On Saturday, March 9, the Tigers finish out the regular season at FedExForum against UAB. We know if they win this game, they will have a perfect 16-0 record in the last season in Conference USA. We also know it will be the last time Tigers fans get to see senior D.J. Stephens play – dunk – in a home Tigers game.
With the C-USA Tournament starting next week in Tulsa and the NCAA Tournament beginning the week after, the Tigers are a curious team. They will carry a 26-4 record into the UAB game, yet in many ways the softness of C-USA has raised as many questions as it has answered. So let’s address some of those questions:
The Tigers are ranked 20th in the USA Today Coaches Poll and 25th in the A.P. Poll. So I can assume from this they will be a 5-7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, right?
D.J. Stephens dunks over Houston earlier this season, a feat he has become known for. He will be honored March 9 as part of Senior Day.
(Photo: AP Photo/Lance Murphey)
Actually, no. Rankings are like a well-tailored suit. They look good, but just as a nice suit won’t win the job interview your ranking won’t determine seeding. The more realistic view is that if the Tigers win the C-USA Tournament and some other teams stumble they can claw their way up to a 6 seed. If they stumble, they might fall back as far as 10. Most likely, they land from 7-9 and the 8-9 game would mean a victory probably would pit them against a 1 seed in the next round. Not good.
Why did Stephens have to come out of the game against UTEP in El Paso and, while we’re at it, do you think there’s a chance we will again see him play at FedExForum in an NBA uniform?
The almost 4,000-foot elevation in El Paso played havoc with Stephens’ asthma. He said later he tried using his inhaler but never could get to “full lung capacity.” So here’s hoping the committee doesn’t send the Tigers to Salt Lake City (elevation 4,200-plus) for their first game.
Josh Pastner believes Stephens can play in the NBA. “I think there’s a place for him,” the Tigers coach said. “He brings energy. He can help a team win.”
Just how bad is C-USA and what does that mean for the Tigers in postseason play?
With apologies to the word awful, C-USA is awful. At ESPN.com, Joe Lunardi’s bracketology shows C-USA is 1-29 against teams with an RPI of 1-25. If you expand that to 1-50, the record is 6-47. The league’s best win came back in December when Central Florida beat Belmont (23 in the RPI). Obviously, this impacts seeding, but the larger problem for the Tigers is they know they haven’t beaten a top team. Their four losses and the team’s RPI are as follows: Virginia Commonwealth (24), Minnesota (20), Louisville (3), and Xavier (86).
Yes, the Tigers have an RPI of 19. But their “best” wins are the two victories over Southern Miss (42).
On the other hand, aren’t the Tigers better prepared for postseason play this time around? Didn’t they learn from the loss to Saint Louis in the NCAAs last season?
There is an argument to be made that this edition of the Tigers is better suited for tournament play. They do not rely on any one player (Will Barton a year ago) for scoring. The Tigers’ top seven scorers are as follows: Joe Jackson (13.7), Adonis Thomas (11.7), Geron Johnson (10.1), Chris Crawford (8.9), Tarik Black (8.7), Shaq Goodwin (8.1), and Stephens (7.2).
But consistency has been elusive. Thomas still isn’t strong enough going into the paint and to the rim. Johnson is tough, but streaky. When Crawford’s shooting touch is “on,” he can carry them or bring them back. When he’s “off,” a good zone defense could kill the Tigers. Goodwin and Black have to be careful about fouling and do a better job rebounding. Jackson has to keep his cool and lead this team.
Players at least seem to know what’s coming. “In the tournament,” Black said, “you have to play grinder games.”
Do the Tigers have a higher ceiling or a lower basement in terms of what they can do in the NCAA Tournament?
Great question. Their sheer speed and athleticism gives them a legitimate chance to beat any team in the country, if they play their best game. We’ve seen there is no dominant team out there so if the question is could they beat a Duke, Gonzaga or Kansas on a given day, the answer is yes. The flip side is Southern Miss is probably an NIT team and Xavier might be, too. The Tigers certainly could lose to any NCAA-caliber team on a given day and turnovers (they average 15 a game) and mediocre free-throw shooting (67 percent) remain real concerns.