that isn’t going to grab any headlines, it’s a respectable 6th place in the AAC.

Rivals.com has Memphis with 21 commits – and lists the class at 77th in the country. That’s good for 5th in the AAC – behind Cincinnati, USF, UCF and SMU.

By comparison, in 2014, Rivals listed Memphis at 9th in the AAC.

In 2013, Memphis was 10th.

So indeed, progress is being made.

One oddity about these rankings?  Sitting at #102 in the Rivals list – a full 25 spots below the University of Memphis – are the mighty Florida Gators of the SEC. The Gators currently have only 9 commits.

Baffled by this development, I turned to a friend and college football recruiting guru to seek understanding of this abnormality.

His answer:

“Neither class is finished yet; there’s no way UF ends with only 9 commitments; they still have some big fish out there; but i hope they miss on all of their targets; and…iiiiii like it.”

It should be noted that he’s a graduate and life-long fan of the University of Tennessee.

But he knows his stuff.

I turned to another friend, a Florida graduate, for a comment on the recruiting disparity between the Tigers and Gators:

“They (Florida) still have a better chance of making the Sweet 16. At least as long as Pastner is coaching.”

So he’s taking it well.

The (endless) Positive Nature of Josh Pastner

Memphis coach Josh Pastner was featured on Northwestern Mutual Presents NCAA Men of March – which aired earlier today on CBS. I’m traveling this weekend, so I missed most of the program. What I did catch appeared to be typical Pastner: he praised the program’s history, the city, and the fans. He was humble and reflective. Not at all self-promoting. I hope to see it soon in its entirety.

In the meantime, I came across an accompanying story, written by CBS’ Matt Norlander. It’s basically a factual account of what Pastner has accomplished at Memphis – but because Norlander is a neutral party – it’s written from a balanced point of view. It’s very hard to argue with Norlander’s points.

If you’re a fan of the program who has issues with Pastner, I would suggest reading it with an open mind.

Here’s another story about Pastner.

The other day, I wrote a blog entry criticizing Pastner’s use of an extended rotation.

Because I’ve had a brief relationship with Pastner – I thought I’d send him the blog to see what he might say in response.

He responded within 3 hours with an extended email. As you might imagine, it was classic Pastner. Here are some portions of his email:

I appreciate you being upfront regarding the criticism.  Which is all fair and welcomed.  In fact, I think it is a great another opportunity is out there to spread the message of Tiger basketball and give the fans another opportunity to get information.
He went on to explain his philosophy on substitutions a little further….
Our rotation needs to be 8 to 9 guys on a consistent basis.  I would actually prefer to play a 7 man rotation like I have done in the past years.
The difference for this season than the ones before is that we don’t have a lot of separation from top to bottom which makes it a little jumbled.  Where as in the years past the top 7 or 8 guys were clearly better than 9 thru 13.
And some of the reasons we have suffered large defeats are due to some of these factors when the run by the other team is happening – live ball turnovers, major scoring droughts (where at times we try to hit the 12 pt shot), and probably playing too many guys trying to find the right 5 to give us the best chance to get out of the funk we are in.
He makes some good points – and then he goes ahead and agrees with me (which is the quickest way to my heart) that part of the problem is playing too many guys. I’ll be very interested to see how he handles the rotation tonight at Tulane (7pm ESPNU).

I’m a fledgling blogger that had just written a piece offering direct criticism of his coaching philosophy. Pastner could (and maybe should) have easily just ignored the email or offered a brief response and moved on. Instead, he took the time to read the blog (apparently multiple entries) and responded with kindness.

For whatever you might think of Josh Pastner as a coach – he’s a pretty incredible person.

That’s not a new realization for Memphians, but it’s worth repeating.

Tigers Do That Hopey Changey Thing vs. Cincinnati

Josh Pastner’s nemesis, Negative Nellie, doesn’t have much to say after the Tigers’ 63-50 AAC win over longtime rival Cincinnati. The win pushes the Tigers to 10-6 (3-2) and for the first time in a long time, there’s hope for Tiger fans. In fact, tonight we’re going to hear from Hopeful Harry instead of Realistic Ralph.

In a season like this, after a win like that – realism can take the night off.

Hopeful Harry:

  • This game will get fans of the Memphis program dreaming again – for at least a few days. There are 15 games left in the season, which means the Tigers just crossed the halfway point of the season. A lot can happen between now and March and Memphis will have opportunities to prove this wasn’t a fluke.
  • The next 4 games heading into a showdown at #3 Gonzaga on January 31st are huge if the Tigers want to generate some real momentum. Memphis hosts a weak UCF team on Saturday at 1pm, then has 2 road games next week (at Tulsa, at Tulane) before returning home to face East Carolina on January 28th.
  • For whatever else that’s transpired, Memphis appears to have closed the gap between itself and Cincinnati from last year to this year. Last year Cincinnati mashed Memphis twice and made it appear that all those years in CUSA had rendered Memphis too soft to compete with physical teams such as the Bearcats. With guys like Calvin Godfrey, and a more physical Austin Nichols, Pastner appears to have accomplished his goal of making his program more physically tough up front.
  • Best statistic of the night for Memphis by far – besides the final score – was that they limited turnovers to 11. One of them was the shot clock violation at the end of the game so the real number was 10. This was the 3rd straight game with less than 13 turnovers for Memphis. If the Tigers can get their ball handling issues ironed out, they have a shot.
  • Is it possible some roles have finally been defined for Memphis? Is Avery Woodson the sharp-shooter the program has been lacking for years (40% on 76 attempts this year)? Is Nichols a legit all conference performer? Is Godfrey the physical enforcer the team desperately needs? It’s all very optimistic – but for Memphis this year – optimism is a welcome development.

Philosophic Phil:

  • This was a big win for Josh Pastner. Not because it necessarily changes the trajectory of the season (though it might), but more so because it shows – at the very least – that his team hasn’t quit and is improving as the stretch run approaches.
  • Cincinnati entered the game at 34 in the CBSSports RPI with 3 top 50 wins. This was Memphis’ best win of the season by a mile.
  • The match-up wasn’t quite the same without Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin, who isn’t coaching games this year due to medical issues. It was comforting that his replacement – Larry Davis – was just as intense, just as high strung and just as bald. Overly intense coaches are a hallmark of Bearcat basketball.
  • Speaking of intense, it was good to see Josh Pastner get in some of his players faces early. It’s strange to say, but maybe the losing and adversity of the season have been good for Pastner’s development as a coach – as he could stand to be a little more edgy and cynical with his players and the media. There’s a fine line with this, but the nice guy thing gets old – especially when it doesn’t always seem sincere.
  • Regarding Pastner and the media – he should drop the line about this being a rebuilding year / transition year. It’s undoubtedly true, but nobody wants to hear it and it just sounds like an excuse. There are other ways to make the point.

Negative Nellie:

  • Not a lot in this category tonight – this was a good result.
  • The rotation continues to be weird. Pookie Powell got only 6 minutes, Nick King got played just 4 and Shaq Goodwin 13. Pastner has gone from subbing like crazy to hardly subbing at all in the 2nd half of this game. Woodson, Nichols and Johnson essentially played the entire half. Subbing “on feel” is a weird way to manage a team and one still wonders if there won’t be more chemistry issues as the season moves along.
  • Pastner did wear that blue – purplish tie and blue shirt combo again tonight. Someone needs to make it stop.

