Time for Winning

Tigers enter tourney season needing to move past ‘war wounds’

By Don Wade

Through a 31-game regular season and an 18-game grind in the American Athletic Conference, the University of Memphis never lost back-to-back games. It’s a notable achievement.

University of Memphis senior point guard Joe Jackson and the Tigers know March tournament season is the time for winning. The Tigers kick off the postseason with Thursday’s game against UConn.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But now that the single-elimination season has started, it also is an irrelevant statistic going forward unless the Tigers have the misfortune to lose their first AAC Tournament game Thursday, March 13, at FedExForum against Connecticut, and then lose their first NCAA Tournament game a week later.

“We’ve got a lot of war wounds,” senior guard Michael Dixon said, and two of those wounds would be losses to UConn. “But I think it’s for the better. We’re where we need to be and we’re gonna be ready.”

The Tigers finished the regular season at 23-8, 12-6, and are the No. 5 seed. They play the No. 4 seed Huskies (24-7, 12-6) at approximately 8:30 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals. The tournament begins with play-in games Wednesday at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. For more tournament information or to follow along, go to www.TheAmerican.org/MBB.

The league had five teams in the Associated Press Top 25 poll during the last week of the regular season: Louisville (11), Cincinnati (15), SMU (18), UConn (19) and Memphis (20).

“For a first-year conference, it’s been unbelievable for the quality of play,” said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin.

“A big-boy league,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “The best in the country.”

Louisville coach Rick Pitino says there is no denying the Tigers’ home-court advantage this week, recalling similar challenges his team faced in the Big East and playing the conference tournament in New York.

“Sorta like playing Syracuse in the Garden,” Pitino said.

But the Tigers have plenty of challenges of their own. On Feb. 15 in Hartford, UConn beat Memphis 86-81 in overtime. Guard Shabazz Napier, a strong conference Player of the Year candidate, scored 34 points with four assists and four steals. Guard Ryan Boatright scored 21 points.

In the season’s first meeting, Jan. 16 at FedExForum, the Huskies outscored the Tigers by 11 in the second half for an 83-73 win. Napier had 17 points and 10 assists and forward DeAndre Daniels scored 23 points with 11 rebounds.

“Napier’s a stud, Boatright’s a stud, Daniels is a stud,” Pastner said. “They’ve got multiple studs.”

Nothing is given for the University of Memphis as host of this week’s American Athletic Conference Tournament. The Tigers come in as the fifth seed. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But Napier is, well, the studliest.

Said Dixon: “They want the ball in Shabazz Napier’s hands as much as possible in ball-screen situations. When he has the ball, we have to know where he’s at, get the ball out of his hands, and make sure he doesn’t get it back.”

The Tigers don’t have any one guard at Napier’s level, but they do have numbers with four senior guards in Dixon, Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson.

“This team’s not going to go very far if all four guards don’t play their best,” Jackson said.

Cincinnati’s Cronin puts his senior guard, Sean Kilpatrick, Louisville senior guard Russ Smith and Napier – all first-team conference selections and Player of the Year hopefuls – in one category, but said, “I really should say Joe Jackson (too), to be honest with you, because he’s underrated.”

Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie would like to see his team duplicate the defensive effort it had here in January when the Tigers scored all of two fastbreak points and especially doesn’t want to see Johnson with the ball in the open floor, adding, “He’s a one-man fastbreak. If we want to win, we’ve got to keep them out of transition. That’s energizing for the team and the crowd.”

If the Tigers can get past UConn, they likely would meet Cincinnati in the semifinals (they also went 0-2 against the Bearcats). Should they make it to Saturday evening’s finals, they likely would find Louisville waiting – a team the Tigers swept.

“We’re good enough to win the (conference) tournament; we’re good enough to win the national championship,” Pastner said. “I believe that. But if you don’t bring it, you can lose a game.”

Another challenge for Memphis: The NCAA will not give the Tigers as much credit for winning the conference tournament as they would any of the other teams because it’s on their home floor. The Tigers also might face a harsher seeding penalty if they lose before the finals.

Asked if either of the league’s regular-season co-champions, Louisville and Cincinnati, deserve to be a No. 2 seed should they win the conference tournament, Pitino said: “I can’t speak for Cincinnati … but if we could win the next three games for 29 wins, we’re a 2 seed.”

Dixon says he is well aware how the NCAA seeding works. An early AAC exit could drop the Tigers into the 7-8 seed range, which is why the Tigers can’t afford any more of those so-called war wounds.

“Our only option is to win,” Dixon said.