Memphis makes last call
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Memphis' 18th and final basketball trip through Conference USA has an almost Caliparian feel to it.
The Tigers enter tonight's game at Marshall having won all 10 C-USA games this season and the final seven of 2011-12. In the past week, the Tigers have brushed off the league's third- and second-place teams, outmuscling Southern Mississippi 89-76 in Hattiesburg and demolishing Central Florida 93-71 at home.
The average margin in the 17-game streak is 18.6 points and it hasn't mattered where they play - one notable trait of those 2005-09 Tiger teams of coach John Calipari, which went 73-1 against C-USA foes.
"We've done a great job on the road, and that's a credit to our young men," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "We've got the nation's longest 'true' road win streak [10 games] right now - I think we're the only Division I team in the country that doesn't have a road loss this year."
Tonight, Marshall (11-14, 4-6 C-USA) will try to end that and other Tiger streaks at Cam Henderson Center. Tipoff is at 8 p.m., with the game airing on CBS Sports Network.
Overall, the 22nd-ranked Tigers (21-3, 10-0) have won 15 straight dating back to a Dec. 15 loss to top-10 Louisville. The 17-game C-USA win streak dates to a Feb. 18, 2012 loss to Texas-El Paso; the streak of 10 true road wins goes back to a Feb. 1, 2012 loss at Southern Miss.
The Tigers have opened up a two-game lead in the C-USA standings. The only thing that seems to be missing is national respect - one "bracketologist" recently said the Tigers will be a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament, at best, if they win their remaining games.
Consider that - a 30-3 team seeded eighth!
Respect has been tough for the Tigers to regain after two losses in the Bahamas, to Virginia Commonwealth and Minnesota way back in November. The Tigers were banished from both major Top 25s for 11 weeks, re-entering Monday at No. 22 in the AP poll, No. 25 in the coaches' tally.
Marshall coach Tom Herrion saw it differently three weeks ago after his Thundering Herd team nearly upset the Tigers at FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn. Memphis held on for a 73-72 win.
Herrion was extremely impressed with the Tigers' romp at UCF on Wednesday, which featured a 21-1 explosion in the second half. The Tigers shot 58 percent, tallied 28 assists on 38 baskets and mugged the Knights 40-22 on the boards.
"They were terrific. Right now, they're playing their best basketball of the season," Herrion said. "They broke the game open against a very good Central Florida club. We played them well enough [that] we'll have their attention, I'm sure."
The biggest adversity the Tigers have faced in recent weeks came in the Southern Miss game, when Antonio Barton suffered a hairline fracture in his right foot. He likely will miss the rest of the regular season, if not longer, but the Tigers remain a deep, veteran team.
The experience comes from three other juniors who were freshmen when Marshall rang them up 85-70 at the Henderson Center in 2011 - 6-foot-1 point guard Joe Jackson, 6-4 guard Chris Crawford and 6-9, 262-pound forward Tarik Black.
Jackson leads a balanced scoring attack with 13.9 points and 4.5 assists per game and is running the offense better than ever. As Pastner will remind you every chance he gets, Jackson has been the most valuable player in the C-USA tournament two years running.
"I know he had some inconsistency his freshman and sophomore years," said Pastner, in his fourth year as head coach. "How many players can say they've been back-to-back MVPs in their conference tournament? Not too often, and especially as a freshman and sophomore.
"The thing this year, he's just been so consistent from point A to point B. Guys have improved and that's just a natural maturation process."
To explain the Tigers' depth, consider that Crawford and Black are coming off the bench these days. That's partly because of 6-7, 240-pound Adonis Thomas (10.0 points per game), 6-9, 246-pound freshman man-child Shaq Goodwin and 6-5 senior D.J. Stephens, along with junior-college guard Geron Johnson (11.1 points).
Stephens is the high-leaping defender who contested Elijah Pittman's failed 3-pointer late in MU's loss at Memphis. Johnson is the league's most recent player of the week.
They make up a pretty confident seven-man rotation, but you expect confidence in a Memphis team. As the Tigers prepare for their transition into the Big East next season, they are wrapping up an eight-year period of dominance that was largely expected when the league reshuffled in 2005 and several strong rivals left.
Even with a relative slump in Pastner's first two seasons, the Tigers are 125-14 in league play from 2005-06 to the current season, including an 18-1 mark in C-USA tournament games. They have lost just 10 times in those eight seasons, five coming in 2010-11.
For the 62nd time in that span, the Tigers will face a hostile crowd tonight. They won't be caught off guard.
"We get everyone's best shot," Pastner said. "We get the biggest crowds every time we play someone, it's a color-out. Every time we play someone, it's the most expensive ticket for that opponent. It's everyone's Super Bowl and World Series, so we have to bring our 'A' game."
Tonight the Herd, which has bounced between "A" to "F" too many times this season, gets one final shot at the Tigers in Huntington.
"I know one thing. I know I want to beat these guys. Everybody else wants to, too," said Herd forward Dennis Tinnon. "I know they're going to come in with lots of energy and I know we have to match their intensity. Because if we don't, it's not going to be a pretty game.
"We showed that we can compete with them, and I feel that here, especially at home, we can get the win."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.
Memphis' record by season since Conference USA's 2005 realignment, with NCAA/NIT postseason advancement:
Season Overall Conference* Postseason
2005-06 33-4 16-1 NCAA region final
2006-07 33-4 19-0 NCAA region final
2007-08 38-2 19-0 NCAA final
2008-09 33-4 19-0 NCAA region semis
2009-10 24-10 13-4 NIT second round
2010-11 25-10 13-6 NCAA second round
2011-12 26-9 16-3 NCAA second round
2012-13 21-3 10-0
Total 233-46 (.835) 125-14 (.899)
* Conference records include C-USA postseason tournament games, in which Memphis is 18-1 with six championships.