 

Memphis – Cincinnati Feels Like the 1990’s

Getting ready to head down to FedExForum for the Memphis – Cincy game and it’s feeling a lot like the 1990’s:

  • Memphis is playing Cincinnati. Memphis played Cincinnati twice a year or more in the 1990’s and became fierce rivals during Bob Huggins glory years at UC. The 2 urban schools continued their rivalry for a few years after Cincinnati departed CUSA for the BIG EAST in 2005, but the series was finally dropped in 2009 until resuming last year with the creation of the American Athletic Conference.
  • Memphis is in a start-up conference with Cincinnati. The AAC isn’t the first start up conference for these 2 programs. Memphis and Cincinnati were two of the founding members of the Great Midwest Conference in 1991. The longtime rivals were almost a part of an expanded Metro Conference which would have become the first collegiate super-conference (w/ football). Had the expanded Metro come into fruition, UM and UC’s place in the college athletics food chain would be drastically different today. Instead, they chose to create the basketball-centric Great Midwest.
  • Memphis has regressed to the caliber of program they were in the 1990’s. The John Calipari era (2000-2009) seems like a distant dream right now. In the 1990’s Memphis was a program that appreciated making the tournament, and relished a post-season run – like the one Anfernee Hardaway’s Tigers made in 1992 before losing in the Elite 8 to Cincinnati (for the 4th time that year). Fan expectations aside, this is basically where the program is today.
  • Cincinnati is still Cincinnati. Though he’s on medical leave at the moment, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin has continued the bruising, tough guy tradition of the Bearcat program built under guys like Herb Jones, Nick Van Excel, Corie Blount, Kenyon Martin, and Steve Logan. Games with the Bearcats in the 1990’s were physical wars – and tonight shouldn’t be any different – though the talent level may not be quite the same.

Though Cincinnati is currently ranked 34 in the CBSSPORTS.com RPI, the match-up tonight with Memphis (ranked 113) is considered a toss up by the smart guys in Vegas.

Should be a fun night -90’s night- at FedExForum.

 

Philosophic Phil, Realistic Ralph & Negative Nellie (Post @ Houston)

Well, the Tigers won a road conference game. That’s always nice. Winning being hard and all. Better Tiger teams than this one have lost at Hofheinz, so overall it was a good day.

Let’s hear from our friends after the Tigers’ 62-44 triumph over the lowly Cougars:

Philosophic Phil:

  • New Houston coach Kelvin Sampson has to be wondering what he got himself into at Houston, which is just an absolute graveyard of (sometimes decent) coaches.
  • Sampson, the former Indiana and Oklahoma head coach and NBA assistant (while serving his show-cause NCAA penalty for repeated rules violations) surely would have had better opportunities to get back in the game had he waited a little longer.
  • James Dickey, Tom Penders, Ray McCallum, Clyde Drexler, Alvin Brooks – all former Houston Cougar coaches, all **tried to return the program to it’s 1980’s glory. All failed.
  • An announced crowd of 2697 attended the game – gotta figure that was inflated by about half. The environment appeared to allow Memphis to relax and get into a nice flow.
  • So it was a good day for Memphis, who really needed a blowout for their confidence going forward.

**According to observers, it’s not clear that Drexler actually tried all that hard. He was known to play 18 holes of golf on game days (and other days).

Realistic Ralph:

  • Houston is really bad. 0-4 in AAC play thus far and 7-8 overall with some really bad losses.
  • Nice that Memphis took care of business to improve to 9-6 (2-2), but given the competition this doesn’t appear to alter the trajectory of the season.
  • Austin Nichols continues to be a very bright spot in a gloomy campaign for Memphis. Against Houston he finished with 16 pts, 7 rbs and 4 blocks.
  • Kedren Johnson re-emerged on Sunday. The Vanderbilt transfer who had been relegated to the bench after entering the season as a projected starter, finished Sunday’s game with 10 points (on perfect shooting), 4 assists and just one turnover.
  • Shaq Goodwin had nice energy for the first time in a while. He finished with just 8 pts and 5 rebounds, but was aggressive. Like a lot of Tigers, Shaq appears to flourish against weaker competition and disappear in more challenging games.

Negative Nellie:

  • With Pastner’s inability or refusal to establish a consistent rotation, one is left to consistently wonder where the next discontented eruption is going to come from. The Houston game did nothing to alter this trend.
  • This game, it was Calvin Godfrey in the starting lineup and Nick King (coming back from injury) only playing 9 minutes. Hard to quibble with the allocation, especially given the result – but you know King won’t stay happy if his minutes don’t go back to pre-injury levels. Those minutes will have to come from somewhere and we already know Godfrey isn’t shy about complaining.
  • We also saw Johnson take Demarnier Cunningham’s minutes against Houston. Johnson played 17 minutes and Cunningham just 4, which was basically a reversal from the SMU game. Again, hard to quibble with the actual decision, but you wonder if either player knows what to expect going forward and what Pastner communicates to them about their roles.
  • Big game coming up against Cincinnati on Thursday at FedExForum – and at this point you just expect the Tigers to break out a totally new starting lineup, rotation, strategy, and identity.
  • Someone needs to tell Pastner that purplish-blue tie does not go with that deep blue shirt. Not a good look.

U of M AD Bowen Shouldn’t Let Ehrhart Call the Shots on Stadium

According to an article out today by Phil Stukenborg, University of Memphis officials would like to add 10,000 chair-back seats to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The move makes sense for Memphis because it would (a) reduce capacity of a stadium that is clearly too big for their needs and (b) add nicer seating that would enable Memphis to justify higher ticket prices for those (chair-back) seats. It makes perfect sense.

There’s only one problem: Steve Ehrhart, Executive Director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, appears to be throwing up a roadblock. Here’s the quote from Ehrhart in Stukenborg’s article:

“Until we have the opportunity to discuss this with our partners — the Big 12 Conference and the SEC — a potential loss of seating capacity could be a very important issue,” Ehrhart said. “We just think it’s important to stay at the 60,000 figure.”

First of all, Ehrhart appears to be talking out of both sides of his mouth – Is it important to talk to your partners or have you already made up your mind that it’s important to stay at the 60,000 figure? Sure sounds like he’s already made up his mind. Also, could Ehrhart be using the specter of the Big XII to tweak Memphis a little? Memphis is certainly willing to do anything the Big XII wants, but does that conference really care if capacity is reduced by 5k? Seems a bit far-fetched. After all, the Big XII’s payout for participating in the Liberty Bowl game is locked in by contract. It’s not as if any Big XII school is going to bring more than 25k people to Memphis in December and create a huge demand for tickets.

Ehrhart went ahead and let Stukenborg know what his priorities are:

Ehrhart said there are more pressing concerns. He’d like to see the cramped press box area expanded, as well as areas for radio and television broadcasts. He said four radio networks — including a Spanish network broadcasting Texas A&M football — broadcast from the Liberty Bowl, which has accommodations for two radio booths. Special arrangements were made to accommodate the additional radio teams.

Surely Bowen shares Ehrhart’s concerns about the press box, but the Memphis Athletic Director can’t and shouldn’t be happy that Ehrhart is pulling rank on the chair-backs. As co-tenants of the stadium, Memphis plays 6 or 7 games a year there- Ehrhart’s organization plays one.

Bowen should flex some muscle on this if he has to. Without the U of M as a tenant, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium is not a viable entity for the City of Memphis. Without the U of M playing 6 games a year at the stadium, there would have been no political will for Tiger Lane construction or the 2011 renovations which added new lighting, a scoreboard (paid for by U of M boosters), new turf and other upgrades to the concourse. Those upgrades allowed Ehrhart to lock in affiliations with the SEC and Big XII, while eliminating a meaningful tie in with Memphis’ current conference – The American Athletic Conference.

Perhaps Ehrhart remembers this detail from the news announcing the 2012 renovations:

Hedgepeth said the U of M’s offer to guarantee the funds kept the city from having to approach the stadium’s other two tenants, the Southern Heritage Classic and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl game.

