The Memphis Tigers have been one of the best teams in the American Athletic Conference this season, but they are not without weakness. In both of the Tigers’ big home losses, they were beaten by teams that like to play half court basketball. Memphis was embarrassed 69-53 by Cincinnati, then 83-73 by Connecticut. These two losses happened because Memphis could not play at a slow pace and could not defend the pick-and-roll.
On Wednesday night, the Tigers were to get an easy blowout win over Central Florida, but the Knights had a different idea and had Memphis in a dogfight they were not fit to play.
The Knights’ best player, Isaiah Sykes, kept on running a pick-and-roll and Memphis had no answer. This wasn’t the first time the Tigers had trouble with the pick-and-roll — UConn and Shabazz Napier ran that against Memphis over and over down the stretch as the Huskies pulled away from Memphis. The only difference Wednesday night is that UCF doesn’t have the type of players that UConn has.
The Tigers are so fundamentally bad at stopping the pick-and-roll; it just doesn’t make sense considering how much talent they have. They don’t know where to be and they are late on rotations, which leads to foul trouble. In this particular game, it was Shaq Goodwin and David Pellom that were out of place all night long. Being out of position also cost the Tigers on the glass; the Knights grabbed 14 offensive rebounds and were able to stick around thanks to all their second chances.
If Memphis wants to be more than a one-and-done team in the NCAA Tournament this year, they have to learn how to play in the half court. It wasn’t just on the defensive end either; when the Tigers get slowed down, they lose interest on offense too. On this night, they were able to squeak out a win over a bad team thanks to Joe Jackson having a good game — save for the terrible idea to try a windmill dunk with only a three point lead. Jackson was able to play at a slow, deliberate pace and led the Tigers with 17 points and five assists.
The teams that have the most success come March are teams that can adapt to any style of play, or they just get really hot from three at the right time. This Memphis team is never going to be really hot from three; they are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country at 31.5 percent from deep. They have the athletes, the defenders, the rebounders and the decision makers, but they turn to mush mentally when the game slows down.
This won’t be the last team to slow things down against Memphis, nor the last team that runs a zone against them. It is up to Josh Pastner to put his highly-recruited roster in a better position to win these tough games. He won’t be matching wits with the likes of UCF every night. As a matter of fact, the Tigers’ next opponent is against SMU and Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, and you better believe they will zone Memphis and slow the game down.
The time is now for Memphis to show that they can adapt. If not, a bad seed and a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament is in their future.