Weekend Homework: Saturday in Memphis
There is no shortage of stakes attached to Saturday night’s game at the FedEx Forum. We can sort them out if you'd like.
Let’s start with the obvious one: tournament selection. Gonzaga at Memphis is on both teams’ schedules for reasons that date to 2005-06, before John Calipari took over at Kentucky and the Tigers swapped Conference USA for the quality-opponent-laden American Athletic Conference last summer. In short: Both programs want to play tough schedules.
They also don’t (or didn’t) want to frontload all of those attention-grabbing, nonconference games early in the season, or risk their teams’ at-large chances being determined by impressions made in the first month of the season. So the two programs got together and scheduled this series. It was postponed for a couple of years, but here it is again.
This time, Gonzaga is the team in greater need of a résumé win -- some quasi-major victory on which it can hang its hat -- while Memphis has a road win at Louisville and a neutral-court victory over Oklahoma State. But even if both teams were already somehow locks, seeds are very much in play. The quirky schedule exists for a reason.
Or maybe you prefer large-scale narrative? Memphis coach Josh Pastner is just 2-14 against top-25 teams in his career. The can-he-beat-good-teams-how-good-of-a-coach-is-he-really nonsense is always just around the corner in Memphis any time the Tigers hit a rough patch, or lose a game they should win, or blow an opportunity. Meanwhile, Gonzaga is just 4-23 against top-25 teams on the road, and all four of those wins have come since 1999-00. This would, in some ways, be a momentous victory.
We could go on and on with this stuff, but let’s be real: It’s all beside the point. The reason you should watch Memphis-Gonzaga on Saturday night (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) is it’s going to be straight-up fun.
The factors are all there. Both teams are guard-dominated and well-spaced, with skilled big men on the block. Pastner has Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Michael Dixon and Chris Crawford playing a hybrid four-guard lineup with Shaq Goodwin on the block, and the results are often thrilling. Gonzaga has Kevin Pangos, a brilliant lead-guard scorer, taking ball screen after ball screen and constantly attacking the rim, and Sam Dower, a skilled lefty big working in post gaps.
The Zags like to slow things up a bit, but the Tigers run: Nearly 26 percent of their possessions come in transition, according to Synergy, and they score 1.104 points per trip in doing so. Neither team is lights out at the defensive end, nor bad, either. But more often than not, offense drives the show.
And, yes, when you combine these things -- great guard play, attacking offense and so-so defense, plus a raucous home environment and indirect résumé implications -- that’s what you are bound to get: a show. The stakes matter, sure, but on Saturday night in the FedEx Forum, form will equal function.