If Memphis ever decided to build an on-campus stadium – something that based on recent projects at Houston and Tulane could feasibly be done for a cost of $80 -$90 million – the Liberty Bowl game would have absolutely zero leverage with the city or the University. The Southern Heritage Classic and the Liberty Bowl would either (a) continue playing at a city owned stadium that the city would have no real incentive to maintain (remember what happened to the Pyramid after the Grizzlies left for example?) or (b) negotiate a lease with the University of Memphis to play their games on campus, or (c) leave town.

Obviously nobody in Memphis wants the Liberty Bowl Game to suffer. And former Interim U of M President Brad Martin made it pretty clear that the powers that be at The University of Memphis are no longer interested in pursuing an on campus stadium. Could that position change if Ehrhart continues to selfishly disregard the needs of his co-tenants so publicly? Possibly.

 

 

 

 

How to Cope Emotionally with Tiger Losses

On the off chance that any reader of this blog doesn’t already know this: I’m a Memphis Tiger basketball fan. Have been since 1985. 30 years.

I’m not a casual fan. Like most fans, I have an emotional history with the enterprise. For example, in 1990, the day after a particularly difficult season ending Tiger loss (to UT in the 1st round of the NIT) I was riding in a car with my mother when Phil Collins’ then hit song, “I Wish It Would Rain Down” came on the radio. I cried. I cried because I really wanted it to rain down on me. I wanted the rain to cleanse and renew me. I wanted the rain to wash away the overwhelming sense of loss and emptiness I felt after having invested so much energy and emotion into the outcome of that, and every, Tiger season. I connected with Collins’ visceral need for renewal in the depths of despair and failure. I had absolutely no idea at the time what he was actually singing about – I was 13 – but I freaking knew what he was singing about. Despair.

There’s also the anger. Most of these episodes were sort of like blackouts and what was conscious was quickly repressed- so the details are fuzzy – but I’ve thrown books, scared dogs, friends, and family members; damaged relationships, said things nobody should say about other human beings, stormed out of games and more. Worse.

The bottom line: I don’t like it when the Tigers lose. And that’s kind of the bad news.

But here’s the good news:

Over the years I’ve developed a method to circumvent these painful emotions.  It goes like this….

LUXURIATE IN THE WINS AND PRETEND THE LOSSES NEVER HAPPENED

This is a simple method and it generally works well. For example, I’ll typically watch wins on replay right after the game. I’ll read all the articles about wins. I’ll tune into talk radio after wins. I’ll check the RPI, the next few weeks’ schedule, maybe even check out some other college basketball just to see what’s happening. Why not? Good vibes all around. Soak it in. Really feel it.

After losses, on the other hand……………………………………….

…………………………………………..

Nothing.

Nada.

Total abstinence.

Go to a movie, do some laundry, call a friend, walk the dog.  Anything but think for a second about the fact that Memphis basketball just lost to Tulane. I’m serious about this – I will not waste more than 10 seconds if I can help it thinking about the fact that Memphis basketball just lost to Tulane. This isn’t difficult. I’m 37 now. I understand the broader picture – or at least enough of it to know that in the grand scheme of things, regardless of your personal religious affiliation or moral convictions, or beliefs about the universe – the outcome of a college basketball game just doesn’t register. So I move on, and spend my time doing other things. And how perfect is this? All that time I wasted re-watching games I already knew the outcome to? I’m now getting it back by moving on swiftly and without regret after a loss. Like it never happened. I’ll perk up just enough to know when the next game is (Thursday against SMU), and I’ll watch that one – but until then I’m free to completely ignore 92.9, The Commercial Appeal, Twitter, etc. A much needed respite.

One caveat: I always read Calkins.

Also, and here’s where some people may call me a bandwagon fan if they wish. When the team is bad, I’ll start skipping games – or taping / DVRing them to see if they win and then watching later only if they win. Now – keep in mind – due to the incredibly successful nature of the program, this tactic seldom gets utilized. In the last 30 years the Tigers have had just 3 losing seasons. Rare to be certain, but when the down years do come a little detachment is in order. For everyone’s well being.

There’s only problem with all this:

I decided to write a blog about basketball this year. In particular, Memphis basketball. So now I feel like I sorta have to write something. Not for the readership of bballjones.com, whom I appreciate. But for myself, because I kind of want to stick with this for a little while. So instead of writing some detailed breakdown of how the Tigers lost to Tulane, which you can get via Jason Smith if you really care, I wrote this. Whatever this is.

Now, as we do after each Tigers game, let’s hear from Philosophic Phil, Negative Nellie, and Realistic Ralph.  Please note that Philosophic Phil has replaced Positive Paul, who is now dead.

Philosophic Phil:

  • It’s great that the fans were treated to a spirited competitive game.
  • Tulane must feel so proud of their accomplishment.
  • Knowing and experiencing the agony of defeat makes the coming victory that much sweeter.

Negative Nellie:

  • The Tigers body of work is non existent.
  • Zero quality wins, and the potential bad (home) losses are piling up.
  • This means the Tigers are extremely far from NCAA tournament consideration.

Realistic Ralph:

  • Austin Nichols, 28 pts, 9 rbs, 4 blks. Wow. He’s clearly emerging.
  • Sure, Pookie coughed this one up – but he also had 9 assists – that doesn’t just happen by accident.
  • The Tigers were up 5 with under 4 minutes to go and just didn’t make that next play that might have sealed the game. It’s not as if they were out classed from the jump.
  • It is what it is. #IIWII

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memphis & the Big XII – Reality Check Time

Big XII conference expansion is a hot topic among Memphis fans – primarily because (a) Oklahoma State booster Boone Pickens confirmed a popular Memphis rumor when he recently said, ‘Memphis wants in’ (duh), and (b) the Big XII was shut out of the inaugural College Football Playoff – which caused some people to suggest that the Big XII should expand by 2 members in order to immediately institute a football championship game. Even Memphis football head coach Justin Fuente, in a recent interview with Geoff Calkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, acknowledged candidly that the program should aspire to join the Big XII.

So we can all agree that Memphis – its fans, its boosters, its administration, heck even its football coach – wants in.  This piece examines Memphis’ conference affiliation – both present and future – and provides a realistic assessment of their chances at inclusion into the Big XII.

Reality check #1:  The Big XII isn’t expanding right now – primarily because the candidates aren’t worth $22m per year. This isn’t to say the Big XII won’t expand down the road, particularly if their petition to de-regulate conference championship games – so that that they can stage one without expanding to 12 teams as the current rule requires – is denied. As of now, however, Big XII Commissioner Bob Bowlsby couldn’t be clearer about his conference’s attitude toward expansion.  According to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd, the available schools, Memphis included, do not bring the equity to the table that matches the annual Big 12 per-school payout from the media contracts — $22 million.  Bowlsby confirmed that fact to Dodd, and added some additional considerations:

“That’s right. Even more than that — it’s academic, it’s competitiveness, it’s geography, it’s scope of program. Just getting to 12 so you can have a playoff is among the worst reasons to expand.”

Ouch. Bowlsby recently appeared on talk radio in Orlando (AM 740) with Mike Bianchi, and clarified his league’s position:

“We don’t have any schools on our radar at the present time. … We don’t have any expansion initiative; we don’t have any list of prospects or any plans to expand. But as our ADs and CEOs talk about the challenges of the future and our immediate past experience we had in the playoffs, these [expansion initiatives] are things that are going to get discussed.”

