There are several ways to measure the magnitude of a college basketball game. First, will the outcome echo through the rest of the season and resonate with the NCAA Tournament Committee come March?
Check. The Saturday, Dec. 15, game at FedExForum between No. 6 Louisville and the Memphis Tigers will have much bearing on the rest of the Tigers’ season.
Next, is there history behind the game? Does it matter to fans at a base level? Are there stories to be told and embellished? Is it a real rivalry?
Check, check, check and check.
“Everywhere we go now it’s about Louisville – ‘Beat Louisville,’” the Tigers’ Adonis Thomas said.
“I understand what this game means to Tiger Nation,” Coach Josh Pastner said.
Adonis Thomas and the Memphis Tigers hope to avenge last season’s 95-87 loss at Louisville when the two meet at FedExForum.
(Photo: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
To be sure, there are layers of understanding here. The bad blood is real and for every great moment to be remembered and relished there are not-so-pleasant memories – Fred Horton and the chair, Darius Washington and the free throws.
So when the Tigers’ D.J. Stephens was asked what he knew about the rivalry, his answer seemed fitting.
“I’m not sure if it’s accurate or not,” Stephens said, “but I found out the other day it started with a bar fight between a Louisville fan and a Memphis fan.”
Hey, if it didn’t start that way, it probably should have. But for all the history – from Freedom Hall to the Mid-South Coliseum to the FedExForum – Saturday is about the Tigers’ immediate future. They catch a literally large break in that Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng has a broken wrist and is not expected to play. Dieng, a 6-11, 245-pound center from Senegal, scored 14 points with 14 rebounds and six blocks in the Cardinals’ 95-87 victory over the Tigers in Louisville last year.
But even without Dieng, who has missed four games – including Louisville’s lone loss, 76-71 to Duke in the Bahamas – the Cardinals are the country’s third-most efficient defensive team behind Syracuse and Florida and they give up just 53.1 points per game – fourth-best in the nation. Memphis, meanwhile, allows 64.6 points per game – 132nd in the nation, and ranks 90th in defensive efficiency.
The Cardinals are 36th in scoring (77 points per game) and the Tigers are 54th (74.8 points per game). With Dieng out, the Tigers figure to have a size advantage inside if Shaq Goodwin continues to play like the Conference USA Freshman of the Week he was in victories over Ohio and Austin Peay and if Tarik Black brings his full focus and intensity to the competition.
Louisville is still strong in its backcourt with Peyton Siva (10.9 points and 5.7 assists per game) and the dynamic Russ Smith (20.3 points). Coach Rick Pitino has dubbed him “Russdiculous” because it captures the best and worst of his play.
“There are still people out there (who think), ‘Russ is wild,’” Smith told the Louisville Courier-Journal this week.
Memphis guards can relate. That’s Joe Jackson at his best and worst. In some ways, it’s also Geron Johnson. While praising Johnson’s intensity, unselfishness and love of defense, Pastner also said Johnson is learning on the fly: “He’s now understanding the importance of hitting singles, as I like to say. At times he can try to make the home run play and cause us a turnover.”
If the Tigers match the 22 turnovers they had in their romp over Austin Peay, they will lose by double digits to Louisville. And that would be a defeat difficult to overcome. Conference USA isn’t just a punch line to local media, but to national media, too. This is the best opportunity to grab a marquee win.
“The league’s not going to get any respect,” Pastner admitted. “It’s a big game for the simple fact your margin for error is basically none.”
Just like in a bar fight.