D.J. Stephens was 1-for-6 from the free-throw line when, at game’s end, he needed to miss a foul shot on purpose to give the Tigers one last desperate chance at a tip-in that would have tied the game at Xavier.
“A million things went through my mind before I shot that free throw,” Stephens said a day after the Tigers lost, 64-62, ending their 18-game winning streak.
One of the things Stephens thought – feared, actually – was that “I’ll mess around and make it.” He didn’t, of course, even failing to make contact with the rim.
“I take sole responsibility for that loss,” Stephens said. “I actually broke down after the game.”
D.J. was being a little too hard on himself. But as happens after every Tiger loss, and after some wins, critics near and afar were quick to break down everything, assign blame and offer half-baked remedies. Coach Josh Pastner’s reminder, among others: “The season’s not over. You can’t pull the cake out of the oven. The cake is still baking.”
Maybe so, but for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee there is no mystery as to how the Tigers have cooked up their 24-4 record. They are undefeated (13-0) in their “little league,” as one writer put it, and already have clinched the regular-season Conference USA Championship.
Yet they still are without a victory over a ranked team or name brand. They carried a No. 19 AP ranking into Xavier, but are sure to fall in the next poll – perhaps all the way out of the Top 25. Thus, the best thing that happened on Feb. 26 when the Tigers lost to Xavier is that Tennessee, a team the Tigers have beaten, upset No. 8 Florida. Perhaps if the vastly improved Vols can make a deep run in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and steal an at-large bid, some of that bracketology/RPI/BPI voodoo will spin the Tigers’ way and help their seeding.
All of this assumes that we don’t have to be concerned with the Tigers making the NCAA field in the event they somehow were to not win the C-USA Tournament in Tulsa. Pastner calls any suggestion Memphis is not solidly in the field “ridiculous,” and I’m inclined to agree. Provided they do not suffer more than one additional loss between now and Selection Sunday.
Others are less charitable, especially those named Jeff Goodman.
“Memphis beats up in C-USA, but comes up short in big-boy basketball,” said the headline on Goodman’s article on
CBSSports.com. Goodman went on to call C-USA opponents the equivalent of playing the “Sisters of the Poor” and said that by losing to Xavier on national TV the Tigers blew a chance to “silence their critics who wondered if Memphis truly had improved since November.”
Unfortunately, that’s a fair point.
“I was embarrassed walking on campus (today),” guard Geron Johnson said. “Seriously, I wanted to hurry and get to class.”
Going forward, it seems clear the Tigers will either provide indisputable evidence that they really aren’t worthy of big-boy basketball or, as Stephens suggested, use this latest indignity to regain focus and “go into everything with a chip on (our) shoulder.”
The Tigers have Top 25-type talent, if not a Top 25-type resume. And if they were confused about that before – “taking things for granted,” Johnson said – they shouldn’t be now.
“We’ve proven (the critics) right when we lose games like that, Xavier on the road,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to handle those games.”
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. He and Jon Albright host the “Jon & Don Show” on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.