He again explained the financial factors, and why they’re not interested in expanding (yet):

“We divide the money 10 ways. Right now, we’re distributing the largest amount of money to each of our members in any league in college athletics. I don’t know that our members are prepared to take a reduction in that distributable revenue. It (expansion) is certainly about TV sets. It’s certainly about recruiting. It’s certainly about the possibility of competitive implications in all of our sports, but particularly our high-profile sports. At the present time we have no strategy. We haven’t had any discussions around expansion. Our CEOs have said they like 10. I expect that we’ll be at 10 for a while. Could that change down the road? Sure it could… I don’t think we’re going to take a kneejerk reaction and think immediately about expansion just because on this occasion we got left out of the playoff.”

In other words, Memphis and other hopefuls can wait by the phone if they want, but don’t expect a call for at least a little while.

Reality Check #2:  Memphis’ lack of prestigious academic reputation matters – but it can be overcome.  Bowlsby’s comment about academics should concern Memphis fans. The fact is, academic fit and reputation does matter. These are university presidents making these decisions, not football coaches or fans. Conversely, Louisville is a good example of a school that used its extensive success on the field / court to overcome a lower academic profile. Forbes ranks Louisville #548 overall as a college, similar to Memphis at #609. Cincinnati is #391, UCF #405.  Whether or not 200 spots on Forbes’ rankings matters enough to take one school over another remains to be seen, but if I were directing Memphis’ expansion efforts I’d make sure to keep the Louisville story in the front of my mind.  Which leads us to…

Reality Check #3:  Memphis needs to achieve more success on the field in order to position itself. When programs get promoted from outside the “power” conferences, they typically do so after years of extended success in the primary revenue sport – football. In the latest round of conference reshuffling, 6 of the 7 schools promoted out of the old BIG EAST and MWC into the current “Power 5” had enjoyed multiple years of football success.  The anomaly was Syracuse, and to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh:

School From: To: 10 win seasons in previous decade
Louisville BIG EAST ACC 3 (2012, 2006, 2004)
Syracuse BIG EAST ACC None
Pittsburgh BIG EAST ACC 1 (2009) + 2, 9 win seasons
Rutgers BIG EAST B1G 1 (2006) + 3, 9 win seasons
TCU MWC Big XII 5 (2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2002)
West Virginia BIG EAST Big XII 4 (2011, 2007, 2006, 2005)
Utah MWC Pac 12 5 (2010, 2009, 2008, 2004, 2003)

It’s no accident that arguably the 2 most successful programs on that list (West Virginia and TCU) were the programs chosen for inclusion into the Big XII. Football is what matters to guys like Boone Pickens and power brokers in Texas. Whereas basketball powers with suspect football pedigrees (Syracuse & Pittsburgh) might sneak into the ACC, that isn’t going to happen in Big XII country.

In other words, for Memphis to position itself as a strong, obvious candidate for inclusion into the Big XII, it needs to keep winning in football. One great year probably won’t cut it, but 2 or 3 might.

Reality Check #4:  Memphis’ needs to continue to grow its football brand.  This is a corollary to #3, and why it was so crucial to retain Justin Fuente for another year.  Memphis could enter 2015 as a preseason top 25 team – which would translate into better television time slots within the AAC / ESPN / CBS Sports package. The Memphis vs. BYU Miami Beach Bowl drew a very strong 1.3 rating, despite an awkward 2pm-Monday time slot. Obviously BYU’s national brand helped that number, but so did simply being on primary ESPN (as opposed to ESPN branded channels with more limited distribution such as ESPNU and ESPNEWS) and playing a thrilling game. Though Memphis had a number of games on television in 2014, they were often on ESPN’s less distributed platforms (ESPNEWS & ESPNU).  Accordingly, the ratings for their games suffered:

Rating:        Viewers:                  Time / Day:                                 Teams:                                                               Platform:

1.3 1.32m 2:00 PM (Mon) BYU/Memphis ESPN
0 65K 4:00 PM (Sat) UConn/Memphis ESPNEWS
0.1 95K 3:30 PM (Sat) Memphis/Tulane ESPNU
0.1 87K 12:00 PM (Sat) Memphis/SMU ESPNEWS
0.2 249K 8:00 PM (Fri) Tulsa/Memphis ESPNU
0.2 307K 7:30 PM (Fri) Memphis/Temple ESPNU

TV ratings can’t be considered in a vacuum, as they don’t reveal important factors such as what games or alternate programming was being aired head to head.  Accordingly, it is not clear whether or not these ratings met or failed to meet expectations. For a list of all CFB ratings in 2014, see this list (courtesy of Sports Media Watch). Nevertheless, it’s clear that being on ESPN matters. Being ranked matters. It means more people see your name, your team, your logo. But most importantly it means that you might be able to generate higher ratings… which will then help you pitch the Big XII CEO’s and TV Network executives that your program will bring enough additional revenue to offset the additional mouth to feed. AKA – $22 million.

Reality Check #5 & #5A: If the Big XII does expand, Memphis has a lot of connections and the right geography. In politics, it’s all about who you knowThe same is undoubtedly true when university presidents and AD’s get together to discuss expansion candidates – especially if all other factors are relatively equal. In their quest to gain admission to their conference, it can’t hurt that many of the powers that be at The University of Memphis have Big XII ties. Consider that several high ranking people in the Memphis administration previously worked in the Big XII:

Dr. David Rudd, University President Former Dept. Chair at Texas Tech from 2006-2009
Worked at Baylor
Graduated from Texas
Wren Baker, Deputy Director of Athletics Worked in Athletic Department at Oklahoma State from 2001-2005
Stacy Martin, Sr. Associate Athletic Director Assistant AD at Kansas State from 2009-2012
Justin Fuente, Head Football Coach Assistant coach at TCU from 2007-2011

Assuming that Boone Pickens’ statement (that Memphis wants in) was based on conversations at the donor level, one can imagine a multifaceted lobbying campaign targeting every school in the Big XII and trying to win broad based support in advance of any expansion discussions.

Reality Check #5A:  Geography & TV do favor Memphis:  Bowlsby has said that the Big XII, should they expand, would look to bridge the gap to West Virginia:

We have one member in West Virginia that’s on the East Coast. We have to be mindful of their situation. If we took somebody…on the far West Coast it would certainly do a disservice to our member in West Virginia.

This would indicate a candidate pool of possibly Memphis, Cincinnati, UCF, SMU and Houston. Of those 5, only Memphis and Cincinnati offer a true geographic bridge for West Virginia to the rest of the Big XII membership. Of those 5, only Memphis, UCF and Cincinnati offer new television markets for the conference – as Houston and Dallas are television markets already saturated by the Big XII. Memphis, on the other hand, is a top college football television market but one that is currently dominated by the SEC. The potential of generating big ratings in SEC country would seem to be an enticing argument in Memphis’ favor. Memphis vs. a Big XII opponent (Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia) on Fox, Saturday in prime time from the Liberty Bowl would certainly generate a higher rating than, say, Memphis vs. Tulsa on ESPNU on a Friday. Would it be a big enough rating to eat into the SEC Saturday night game of the week on ESPN? Big enough to pique the interest of Bowlsby and his CEOs?

Reality Check #6:  Memphis needs to support and grow the AAC now – especially since Big XII expansion is uncertain and the environment is treacherous. NCAA governance reforms (aka autonomy) and various class action lawsuits attacking the NCAA’s amateurism model virtually ensure that the next few years will bring tumult and change to college athletics. Most observers have predicted a coming arms race in student athlete benefits (lifetime scholarships, family travel, meals, health insurance, etc…) which will rework athletic department budgets. While pursuing Big XII membership is vital, Memphis and other AAC programs have to deal with the reality that their financial model is currently closer to UAB’s (which just went out of business) than to Alabama’s. If it hopes to remain relevant over the next decade, Memphis must grow its athletic program within the AAC and support the AAC’s growth as a brand. If the Big XII’s petition to de-regulate conference championship games is granted, it’s very likely that conference simply won’t expand. At that point, the AAC becomes a solid long term home for all the so-called Big XII candidates.

