We aren’t in Conference USA anymore. That is probably what ran through the minds of the Memphis Tigers and fans alike Wednesday afternoon after their schedule for the team’s first year in the American Athletic Conference was released.
Gone are the Rice‘s and Tulane‘s of the world. Taking their places are the likes of some of the best teams in college basketball. You might have heard of the Connecticut Huskies, Florida Gators or Louisville Cardinals. Like that they are pretty good. Pretty good as in head, shoulders, knees and toes better than Rice, Tulane, UAB and Marshall, teams the Tigers faced regularly while in C-USA.
Just how daunting is the Tigers schedule this season? Memphis has a chance to play up 10 teams who made a postseason tournament last year, face the reigning national champion twice, play a Gonzaga team that finished the regular season No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and play two of the last three National Champions four times.
To put it bluntly, the Tigers have no room for error. Fans had been barking about a tougher schedule for years. Well, here it is. Because of their talent level, Memphis often got away with sub-par performances against, you guessed it, sub-par competition. That was all fine and dandy in C-USA, but with a much tougher schedule and league, the Tigers won’t be able to rely on pure athleticism and talent.
It will be critical that the team gets off to a much better start than last year’s 1-2 mark in the Battle 4 Atlantis. A trip to Orlando to play in the Old Spice Classic this season will be an early test, with teams such as Butler, LSU, Oklahoma State, Purdue and Washington State in the bracket. Memphis can’t afford another slow start, as the schedule only gets tougher from that point on.
Memphis has the talent to win 25 games, but it all hinges on how the team adjusts to a schedule loaded with top-tier programs. As head coach Josh Pastner said Wednesday at his press conference, the Tigers will have to be at the top of their game week in and week out. Since Pastner arrived, Memphis has been working to get back to the level they were at under John Calipari.
The recruits are flowing in and the cupboard is full of playmakers. Now, it is time for the Tigers to prove they can win against the best.