Good Wins: at Gonzaga, vs. Cincinnati, at Tennessee, sweep of UAB
Bad Losses: none (but losses are vs. Xavier (San Juan Shootout), at Georgetown, and vs. Syracuse).
1. John Calipari has done his best coaching job by getting out of his own way. Ask the Tigers head coach what was the turning point that turned a struggling Memphis team (6-3) into a possible top seed with 18 straight wins, the answer is easy. “I’ve liked my team from the beginning,” Calipari said. “We just had a dumb coach to start the year that didn’t have Tyreke Evans at point guard. Whoever that coach is should’ve been fired.”
Evans, a 6-foot-6 freshman point guard from Chester, Penn., is a near lock to be named the best freshman in the country at the Final Four (got my vote). He is averaging better offensive efficiency numbers (16.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game) at a slightly slower pace than the top pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, Derrick Rose.
2. Defense – Calipari has made a statement that if you want to don the Memphis jersey, you better be able to check your guy and defend. Here’s a stat to keep in mind when filling out your brackets in March: Memphis (26-3, 14-0) has allowed 70 points once since Christmas and that was in a 108-75 victory over Lamar. The Tigers are holding teams to 58 points per game and get nine steals to go along with six blocks on a nightly basis. In its one major road test in league play, Memphis was able to hold UAB’s best player Robert Vaden to an unbelievable scoreless night, as the senior went 0-for-17 from the field and 0-12 on three-pointers.
3. Schedule – Say what you want about the diluted Conference USA slate of teams as compared to the program that Calipari has brought to the river city of the mid-south. However, the Tigers have played a quality non-conference slate (28th-toughest non-conference schedule) to counter their continued dominance of the league (56 consecutive C-USA wins dating back to March 2, 2006). Granted, those exams were mostly in November and December, but nonetheless, the Tigers have been tested in NCAA Tournament-type games.
Complacency. When you’re pounding teams like SMU and Southern Mississippi into submission for ten weeks in a row, the skill of your first- or second-round NCAA opponent may surprise you. But this team is tougher defensively than last year’s, even without Joey Dorsey in the paint, and not as prone to an early upset.
Seeding – The Tigers will likely roll through the Conference USA Tournament, and if they do, the debate will be how can a team with 30+ wins and a 23-game winning streak be denied a No.1 seed. It seems likely they will be—at worst—the No. 10 team on the S-curve, despite having only one top 25 RPI win (at Tennessee).
Elite Eight – This team can make it back-to-back Final Four appearances with the right matchups, but the biggest concern will be if they face a team with a legit big man and defensive post presence.