The AAC signed a 7-year, 126m contract with ESPN in 2013. With his leverage eroded due to the timing of the last round of conference shuffling, AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco negotiated a television contract with ESPN that provided for unprecedented exposure (did you ever think you’d see the day that every single Memphis conference football game was on national television?), but much lower TV payouts than the “Power 5” conferences. By comparison, the SEC will likely distribute more to one single school in 2015 (approx 30m) than the AAC will collect in total annual revenue from the ESPN contract. Though the money isn’t good for the AAC, ESPN has given the conference a clear opportunity, through exposure, to demonstrate greater value for future TV negotiations. The current contract reportedly has a look-in provision that will allow for potential extension and renegotiation. At the end of the day, Memphis and other AAC schools have to get eyeballs on their games. With the NFL increasingly becoming a 3 or 4 night a week sport, this won’t be easy.

If there truly is no Big XII expansion for the next 10 years as some predict, then the AAC schools will look to Aresco, a former television executive with deep understanding of the marketplace, to manifest his statement about the conference economic landscape being 5 + 1 (as opposed to 5 haves and 5 have nots).

Bottom line: In sharp contrast to where they found themselves during the last round of shuffling – as a last gasp, desperate addition to a dying BIG EAST – Memphis actually makes some sense for the Big XII should they decide to expand.  That decision, however, is far from certain and some are saying it’s not likely at all. That’s the bad news. The good news is the market for college football will recognize value. Therefore, Memphis can do the most to strengthen its position by simply continuing to invest in football and positioning itself competitively ahead of schools like Cincinnati, SMU, Houston, UCF – whether that be in the AAC or the Big XII. The competition among those schools for the next life boat out – might just be a rising tide that lifts the AAC to a favorable market position.

Positive Paul, Negative Nellie & Realistic Ralph (Western Illinois edition)

Tiger fans are well aware that Josh Pastner prefers Positive Pauls and does not like Negative Nellies.  We at bballjones.com respect both. At the end of the day however, we strive to be more like Realistic Ralph.

Here’s a little something from all 3 viewpoints:

 

Positive Paul:

  • Trashon Burrell can play. The JUCO transfer from Lee College (TX) has now scored in double figures in 8 of the first 11 games of his Division 1 career.  On Tuesday evening, he pulled down 9 or more rebounds for the 4th time this season.  He is active, has good range (37% from 3pt range this season), finishes at the rim and averages almost 2 assists per game as well.
  • This Memphis team plays hard and plays together.  The undisputed strength of Pastner’s Memphis teams over the years is their propensity to play unselfish basketball (at least offensively). This squad is no different in that regard.
  • Memphis’ point guards, Pookie Powell and D’Marnier Cunningham, combined for 17 points, 8 assists and just 4 turnovers. Though Cunningham will struggle to guard bigger players, he’s incredibly quick and attacks the lane.  It will be interesting to see if he can be effective against AAC teams. He struggled against Oklahoma State, but that was his first Division 1 game. A high level donor in the front row last night insisted that Cunningham is going to be better than Joe Jackson. As far as I know, said donor has no background in scouting.
  • This may be the best rebounding team Pastner has had at Memphis. They have a gang rebounding approach and have out rebounded all but 3 opponents so far – coming close in those matchups. Against Western Illinois on Tuesday night, King had 10 rebounds, Burrell and Godfrey finished with 9 each.
  • With a 4th consecutive win, Memphis pushed its overall record to 7-4 heading into conference play. Confidence is rising and if the guard play continues to improve (remember that Pookie Powell is still a Freshman), Positive Paul can allow himself to dream about Memphis competing with SMU, UConn and Cincinnati for a top seed in the AAC Tournament.

Negative Nellie:

  • WTF is up with Shaq Goodwin?  The Junior, presumed team leader and pre-season all conference selection got suspended for a “violation of team rules.”  Memphis didn’t need another distraction heading into conference play – and another game where their best rotation isn’t deployed.
  • Blending Goodwin back into the lineup during high intensity conference games in January won’t go well.  Calvin Godfrey and Nick King combined for 24 and 19 on Tuesday night and neither one is going to want to cede minutes when Goodwin returns. One can easily foresee chemistry problems – something Pastner has never been adept at handling well.
  • Memphis still has too many defensive breakdowns – and allowed a bad Western Illinois to play them even (37-37) in the 2nd half on Tuesday night.
  • FedExForum has been moribund the last several home games. On Tuesday, it was half full at best. Although folks that attend these types of games tend to be the most loyal, vocal and supportive fans – it’s clear there’s a depressed energy around the program right now.
  • Fan reality is enhanced by the fact that it’s unlikely this Memphis team will make the NCAA tournament. Sure, it’s too early to write them off (just ask Positive Paul), but They’re 7-4 with an RPI (CBSSports) of 144 heading into AAC play. Of the remaining opportunities on the schedule, only Gonzaga (8) is in the top 30 of the RPI. SMU and Temple are both top 50, so there will be chances to make up ground, but perhaps not enough.

Realistic Ralph:

  • It’s actually nice to hear Pastner a little deflated and beat down. Ralph doesn’t wish ill upon Coach Pastner, but in the post-game show he sounded more like a basketball coach, and less like a self-help guru than he’s ever sounded.  Pastner needs to focus on this team and its development – not giving incessant shout-outs to the managers and walk-ons and otherwise saving the world. Ralph likes his basketball coaches a little tired, a little defeated and somewhat cynical (think Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, RIck Pitino, etc…). Sounds like Pastner may finally be getting burnt out on the idea that he can be all things to all people.
  • Memphis opens the AAC schedule with 2 challenging, but winnable, home games against Houston (now coached by Kelvin Sampson) and a surprising Tulane team that sports a 9-2 record and went toe to toe with #13 Washington on the road last night before falling by 9 points late.
  • Memphis’ worst loss thus far was to a Stephen F. Austin squad that is still ranked in the top 100 of the RPI (72).  The others are all top 50 losses:  Wichita State (7), Baylor (30) and Oklahoma State (46).
  • On the other hand, Memphis doesn’t yet have a top 100 RPI win.  It’s best triumph was against North Carolina Central (100).
  • Memphis has some emerging talent, hasn’t quit and is definitely getting better.  That’s what fans want to see.

 

 

Of Thrills, Brawls & Insults from Nashvillians


The tweet came about half an hour after the Miami Beach Bowl ended in thrilling, violent fashion. Clay Travis, a Nashville based sports personality, writer and college football analyst, expressed sarcastically what most followers of college football, and certainly those in SEC country, were probably thinking as they watched or heard about the end of Memphis’ first Bowl win since 2005:

Totally expected BYU to brawl. But really expected better from Memphis.

@ClayTravisBGID

Obviously the structure of Travis’ sarcasm was to flip Memphis and BYU and play on stereotypes. The stereotypes, however, are not of the programs themselves. They are of the cultures within which the respective programs exist. After all, prior to this season and maybe even prior to today Memphis football’s reputation on a national level was one of ineptitude built over decades of irrelevance and reinforced strongly by the humiliating performances of the Larry Porter era.  If there’s one thing that Memphis football wasn’t known for over the past decade it’s fighting.

No, Travis’ comment wasn’t about Memphis the football program, it was about Memphis the city. And about Mormons, but let’s not worry about that right now.  It clearly reflected what Nashvillians, East Tennesseans, and followers of SEC programs throughout the region think of Memphis, Tennessee: violent, unsafe, rough, not worth visiting. Go to Memphis, get beat up. Go to Memphis, get hurt. Go to Memphis, be wary. That’s what Travis was saying. Clearly.

