Memphis disappoints on big stage again

Joe Jackson, right, and Memphis let another big lead slip away, this time to Louisville. AP Photo/Lance Murphey

Throughout No. 6 Louisville’s 87-78 come-from-way-behind victory at Memphis on Saturday, fans booed the Big East officiating crew because it was the easiest target. But the guys in Tigers uniforms and the staff guiding them deserved that condemnation too.

Josh Pastner is now 0-11 against ranked teams. That’s still the story, folks.

I admit that the foul discrepancy (33 for Memphis, 20 for Louisville) -- just like some of the offensive foul calls -- was questionable. I am not sure how the Tigers shot 20 free throws and the Cardinals took 46.

The refs alone, however, did not cost the Tigers this game. Memphis’ minds did.

Another meltdown for the Memphis Letdown.

Memphis led by 16 points (25-9) in the first half but refused to get out of its own way. Late in the second half, it hit the repeat button as another undoing ensued.

It led UTEP 19-6 in 2011-12 but lost by two. It was ahead 16-4 against Southern Miss last season but lost by three.

The most costly collapse, prior to Saturday’s mess, came against Saint Louis in the NCAA tournament in Columbus, Ohio, last March. I watched that one from press row. Midway through the second half, Memphis led by an eight-point margin that few trusted. The Tigers lost by seven.

Memphis on Saturday was in control again -- its 87th matchup against the rival Cardinals -- and then, the thrill was gone.

It committed 24 turnovers, a ridiculous number for any team at any level.

The Cardinals get credit for most of those takeaways, but Memphis was culpable, including a blown fast break, the result of a bad pass to a streaking Joe Jackson, and Shaq Goodwin's bounce-pass fumbled by Tarik Black under the basket.

The Tigers also relented on defense. They pressured Louisville early, but as the Cardinals toughened up, their opponent unraveled after halftime. The Cardinals shot 13-for-26 in the second half.

"We started to see by their body language that they were breaking down defensively," said Peyton Siva, who finished with 19 points (5-for-10) and seven assists.

Louisville played without an injured Gorgui Dieng. Russ Smith (3-for-11) wasn’t himself after injuring his ankle late in the first half. Louisville recorded eight field goals before halftime. Did I mention that the team was down by 16 points on the road?

Yet the Cardinals -- perhaps America’s best squad when considering they lost to presumptive No. 1 Duke without Dieng -- were resilient and suffocating in another impressive effort without their full rotation. The Cardinals are No. 1 in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.

Rick Pitino is a genius. Pastner is still a mystery.

The Memphis coach has managed to land some of the nation’s best recruiting classes. He has dominated Conference USA, but in the big games, he has failed. That’s the ultimate measuring stick for coaches who control programs that pluck elite talent from the prep circuit like shoppers in the fruit section.

His personality, professional accomplishments and charitable work mean little in this conversation. You either win at this level or you don’t. And the Tigers haven’t won enough meaningful games under Pastner.

Why has Memphis, a team stocked with top-level athletes each year, struggled so often on the big stage? It doesn’t make sense.

The Tigers were at home. They were up. They were rolling. Then they weren’t.

But Louisville seemed oblivious to the opposition’s drama.

“It was tough, but we’ve been there before,” Siva said.

If you’re a Memphis fan, you probably feel the same way.