Just how good is Memphis, anyway?

February, 14, 2013
2/14/13
12:30
PM ET
Remember Memphis?

Sure you do. The Tigers entered the 2012-13 season customarily loaded with the Memphis-area talent coach Josh Pastner has become renowned for recruiting. Memphis was ranked No. 17 in the preseason Associated Press poll, and back then you could argue that ranking was conservative. By all accounts, hyper-talented forward Adonis Thomas had a fabulous offseason, previously unpredictable guard Joe Jackson had grown up, highly touted freshman forward Shaq Goodwin promised to lend imposing post presence alongside mountain/man Tarik Black, and the rest of the rotation (Chris Crawford, Antonio Barton, D.J. Stephens, Geron Johnson) looked just the type to fill in the role-player gaps around those stars. Few teams had a better or more well-rounded collection of talent. The immediate future was bright.

It didn't take long for the excitement to fade. Memphis lost to VCU by 13 in the first round of the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis, followed by a loss to Minnesota in which the Gophers' Austin Andre Hollins, a Memphis native, torched his hometown team for 44 points on 16 shots.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsIt may take waiting until the NCAA tournament to find out just how good Josh Pastner's Memphis Tigers really are.
Commence meltdown. Not only had Memphis squandered its best early opportunities at nonconference résumé wins, but it looked disjointed and disconnected. One of the nation's most intense local climates began to openly question whether Pastner could actually, you know, coach.

The Tigers looked better in December against Louisville, but they collapsed down the stretch in that one, too, and all of a sudden Memphis was entering a down C-USA with wins over Tennessee, Ohio and Northern Iowa as its most impressive. And so we all collectively decided to forget about Memphis. Rightfully so.

Guess what: It's now Feb. 14 (Happy Valentine's Day!), and as my colleague Jason King pointed out Wednesday night, that Dec. 15 loss to Louisville was the last the Tigers suffered. They've now won 15 games in a row, climbed back into the AP Top 25 and are coming off their most impressive wins of that stretch; Saturday's 89-76 win at Southern Miss and Wednesday's 22-point rout of UCF.

The only problem? Neither of those teams is very good. And the rest of the C-USA is downright bad.

To wit: Of Memphis' 15 wins in the past two months, only two teams -- Tennessee and Southern Miss -- rank inside the top 100 in KenPom.com's efficiency ratings. Indeed, Southern Miss is the highest-ranked team the Tigers have topped all season. Most of the outfits Memphis has beat lately have been downright bad, because pretty much all of the C-USA, save for the Golden Eagles, is downright bad.

This makes understanding Memphis' actual improvement a big-time challenge. How do you quantify all those wins over all those bad teams? What, exactly, do they say about Memphis?

This is the classic dominant mid-major scenario, one experienced in recent seasons by any number of singularly impressive teams -- Utah State, Belmont, Bucknell, Butler, Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana Tech, Oral Roberts, even (at times) Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. The nonconference wins aren't there, but the record looks pretty, and can you really blame a team for sopping up whatever is put on its plate? The infamous eye test can certainly help -- if you watch Memphis play, you can see the improvement -- but when a good team is beating up on a bad league, there's always the possibility of deception.

This, of course, is where efficiency statistics come in. John Gasaway's Tuesday Truths found Memphis (prior to the UCF win) outscoring opponents by .20 points per trip. That's a tidy mark, but only slightly better than what Michigan and Indiana are doing to a much, much, much better Big Ten. (Gonzaga, for comparison's sake, outscores WCC teams by .28 ppp). Pomeroy's efficiency rankings -- which adjust for strength of competition -- have the Tigers in the mid-30s, a major leap from the low-50s they slogged in just a few weeks ago. The BPI is even more flattering, slotting Memphis at No. 28. And the RPI -- No. 35 -- ultimately feels just about right.

Those numbers only go so far, of course. Memphis does a lot of things well; it blocks a ton of shots and grabs a ton of defensive rebounds, and that combination has been enough to stifle Conference USA. But it is still Conference USA. Memphis has one nonconference opportunity left, a road game at Xavier, and that should be fascinating. But other than that, it may take until the NCAA tournament to really understand where this team stands.

In the end, that was probably always going to be the case anyway. That's the single biggest knock on Pastner -- that he hasn't won a game in the NCAA tournament. It's a bit silly. After all, Pastner nearly toppled the Derrick Williams-led Arizona Wildcats (which proceeded to pound Kyrie Irving and Duke in the 2011 Sweet 16), and last March he ran up against a brutally underseeded and magnificently coached Saint Louis team in the first round. But even with those caveats, Memphis fans want to see Pastner succeed in the tournament. Until he does, they won't be happy -- and we won't know exactly what to make of this Memphis team, either.

(Update: An original version of the post said Adonis Thomas was 6-foot-8; he is listed at 6-foot-7. Also, Memphis fans want me to note that Geron Johnson was suspended the first three games of the season and didn't play against VCU. These are the occasional perils of blogging at 4 a.m. Carry on.)

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