But don’t attack Travis, he was just taking an easy shot.  A shot that all SEC fans, and certainly non-Memphis based Tennesseans love to take when given the opportunity.  And he was doing the Memphis program a favor.

Because to that, Memphis head coach Justin Fuente should say the following:

Yes, you’re exactly right.  We’re Memphians.  We’re of Memphis and from Memphis and proud of it.

And guess what?   We’ll happily fight you too.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Fuente should publicly condone fighting. I’m also not suggesting that Memphis has bad kids. I’m sure Memphis and BYU both have great kids. I’m simply suggesting that this brawl was great for Memphis Football. And spare me a lecture on sportsmanship and class. There’s a time and place for sportsmanship and class – and it wasn’t today in Miami. This whole football game was a brawl and it just happened to continue after Memphis won the game. You don’t go from 3-9 to 10-3 without a serious fight – and that mentality obviously couldn’t be turned off 2 seconds after the game clinching, and season ending, interception. In the heat of that moment, that conclusion, that comeback, a brawl makes perfect sense.  It had to happen.

This brawl – and Clay Travis’ comment – were about the bigger picture. Fuente’s ultimate objective is to build an American Athletic Conference program that can be competitive in the shadow of Clay Travis’ mighty, mighty SEC. You don’t narrow that chasm being nice and backing down. You don’t narrow it by winning sportsmanship awards. You do it by taking on bigger teams and being tougher and maybe drawing a little blood if you need to. After all, as Tom Brady once said, “this is football, not tiddlywinks.”  Indeed.

This was about a national TV audience on a Monday before Christmas watching a team fight, win, and then fight some more. This was about next October 15 (2015) at the Liberty Bowl, and building the kind of football program that can be physically competitive with Ole Miss on that coming day.  And this was about delivering a performance that can attract the kind of recruits that will elevate a program the same way Fuente’s former program (TCU) was elevated – as an underdog with less resources, but more tenacity and discipline and greater willingness to wound and be wounded.

Travis’ insult, no doubt echoed on message boards and Twitter feeds of fan bases throughout SEC country, and the fight that inspired it were both perfect branding for this program on this day.  So was the game itself, and if it got overshadowed in the name of added emphasis on the core message – that Memphis Football has a program, that it’s dangerous and ready to fight – then so be it.  Maybe that’s a good thing.

 

 

Positive Paul, Negative Nellie & Realistic Ralph (Oral Roberts Edition)

In this feature, we let our friends Paul, Nellie and Ralph each summarize the game and / or the Tigers season to date as they see it. Each individual gets to make 5 points to establish his / her point of view.

 

Positive Paul

 

  • The Tigers have now won 3 games in a row for the first time all season, with another winnable game coming up Tuesday vs. Western Illinois at FedExForum.  It looks likely they’ll enter conference play on New Year’s Eve riding a 4 game win streak.
  • Pookie Powell (14 pts, 7 asts, 6 rbs – 3 tos) looks like an actual point guard – driving to the rim, finding open men, and knocking down open jump shots.
  • Powell, Trashon Burrell (12 pts, 7 rbs), and Avery Woodson (10 pts, 3 stls) are still only 10 games into their first season of D1 basketball, so there could be significant room for growth.
  • Austin Nichols finished with 15 pts, 9 rbs and 8 blocks.  He’s turned into one of the best shot blocking big men in the country.
  • The Tigers had good body language.  Even the guys on the bench who weren’t playing or weren’t playing well (Shaq Goodwin – 0 pts, 3 rbs, 9 minutes) were slapping high 5’s, cheering, staying positive.

 

Negative Nellie

 

  • Oral Roberts sucks.  Oklahoma beat them by 30, 4 days ago and Memphis was only up 6 with 7 minutes to play.
  • Shaq Goodwin can’t be depended on to show up ready to play.  If he’s a Junior and supposed to be a team leader – that’s a big problem.
  • If Memphis’ bigs can’t finish at the rim against Oral Roberts, what’s going to happen when they play UConn, Cincinnati and SMU?  Twice each.
  • Memphis’ backup point guard is a 5’8 kid from somewhere called Kaskaskia Community College.  His Rivals profile has him at 0 stars and lists no other offers.  He clearly struggled in the 2nd Half trying to guard 6’3 Korey Billbury of Oral Roberts.
  • The TIgers still look totally lost defensively at times.  On multiple occasions ORU players were wide open while Memphis players were still discussing whose man was whose.  Shaq looked to be playing a 1 man zone while the rest of the team was in m2m.  Maybe that was intentional, but if so, it didn’t work.

 

Realistic Ralph

 

  • Tulsa (thought to be a middle of the pack AAC) lost to this same Oral Roberts team earlier in the year, which is a reminder that there are going to be some winnable games in the AAC.  Only one team (Tulane, which has played a soft schedule) has less than 3 losses.  The conference is wide open.  In other words, the season could still go either way.
  • The Tigers have some talent, but they’re essentially a team made up of JUCOs and 4-star (in other words, good but not great) high school athletes.   In other words, the season could still go either way.
  • Memphis is 6-4.  The schedule is barely ⅓ complete.  In other words, the season could still go either way.
  • If Memphis doesn’t turn into a much better defensive team through communication, effort and execution then there’s little chance they are going to turn their season around in the long run.
  • Bottom line, the season could still go either way.

Ode to the Shitty Sports Bar

Kids these days.

Kids these days have no idea what it was like to be a sports fan in the 80’s and 90’s. They’ve probably never even been to a shitty sports bar.

When I was a kid, we had to wait for something called a newspaper if we wanted to see a box score.

I would stay up until 4am for the Memphis Commercial Appeal to arrive after a particularly exciting win. “No big deal, Mom, I’ll just sleep until noon.”

In the meantime, I’d rewatch the game on VHS. Unless the machine ate my tape.

The 1992 NCAA tournament game between Penny Hardaway’s Memphis State Tigers, and the Arkansas Razorbacks comes to mind. On a dark, quiet, celebratory morning I ran out into the March dawn, grabbed the paper, ran back in – and spent the next delicious 7 or 8 minutes reading a deadline abbreviated, sterile summary of the game, a 500-word column, and a 10-point news and notes feature (including the box score).

Then I read it again.

And again.

And again.

Because it was all I had. It was all anyone had. What am I supposed to do? Think about something else?

Crumbs in retrospect, but amazing at the time. There were no message boards, no Twitter feeds, no proliferation of pundits. Sure, there were sportswriters – but they wrote articles in their town, for papers in their town, read exclusively by people in their town. We had our sports page, a coach’s TV show and terrible talk radio. If you wanted to know what Tony Kornheiser thought about something, you’d better have a friend in D.C. get some scissors, a stamp and an envelope — and then wait 3 or 4 days.

When I was a kid, there was no ESPN2. At least not until 1993. Even then, there was no ESPNU, no ESPNNews, no SEC Network, no CBS Sports Network, no FS1. There was simply ESPN. And the occasional network game. If your favorite college basketball team had more than 4 or 5 “national” TV games, then you were a Duke fan.

Though most programs and major conferences had local or regional television coverage of their games – the stations which carried such packages were not available outside a defined region on basic cable packages. In other words, in 1996 the Conference USA Game of the Week between Memphis and DePaul, live from the Rosemont Horizon – with Jon Albright doing analysis – was probably available in Memphis, TN on WLMT-30 or some other such station. But it was not available anywhere else in the country and certainly not in Lawrence, KS, where I went to college.

Or maybe it was.  But not in my dorm room.

Maybe it was available at a shitty sports bar.

Ah, the shitty sports bar. The revered, crucial, indispensable, shitty sports bar. On the outskirts of town. With real satellites. Big satellites. And overpriced food. And dirty carpet. Filthy carpet.

