You might not know it yet, but the Memphis Tigers are the best team in the American Athletic Conference. I know it’s a little early in the season to be making bold predictions, but there is no point in hiding the truth. With four senior guards, a top-three recruiting class and a head coach that has improved himself and his team every year, the Tigers are on their way to being the inaugural champions of the AAC.
Memphis spent nearly a decade trying to get out of Conference USA — a conference they have dominated since Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette left in 2005. The Tigers have had to deal with inferior competition throughout the season which left them unprepared for the NCAA tournament. Memphis has won 20-plus games each of the past 13 seasons and made the NCAA tournament nine of those 13 seasons but only has 14 tourney wins in those nine appearances. The only time Memphis made deep runs in the tournament were the years with Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey and of course the one year with Derrick Rose. Other than the run with those four players from 2005-2008 the Tigers haven’t even made a Sweet Sixteen.
The biggest reason for the Tigers’ post-season failure has been their lack of competition in the heart of the college basketball season. Memphis has always scheduled a tough non-conference slate that has included: Georgetown, Louisville, Michigan, Kansas, Gonzaga, Syracuse and Tennessee. Memphis has obviously never shied away from playing tough opponents, but once the conference season started it is hard to convince teams from power conferences to stop their tough conference schedule and square off against a tough non-conference foe that would have plenty of time to prepare against them. That will not be the case any longer for the Tigers. Sure, Louisville is gone after this season and I’m sure other teams will shuffle as they years go by, but the Tigers have proved more than worthy of playing against the big boys. This year they will put a stamp on their arrival in the AAC with a league title.
Memphis is led by seniors Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon. Jackson and Crawford have been with Memphis since they were freshmen. They are both Memphis kids who chose to stay home and keep the Tigers relevant once John Calipari left for Kentucky. Johnson and Dixon are both talented players who transferred to Memphis after legal troubles at previous stops. Jackson, Dixon and Johnson are considered top-100 NBA prospects by several publications, and Crawford is one of the best three-point shooters in the country (39.6 percent over the last two seasons) meaning the Tigers have what every college team wants: guards on top of guards on top of guards. Guard-play runs college basketball, and the Tigers have the market on lock this season.
Memphis not only has the schedule to keep them more focused throughout the season and the four senior guards, but they have depth at every position on the floor. For the most part this depth comes from the freshman class of Austin Nichols, Nick King, Kuran Iverson and Markel Crawford. Having a roster dominated by freshman can be hard to handle — case in point, last year’s Kentucky team — but having talented freshmen that have to earn and fight for their minutes amongst talented upperclassmen is a very good situation to be in. Even though Nichols, King, Iverson and Crawford were all highly ranked high school players, none of them will be promised a second of game-time. Each and every minute of playing-time they earn will be on merit.
The Tigers’ stiffest competition in the AAC will come from defending the National Champions, Louisville. The Cardinals have a roster with a few NBA names on it — most notably Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell — but the Cardinals do not have an inside presence like they had last year or very much depth. Smith, Harrell, Chane Behanan and junior transfer Chris Jones are all very skilled players, but losing Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva will be too hard for the Cardinals to over come.
Josh Pastner has improved his coaching abilities and roster each season he as been at Memphis. Every year under Pastner the Tigers have increased their win-total, and they have advanced further in the post-season each year. With a roster full of talented players at every position it’s up to him to make Memphis fans forget about that other coach.
Follow Robbie on Twitter @rmarbury