MEMPHIS -- Josh Pastner has called for a “Blue Out,” asking the Memphis faithful to turn the FedEx Forum into Smurf Central for the Tigers’ late-night tipoff against Miami.
And so the building will be blue. This city is true to its Tigers, the rare urban locale that embraces its college team more than its professional franchise.
Memphis also is used to winners, and while fans gave Pastner a mulligan last season, they are ready to get back to what they believe is their rightful place in the March landscape -- namely the latter weekends of the NCAA tournament.
This is the team that is supposed to make that happen.
But here’s the catch. The preseason top-25 ranking, the predictions of an NCAA tournament berth and expectations of yet another Conference USA title -- all of it is based on recruiting rankings and hype, on a freshman class living up to expectations.
Which doesn’t make Memphis unique. Every year there is a team with a stuffed freshman class expected to do damage. Sometimes it works (see Kentucky, 2010) and sometimes it fizzles (see Villanova, 2003).
So the question about Memphis is simple: Are the Tigers for real?
One game won’t offer a definitive answer, but this particular game, against a talented Miami team with just as much to prove, will at least offer some insight.
It will be telling to see how the Tiger freshmen handle not just the hyped atmosphere, but also a terrific Hurricane backcourt. Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant make for a speedy, high-scoring duo that will push tempo. They combined for 43 points in the season opener against Jacksonville.
All of them can score, but can they defend?
Defense isn’t typically a strong suit for freshmen, which is why Pastner broke down practice on Sunday night reminding his players they had to "defend, defend, defend."
Of course, that cuts both ways. Miami gave up 77 to Jacksonville in the opener, including 48 in the first half that had the Canes down six at the break. That isn’t going to do it against the Tigers.
And like Memphis, Miami has some things to answer for as well. The Hurricanes shot out to a 15-1 start last season and then faded to a 5-12 finish, their hot start exposed as little more than wins over crummy competition. Head coach Frank Haith has rectified that this season with a more difficult nonconference schedule, which includes not just Memphis, but Ole Miss and West Virginia.
The winner here won’t be guaranteed greatness any more than the loser will be sent to the showers for the season. But certainly this is a temperature game.
Who’s red-hot? And who’s blue?
Besides the Memphis fans, that is.