These Tigers may not be as good as last year’s herd, a super-talented but underperforming lot which lost nine times — including its opening round game in the NCAA tournament – and had a habit for wilting in tight games down the stretch. That group had a bona fide star in Will Barton, a more efficient Adonis Thomas on top of a healthy and therefore more productive Tarik Black. Chris Crawford was even a reliable shooter back then too.
Still, the sequel in the Home of the Blues isn’t too shabby itself. Joe Jackson’s perimeter game has soared, Shaq Goodwin has been an instant-impact freshman, albeit inconsistent, and D.J. Stephens’ silly hops are finally translating into positive production deserving of extended playing time. Memphis is again among the best in the nation at blocking shots – it has Stephens to thank for that – and a defense that struggled finding stability earlier in the season is meshing at just the right time.
Conference-USA is down – the 11th best league as measured by the RPI – and Memphis hasn’t beaten anyone of note. Understood. The skepticism is valid, especially in light of last season’s tantalizing promise upended by an early-round tournament flop.
Word to the watchful – these Tigers are growing up, if only in disjointed spurts at a time. Pastner’s team isn’t overwhelming, but it does feature a dangerous combination of athleticism, defensive tenacity and streaky outside shooting. In a year where parity has subverted any true frontrunner, why are pundits so quick to rule out a team with top-shelf talent and a portfolio of consistent winning?
Do pressing questions remain? Sure. Ball security and poise are two places to start. But with its confidence growing by the win – now 16 straight and running – Memphis is the type of riddle no team should want the task of solving in March.