And waitresses that acted shocked and put out when I came in and demanded that they find the satellite guide and check for the Memphis – DePaul game.

And check again please. And will you at least try?  And ask the manager, please. And you TOLD ME on the phone you could get the game. WHY DID YOU TELL ME YOU CAN GET THE GAME IF YOU CAN’T GET THE GAME?!?  WHY DID YOU LIE TO ME?!? DO YOU NOT VALUE MY BUSINESS?!? And let me see the book, please.

And GOD DAMN IT let’s just try the other shitty place that’s not really even a sports bar but I think they have a signed Danny Manning jersey on the wall so maybe they’re a sports bar even though deep in my heart I know they’re not – Yea, let’s at least try that place.  But quick, because it’s already probably halftime and we’re probably already losing.

(Not that I would know – because it’s still 1996 and cell phones don’t exist)

When I was a kid, there were no cell phones.

When I was a kid, my brother and I would actually call the news desk of the Commercial Appeal to ask them to tell us the score of the game. They’d chuckle, check the wire, and give us the score. We’d say thank you. Then we’d call back in 10 minutes (or 5) and ask again. If that didn’t work (it usually did) we would find the media guide, get the number for the press row at the games, and call it up for scores. If we needed to pretend to be calling from some other paper, sure, we’d do that.

When I was a kid, you did what you had to do to get a score.

I once had my mother put the phone next to the TV and let me listen. For the entire 2nd half.

Unless we found the game at a sports bar. Yes, the sports bar. There was always hope in a sports bar. The sports bar wasn’t a place, it was an experience. It was a method to prove allegiance. It’s one thing to say you like a particular team. Maybe you have a t-shirt, that’s cute. Or a hoodie. Cool. Oh, you have a sticker on your car. Nice.

It’s one thing to DVR a game, in 2014, and watch the last half (skipping commercials) while laying on the couch after an enjoyable dinner at some trendy restaurant with your friends.  That’s one thing.

It is a whole other thing to spend an hour going through every sports bar in the Yellow Pages, call each one up, ask for the manager, inquire about the satellite equipment, inquire about which packages they have paid for, explain to them that, yes, the University of South Florida does indeed have a basketball team, show up, explain that I’m the guy who called about the Memphis – South Florida game, see the amused look on the waitresses face as I nervously sit down, wait, see the game actually come up, look at the satisfaction on the waitresses face, feel the excitement in myself, order a burger and a drink, sit by myself, sit alone for the next three hours (“I’ll take the check now but I’m not leaving for a long time”) and become gradually more depressed as I watch Memphis’ season end unceremoniously in the quarterfinals of the CUSA tournament.

That…is an entirely different thing.

When I was a kid, we did shit like that.  Because what other option did we have?

Now?  Everything is different now.

It’s like Robert DeNiro’s character at the end of Casino:

“The town will never be the same. After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today, it looks like Disneyland.”

In an HD / Digital world, being a fan is simple, convenient. For that reason, students (kids these days) don’t go to games nearly as much. They just watch.

I’m not complaining. Essentially, regional networks are now national networks – a function of live sports being the last refuge of the post-DVR advertisement marketplace. That’s good. I’m happy about it. HD is really pretty awesome. Every AAC (Memphis’ conference) game is on National TV. That’s a beautiful thing. I’m too old to be harassing the Saturday morning manager at Harry T’s right when she walks through the door, before she even has a chance to put coffee on.

But when I was a kid I did it. Because I had to.   

 

Analysis: Fuente’s New Contract Won’t End Speculation

It was reported on Thursday that Justin Fuente and Memphis have agreed to a new 5-year contract worth 1.4m in 2015 (and increasing by 25k each season thereafter).  Fuente’s buyout remains relatively small at 500k.

 

According to USA Today’s ranking of coaches salaries in 2014, Fuente’s new contract would make him approximately the 66th highest paid coach in the country.  Of course, the 2014 list does not reflect recent hirings and firings, so the ranking is not exact. Nevertheless, Fuente’s 1.4m salary appears to make him the 4th highest paid coach in the American Conference behind Cincinnati’s Tommy Tuberville (2.2m), new SMU coach Chad Morris (reportedly 2m per year), and UCF’s George O’Leary (1.8m).  He was previously the 8th highest paid coach in the American.

 

Though the current cycle of the coaching carousel is perhaps winding down (Pitt and Michigan are still open), this is not a contract that will prohibit Fuente from moving elsewhere at the right opportunity.  That wasn’t the Memphis administration’s goal to begin with since such a contract is beyond their capacity to produce.

 

Fuente has been refreshingly up-front about his approach to other jobs, saying he will listen if there is a great opportunity, but he also values what he and his staff (and players) have built at Memphis.  That philosophy is not going to change, so this contract extension was really designed to reward Fuente and his staff (there is also 150k being added to the assistant pool) for a job incredibly well done. The new contract may perhaps limit the types of jobs that would seem attractive to Fuente, but not by much.

 

The lowest compensated “Power 5” coaches generally make around 1.5m – 1.8m per year – so you probably won’t see Fuente consider places like Pitt (now open) should they show any interest.  Former Pitt coach Paul Chryst earned 1.57m in 2014 before leaving this week for Wisconsin.  Going to a place like Pitt, history and tradition aside, is now arguably a lateral move at least from a financial perspective.  From an intangible perspective keep in mind that the last 2 Pitt coaches have left for other “P5” jobs.

 

On the other hand, should Michigan be lucky enough to pry Dan Mullen from Mississippi State – that (MSU) is the type of job Fuente would have a hard time turning down.  Never mind the rigor of the SEC West.  Money is actually printed in the SEC, where the lowest paid coach is Kentucky’s Mark Stoops at 2.7m.  Mullen currently makes 3m.  Vanderbilt does not report Derek Mason’s salary.

 

It’s somewhat surprising that Fuente’s name, even though it’s very hot, isn’t even hotter.  It would be easy to make an argument that Fuente would have been a better fit at Nebraska than new head coach Mike Riley – who is 61 years old, coming off of a losing record at Oregon State, and has never lost less than 4 games in his entire career.   Fuente just turned what was one of the worst programs in D1 in 2011 into a conference champion and potential 10 win team.  One would have thought that his staff’s ability to win with equal or lesser talent, not to mention his Big XII pedigree, made him a perfect fit in Nebraska, where the challenge has always been trying to overcome the lack of a natural, fertile, recruiting area.  Oh well, Memphis fans are grateful for the oversight.

 

The only factor possibly holding Fuente back at this point is his overall record still sits at 16-20.  This should not scare anyone off given the state of the Memphis program he inherited, but it probably does.  After all, winning the press conference is important and it is hard to get pumped for a guy with a losing record (see Dooley, Derek).  Again, Memphis fans aren’t complaining.  If Fuente stays another year however, the odds are great he’ll flip that number around in 2015 and be one of, if not the hottest coaching name this time next year.

 

On Memphis Football Attendance

Memphis football attendance has always been an interesting topic of discussion and it generated more back and forth this year with some folks hoping for bigger crowds as Justin Fuente’s team chased down and secured the AAC title last month.

 

Well, the NCAA released final regular season attendance figures last week – and Memphis had one of the more impressive increases in the country at +19% from 2013, finishing with a per game average of 33,851.  That doesn’t initially seem like much, especially given that (a) Memphis plays in the heart of SEC country where rival schools easily double that figure and then some, and (b) the Tigers’ home stadium, The Liberty Bowl, seats 2x that many.

