Does the Xavier Loss Reveal the Arc of Memphis’ Season?Posted by Will Tucker on February 27th, 2013
Will Tucker is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between Memphis and Xavier in Cincinnati.
Xavier outlasted Memphis, 64-62, in a game that exposed systemic weaknesses in Josh Pastner’s team fewer than three weeks from Selection Sunday. The Tigers entered the Cintas Center tied for the nation’s longest winning streak and boasting top-20 rankings in both the national polls and RPI. Their visit to Cincinnati represented the first of three consecutive road trips against potential RPI top-100 opponents, opportunities to combat the perennial whispers of “paper tiger” that pepper discussion of their Conference USA record. It also represented an audience with Xavier AD Mike Bobinski, chair of the NCAA Tournament selection committee and strong proponent of the “eye test,” as Mike DeCourcy tells us.
They faced a Xavier team hung over from a crushing VCU comeback that all but eliminated its hopes of an at-large bid, and a student section reduced by the diaspora of spring break. Moreover with starting point guard Dee Davis injured, the Musketeers would field one primary ball-handler against the Tigers’ athletic press. It was against that backdrop that Memphis showed up and did all it could to reinforce the criticisms of its detractors. The Musketeers set the tone early with ferocious intensity under the basket and on 50/50 balls. They made Memphis look like the team with nothing to play for in the first half as they ran out to a 30-21 lead. The languid effort struck a chord with Josh Pastner: “Our energy level stunk that first half, and I believe in energy… We were minus-five in 50/50 balls at halftime –– first time in a long time that’s happened.” The Musketeers outrebounded Pastner’s team by 11 in the first half, and an six-rebound advantage on the offensive boards helped establish a 12-0 disparity in second-chance points. Memphis went to the locker room with zero points off five Xavier turnovers and only two fast break points.
Memphis finally began to exploit its athleticism and depth in the second half, with Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson pushing the ball in transition to find open dunks and teammates stepping into threes. Without Davis, Semaj Christon was Xavier’s only option to run the point against the Tigers’ pressure, and he was visibly exhausted for much of the second half. Memphis would score 10 points off turnovers and five on the fast break, and enjoyed a seven-minute stretch in which they didn’t miss a field goal and made all six attempts from beyond the arc.
But missed free throws, poor rebounding and perhaps a jump-shooting complacency inspired by their second half hot streak ultimately proved insurmountable for the Tigers. “Hard to beat a good team when you shoot the free throw line that we shot and give up as many second-chance points as we gave up,” said Pastner. Asked which was more damaging between the dismal free throw shooting and 17 offensive rebounds allowed, he responded, “Both… missing two free throws in a row multiple times is like a turnover, [as is missing] front ends of one-and-ones. And offensive rebounds are momentum changers too.”
Quantitatively, Pastner’s absolutely right, but the spectacle at the free throw line was more painful to watch. D.J. Stephens’ expression seemed somewhere between focus and dread when he stepped to the charity stripe, down two points with 1:20 left and his team in the double bonus. He had been shooting 71% this season, but by the time he’d turned from the basket, screamed in frustration and returned to the line after his first miss, his body language evoked that of a 50% foul shooter. His second free throw missed badly, as had the Tigers’ three attempts in the five minutes prior. Stephens and Tarik Black would finish a combined 1-of-13 (7.6%).
Memphis is now 3-3 away from home versus RPI top-100 opponents, with its best road wins coming against Southern Miss and Tennessee. In those losses to Xavier, VCU and Minnesota (the latter two in the Bahamas), the Tigers shot a cumulative 29-of-56 from the free throw line (51.7%). That they surrendered 17 offensive boards to Xavier was exceptional, but their difficulty boxing out against a physical team was no surprise: Memphis was outrebounded in 6 of its 14 RPI top-100 contests, including a -8.5 average margin in four games against Tennessee, Loyola (MD) and Southern Miss. In league play, the 12.0 offensive rebounds they’ve allowed per game ranks fourth-worst in Conference USA.
The good and bad sides of Memphis were on display in starkly divergent ways against Xavier. While they certainly passed they eye test during their comeback, looking like legitimate contenders as their athleticism bubbled to the surface to erase a lethargic start, their systemic flaws spelled doom down the stretch. You could argue that this chronology is also a metaphor for the arc of the Tigers’ season thus far. After this game, it shouldn’t shock anyone to see Memphis’ season end up extinguished in similar fashion. This squad might pose the program’s best chance to win an NCAA Tournament game in the Pastner era, but their weaknesses in a neutral floor single-elimination format are still abundantly clear at the end of February.