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VOL. 128 | NO. 204 | Friday, October 18, 2013

 

Beauty in the Difficulty for Tigers This Season

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

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Conference USA’s Powers That Be, which is funny just to type, were not happy when the University of Memphis left for what eventually was named the American Athletic Conference.

The best indication of this?

When the 2013 C-USA men’s basketball tournament was pulled from Memphis and FedExForum, where traditionally it was a resounding success for a league with no good teams not named Memphis. So it’s fitting that in the Tigers’ first season in The American, the conference tournament will be at FedExForum. From March 12-15 in 2014, should you want to clear your calendar.

Worth noting about the tournament: The Tigers have not already been crowned champions.

Senior guard Geron Johnson is part of a foursome of guards the University of Memphis will unleash on the American Athletic Conference this year.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

In fact, this week, when the league’s Media Day was held at FedExForum, we learned that the Tigers were picked third in the preseason poll behind Louisville and Connecticut, though just one point behind UConn. The fourth through 10th spots, in order: Cincinnati, Temple, SMU, Houston, South Florida, UCF and Rutgers.

For years, Tigers coach Josh Pastner stumped in vain for C-USA. He said for all the other C-USA teams, playing Memphis was their World Series, their Super Bowl, their Indianapolis 500, their Kentucky Derby and their Iditarod. He said this more than once. And that’s only a partial list. At some level (we think, we hope) even Pastner knew his assertion was absurd and so he took it further.

No more. The American is real. True, it’s not the old Big East, and next year Louisville will exit. But it’s legitimate.

Tigers sophomore Shaq Goodwin listened to a sportswriter tick off the names of all the big games – and marquee teams – on this season’s league schedule, starting with defending national champion Louisville, and he looked ready to tip off the season yesterday.

“Not looking down on any other teams,” Goodwin said, “but that’s beautiful. I love to see that. ESPN games, everybody gets to play in front of their family even if they can’t come.

“Last year, we played down to our level of competition a lot,” Goodwin added. “This year we have a tougher schedule so we have no choice but to match their intensity.”

Another indication of how much tougher this league is? Senior guard Joe Jackson made the preseason All-Conference first team, but no other Tiger made first or second team. Louisville guard Russ Smith was named preseason Player of the Year and SMU guard Keith Frazier preseason Rookie of the Year. The rest of the first team: Smith, Cincinnati guard Sean Kilpatrick, UConn guard Shabazz Napier and Louisville forward Chane Behanan.

Second-team choices were UCF guard Isaiah Sykes, UConn guard Ryan Boatright, Houston forward TaShawn Thomas, Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell, South Florida guard Anthony Collins and South Florida forward Victor Rudd.

What’s the oldest motivational ploy in sports? Disrespect. Any number of Tigers can embrace that one heading into this season.

And yet, collectively, there may not be a more talented team in the league – this side of Louisville – other than the Tigers. What team can put four dynamic senior guards on the floor at one time? Only Memphis, with its “Four Kings” better known as Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Missouri transfer Michael Dixon.

“That’s a mismatch for any other team,” Crawford said. “That’s advantage us. We can outrun any other team.”

About this and everything else, well, time will tell. But that’s a good thing. There are not just one or two non-conference games to be excited about, but a bunch of league games and few outside the conference, too.

Another potential point of impact: officiating changes in college basketball that will result in foul calls when even thinking about hand-checking. Yes, this could be a challenge for a physical player like Johnson. But when the Tigers deploy all those guards and have the ball?

“Now you can attack the rim,” Jackson said. “It’s gonna help us.”

In truth, just about everything in the new conference should be of assistance, including the respect the Tigers can earn from the rest of the college basketball world and what that could mean for seeding come NCAA Tournament time.

Of course, that’s assuming the Tigers take care of business possession by possession, game by game. The schedule does not have a make-believe Kentucky Derby or Iditarod on it, but it does have a whole lot of tough games in tough places. And how beautiful is that?

“This is what I came to Memphis basketball for,” Johnson said.

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