Tigers' Life in ‘Real’ Conference Off to Tough Start

By Don Wade

The Tigers’ first home game in the American Athletic Conference started with great promise. When guard Joe Jackson dunked to finish off a fastbreak and give the Tigers an 8-2 lead over Cincinnati, FedExForum was rocking.

This, fans seemed to be saying, was just the start of the fun. After the Jackson dunk, as Cincinnati was bringing the ball up court, fans began chanting: “DEE-fense, DEE-fense, DEE-fense!”

At that point, it almost seemed inevitable that the University of Memphis would win the day and the program’s 1,500th game in its storied history. After all, in winning 27 straight conference games (postseason tournament games included), the Tigers routinely had broken opponents’ will within the first five minutes of games.

Cincinnati showed a blueprint for how to defeat the University of Memphis and senior guard Joe Jackson during last week’s defeat of the Tigers at FedExForum.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But that was yesterday, in the league known as Conference USA, a league so pathetic that Memphis coach Josh Pastner worked overtime defending it in hopes of protecting his team’s NCAA Tournament seeding.

In the here and now, what happened in the conference home opener on Jan. 4 confirmed best and worst thoughts about life in the AAC.

Cincinnati defeated the Tigers 69-53, grounding an offense that had been averaging 82.8 points per game. By the time the day was done, with UC challenging the Tigers to beat them from the outside, Memphis’ 3-point shooting percentage for the season had fallen to 29.2 percent, making them 325th out of 351 Division 1 teams.

“They changed our pace,” said Tigers forward David Pellom.

At some level, that’s just what the Bearcats (13-2, 2-0) do. They were holding opponents to 56.5 points per game before coming into FedExForum, knocking the Tigers from No. 18 in the A.P. poll to No. 24.

But this loss also had much to do with the Tigers (10-3, 1-1) and their flawed evaluations of themselves.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when our four senior guards play poorly collectively we’re going to struggle,” Pastner said.

Especially if the coach refuses to adjust during such games and give other players – and strategies – a chance to change the momentum. This will be the test going forward, by the way. And it starts Thursday, Jan. 9, at No. 12 Louisville and then moves on to a Saturday, Jan. 11, game at Temple.

It’s a real schedule with real teams and real challenges. Just saying you’re going to roll with your four senior guards is not going to be good enough on a lot of nights.

“(This loss) will give us something to get better from,” Jackson said. “It is just one loss and we will get better.”

Maybe, maybe not.

Against UC, Pastner relied on the senior guards – well, except for his decision to pull Jackson for a stretch in the second half – even as they went a combined 2-for-17 from 3-point range with just nine assists and 11 turnovers.

Yes, freshman forward Austin Nichols looked a bit overmatched during his 11 first-half minutes, scoring just two points on 1-for-4 shooting with one rebound and two blocks. But Nichols never got on the court in the second half. Nor did freshman forward Nick King, who played but three minutes in the first half.

In the second half, the rotation shrunk to six players – Jackson, fellow senior guards Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon, and forward Shaq Goodwin and Pellom.

“Our defense was tremendous,” Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said, and forward Justin Jackson led the effort with seven blocks. “Once we got (Joe) Jackson under control everything was easier.”

Jackson had carried Memphis in the first half, scoring 11 of his 13 points. He hit just 1-of-7 shots in the second half and coughed up four of his five turnovers in the second half. Dixon scored 12 points, but was consistently erratic – not only making poor choices as a shooter, but when driving and passing. Often, Dixon left his feet with no idea what he would do next or where he would go with the ball.

Dixon also was 1-for-6 from 3-point range and is in the habit of forcing shots from all over the floor. Pastner gave him 15 minutes in the second half, same as Jackson.

Cincinnati guard Sean Kilpatrick, who scored a game-high 18 points, lauded the Tigers, saying, “They’re a great team, the first team I’ve seen get out and run like that.” But he also echoed his coach, saying, “Joe Jackson’s a tough cover. We were trying to stop him most.”

Once they did, they stopped the whole offense. Two games into AAC play, the Bearcats have drawn up the blueprint for every other team to use against the Tigers: defend the lane and turn them into itchy-fingered jump shooters that aren’t nearly as good as they think they are.

So adjustments must be made and then adjustments to the adjustments will be required. That’s just life in a real college basketball conference.