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November 8, 2011
Memphis is Not a Top-10 Team

by John Gasaway


Last year at this time I greeted the new season by saying Kansas State was a tad overrated at No. 3 in the nation in the preseason polls. That hardly endeared me to Wildcat fans, and, anyway, who knows how the season might have played out in Manhattan if not for all the suspensions and distractions that were subsequently inflicted upon Frank Martin's team.

But that's my point: I wasn't forecasting doom for KSU. No one can do that. I was merely saying No. 3 in the nation was too high based on what we knew at that time.

This season there's another team that's just a bit too high in the preseason polls. Meet the Memphis Tigers, checking in at a lofty No. 9 in the preseason ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. That's pretty heady company for a group that had the worst offense in Conference USA last year, no? What changed in the offseason? Can these guys suddenly make perimeter shots and take care of the rock?

Certainly Will Barton, Joe Jackson, and company gave Arizona a great game in the NCAA tournament round of 64, a performance that appeared all the more impressive when Derrick Williams and the Wildcats came within a Jamelle Horne 3-point attempt of defeating eventual national champion Connecticut in the Elite Eight. I'm perfectly willing to take 40 minutes of basketball into account -- maybe the Arizona game showed this team's true potential. I just think the 1,075 possessions the Tigers played against C-USA opponents in the regular season can also give us good information on exactly where Pastner's team needs to improve in order to reach that potential.

So let me start by offering a disclaimer. I know some Memphis fans won't read my disclaimer, but here it is anyway:

I'm not saying Memphis won't be a top-10 team by the time the season's over.

In just the past few months I've seen a 9-9 Big East team (Connecticut) win the national championship. In the national championship game that Big East outfit beat a team (Butler) that made it to Houston even though they'd lost to an opponent as unthreatening as Youngstown State. And in the Final Four the group that couldn't beat YSU triumphed over an opponent (Virginia Commonwealth) that made it to a national semifinal even though they'd lost four of their last five regular-season games. None of those things happens in a "normal" year. So, believe me, something as straightforward and humdrum as Pastner's undeniably talented group pulling themselves together and becoming, say, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament wouldn't exactly make me rub my eyes in disbelief. I am not forecasting doom.

What I am saying is simply that a top-10 ranking is too high for this team right now. Sure, they're talented, but they were talented last year, and C-USA defenses had no trouble at all in shutting down this offense completely. "Worst offense in the league" can be a deceptive phrase, but in this case "worst by a mile" is more like it. Memphis mustered just 0.97 points per possession in conference play. No other C-USA offense -- not Rice, not Houston, no one -- was held to less than a point per trip.

Nor should we tell ourselves that this was "just" a case of bad perimeter shooting. Memphis was horrible from beyond the arc, of course. Barton tried 147 threes and made just 27 percent of those attempts. Chris Crawford also launched 147 tries from out there, and he hit 30 percent of those shots. And while Antonio Barton did achieve impressive results from outside (44 percent), his small number of attempts (95) and mediocre shooting at the line (68 percent) both suggest a downward correction may be in the offing this season.

But so what, right? We've all seen "talented" teams that can't make threes yet still win games. (It's tough to pull off, though, when you give the ball away on 23 percent of your possessions like this group did in conference play last season.) I dare say "success without perimeter credibility" is a pretty well-defined style, and here are the things those teams customarily do in order to win. They play good defense, crash the offensive glass, and get to the free throw line. Will Memphis do all three? No one knows for sure, of course, but we do know that last year they did about 1.5 of those things.

The Tigers were indeed very good on defense, though even here we should probably keep in mind that Pastner's team wasn't exactly dominant on that side of the ball. UTEP, to take one teachably non-sexy example, was better on D, but there's no question Memphis was far above average so I'll go ahead and check that box: the Tigers will be very good on defense this year. Now, next category. Offensive rebounding? Tarik Black was outstanding on the offensive glass as a freshman, but as a team Memphis was only fair when it came to gathering in their misses. C-USA teams like Marshall and Southern Miss were way better in that department, and no one's going wild over the Thundering Herd or the Golden Eagles. Give Memphis a half-credit here. Last category: drawing fouls and getting to the line. The Tigers were significantly below the league average. No credit.

All of which is to say a lot will need to change for this to be one of the ten best teams in the country. Pastner does welcome McDonald's All-American Adonis Thomas to the roster this season, but the latest reports suggest the coach may go with Jackson, Black, Will Barton, Wesley Witherspoon, and Charles Carmouche as his starting five. Whoever Pastner puts on the floor, I will be watching the Tigers closely. If their perimeter shots start to fall or they start taking care of the ball, I'll tell anyone who cares to listen that Memphis really is "back." Until then, however, my advice is to treat that top-10 ranking with more than a little caution.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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