 

It should be noted, however, that only Army, UCF, Fresno State, ECU and BYU were schools at Memphis’ level -schools from the so called “group of 5” conferences + FBS independents- that averaged more fans per game.  In other words, Memphis attendance was better than all but 2 schools in the American Athletic Conference, and all but 1 school in the Mountain West Conference.  Nobody in CUSA, the MAC or the Sun Belt averaged as many fans per game as Memphis.  Nor did Boise State, Marshall or Colorado State – the other competitors for the G5 automatic berth in the New Year’s 6 bowl games.  For comparison, Boise averaged 32,504 per game while compiling a record of 11-2 and earning an invite to the Fiesta Bowl.

 

Memphis’ attendance was better than Washington State, Duke and Wake Forest – all of whom are members of the so called “Power 5.”  Memphis’ attendance was virtually identical to SEC neighbor Vanderbilt, whose average was 34,258 per game.

 

Keep in mind all of that happened with some of the worst weather possible for at least 3 of the Tigers’ home dates.  Kudos to the athletic department marketing staff for making games fun and generating more than respectable attendance figures.

 

The State of Memphis Tiger Basketball

This nice little 2-game win streak aside, fans of Tiger basketball have been doing a lot of hand wringing this year.  Attendance is down. Angst is up.  Obviously the almost exclusive subject of discussion is the head coach, Josh Pastner, and rightly so.   The man has overseen a program that, objectively speaking, has taken a precipitous fall from the high of the John Calipari era.  At his introductory press conference, Pastner stated a goal to have “no slippage,” but clearly his current program is more evocative of the Larry Finch or Tic Price era than of its immediate predecessor.  Slippage indeed.

That said, it is still hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem is.  As with most things, the answer isn’t simple.

The problem is obviously not a complete lack of talent. Multiple core rotation players were high 4-star recruits (Nick King, Shaq Goodwin, Austin Nichols), each of whom had multiple high major offers.   Similarly, Kuran Iverson, Pookie Powell and Kedren Johnson were all top 100 players with multiple offers.  Trashon Burrell was a highly thought of JUCO prospect.  Other coaches and programs do more with less talent.  Pastner has recruited well – this is not debatable.

The problem, contrary to what some believe, is also not a complete lack of coaching (x’s and o’s) ability.  Pastner’s teams over the course of his first 5 years at Memphis, contrary to the popular narrative, have excelled at offensive execution – consistently ranking among the NCAA leaders in percentage of assists on made baskets.   Furthermore, Pastner’s Memphis teams have won a multitude of close games and road conference games over the past 5 years – showing an ability to execute down the stretch in pressure situations. Though there were certainly times when Pastner was made to look silly by the likes of Rick Majerus, Tim Floyd, etc… the idea that he’s simply rolled out the basketballs to a group of elite athletes without any tactical expertise doesn’t match the facts.

So…

What is the problem?

Before presenting a list of 4 factors that have contributed to the slippage – let’s pause to point out that there might NOT be a problem.  As much as Memphis fans might not want to hear it, it’s possible that a 6-4 record heading towards conference play is simply where the Memphis program ought to be considering the fact they’re breaking in 10 new players and coming off of 4-consecutive NCAA tournaments.  It’s possible that the NIT is a realistic goal every 4 or 5 years while retooling for (optimistically) another set of NCAA bound teams.

That being said, here is a list of 4 factors that have led to the slippage:

 

1. Teams assume the personality of their coach and in this instance that translates to lack of toughness in big games and lack of identity for the program.
Josh Pastner is a tremendous human being.  The attributes that make him so are numerous:  He is kind, relentlessly positive, consistent, principled, and values others needs above his own.  The man returns literally every email sent to him.  He is maniacal about routine and process, which leads him to respect and prepare similarly for every opponent.   As a reflection of its coach, his players generally stay out of trouble, take care of their academic responsibilities and maintain a businesslike approach to the sport. This dedication to preparation, balance and consistency has resulted in a six-year stretch in which the Tigers have been on the wrong end of only a few surprising upsets (Rice, UTEP, SFA, ???).
On the other hand, this relentless insistence on treating every game the same has not worked at all in spotlight games. Pastner’s teams were embarrassed multiple times as he lost 13 consecutive games against ranked teams to start his career. Though they began to turn the tide last year against the likes of Louisville and Oklahoma State, big games this year have again been disastrous (Baylor, Wichita State, Oklahoma State). This has more to do with the philosophical and psychological approach to the games (including failure to trim the rotation), than it does any deficiency in tactical basketball related strategy.  Though it’s childish to suggest that Pastner has to use foul language to be an effective motivator, it’s not unreasonable to point out that his teams routinely fail to rise to the occasion in big moments.  That’s a motivational problem, and it’s on him.
2. Pastner’s teams lack floor leadership because he micromanages his players.
This is a corollary to the point above, and for proof one need look no further than the story of one Joe Jackson.  Jackson was clearly frustrated with the fact that he was never turned loose at any point in his 4 year career. His minutes were always more limited than they should have been. He was pulled too quickly after mistakes.  In a final insult and blow to his confidence, Mike Dixon was brought in before Jackson’s senior year, confusing and cluttering a promising back court situation.  Jackson never complained publicly (other than while he was considering a transfer), but it was obvious that he was held back and he confirmed as much after graduation.
Flashcards, constant providing instruction from the bench, over utilization of substitutions – add it all up and it is obvious that Memphis players are over coached.   The irony of this is it goes completely against the stereotype of the Memphis program, but it’s true.  The only players that seemed to play with any kind of unrestrained passion during the last several years were DJ Stephens and Will Barton. The other great talents passing through the system since 2010- Adonis Thomas, Tarik Black, Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin- have been under utilized, poorly motivated and over-coached (from a scheme, not a skills, standpoint).
3.  Pastner throws rosters together without adequate consideration for how the pieces fit together.
Pastner has spent his summers at Memphis making last minute additions to the roster (Kedren Johnson, Mike Dixon, Calvin Godfrey, David Pellom, etc.). Though Mike Dixon was a crucial factor in several wins down the stretch last year, it’s arguable that having an extra man in the back court destroyed team chemistry.  Jackson regressed from what was an outstanding Junior year.  Furthermore, the effect spilled into the 2014-15 year because the presence of 4 senior guards on the roster (combined with Pookie Powell’s failure to gain initial eligibility, and Markel Crawford’s redshirt) meant the program entered the current season with no experienced guards.
Likewise, Godfrey’s meltdown during the Oklahoma State game suggested maybe he wasn’t the ideal addition for a team already fairly deep in the front court.  Team chemistry is important and Memphis has had very few players that seem to embrace the 10th, 11th, or 12th spot on the bench.  Maybe most programs struggle with this, but Pastner gets paid 2.75m per year to avoid such problems.
4.  Scheduling Malpractice
It was a scheduling crime to throw a team with 10 new players and no back court experience up against Wichita State to start the 2014-2015 season. The blame for this probably sits as much with Tom Bowen and Wren Baker, as I’m not sure Pastner had much say in committing to play the Shockers.  It was also made clear that money was a driving factor in this game (the payoff funded the Canada trip).  Good coaches and programs know how to build a schedule that suits the current roster while not ignoring RPI considerations. This program has rarely, if ever, seemed to get that task right.   If ever there was a year for a schedule front end loaded with easy wins, this was it.  Not that the schedule has been murderers row – but it could have been more specifically tweaked for the realities of this team.  Again, Pastner clearly has less say in the schedule than his predecessor had, but the lack of scheduling savvy is clearly one of the factors in the program’s regression.
If one were to categorize these issues into a broad category, it could be said the problem is program management and player management.   These are fixable issues, but they do start with the man in charge – the man who gets paid 2.75m per year to solve them. He’ll have time – but it will require an open-mindedness and willingness to change his approach in certain areas.