The Memphis Tigers have been one of the 20 best programs in college basketball over the past decade. They were in the NCAA Tournament nearly every season, and even made a Championship game and two Elite Eight appearances. Making the tourney has been easy for the Tigers because they were in a weak Conference USA. They were good enough anyway, but it just made it easier.
But now, the Tigers are in a major conference, the American Athletic Conference, so the regular season will no longer be a cakewalk. On Thursday night, Memphis lost 83-73 to Connecticut, meaning the Tigers have now lost back-to-back home games for the first time since 2005.
Memphis is used to playing Rice and UAB — you know, teams that make it easy to keep long home winnings streaks alive. They are not used to playing Cincinnati and UConn in back-to-back home games. Neither of these losses are bad losses, and neither will have any ill effect on the Tigers’ seeding come tournament time; however, the fans at FedExForum are still growing accustomed to losing at home.
These are the same fans that once witnessed a 27-game conference win streak. Losing, especially at home, is not something that they are familiar with, nor something they want to become familiar with.
Shaking off the decade-long stench that is the Conference USA has been tough for the Tigers, but winning at home shouldn’t be tough. Memphis has gone on the road three times in the American Athletic Conference and has won all three times, so it isn’t the competition that has them flustered. For years, they were the big dog, the team that every other conference foe circled on the calendar, but now they are just one of several good teams.
When the Rices of the world would walk into FedExForum, they would be pumped up and ready to go. For them, playing on an NBA court in front of 18,000-plus fans is rare, but eventually the talent would play itself out, and the Tigers would emerge victorious. That doesn’t happen with the Cincinnatis and UConns of the world. These teams play in NBA arenas, they play in front of large crowds, and their talent level is up to the task of challenging Memphis.
Maybe the Tigers are expecting their new foes to collapse at the thought of 18,000 screaming fans. Maybe they are expecting them to freeze when they notice NBA players in the stands watching them, and maybe they would if they were UTEP — but they are not UTEP.
Memphis losing at home is a big deal. It doesn’t matter how good the team is that beats them. Memphis is a high-level program that routinely has high-level prospects at their games, especially local talent. When the Tigers lose with these kids in the audience, it puts a dent in their armor in the eyes of the recruits.
A team that was once invincible that could sell recruits on playing in a big city on an NBA floor with Beale Street right outside no longer holds much credence when they are losing at home regularly.
This is their first season in a new conference with a few other teams, so there is added pressure and new wrinkles to get used to, but the Tigers need to win at home against stiffer competition if they are going to prove to the media, fans and recruits that they deserve to be here.
Memphis has landed some big-time recruits in the Josh Pastner era even though the Tigers were playing a terrible schedule. Pastner could sell 20-win seasons, trips to the NCAA Tournament, trips to Maui or New York for preseason tournaments, but no one wants to go to a school that can’t win at home.
Memphis deals with recruits that could go play at Rupp Arena, Cameron Indoor, the Carrier Dome or Allen Fieldhouse — these are arenas with a fan base and a home-court advantage, something the Tigers had once upon a time. For Memphis to keep up with the elite programs now that they are in a superior conference, they have to show that they can still own the court at FedExForum.
Robbie Marbury is a College Basketball writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @rmarbury