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Tigers eye top slot in conference tourney

By Hunter Field
On February 18, 2014

  • Senior forward David Pellom has struggled with injuries all season, but his role has become even more important with the suspension of reserve freshman big man Dominic Woodson. Photo By David C. Minkin | special to the daily helmsman

Just a free throw or rebound could have sealed the game for the University of Memphis men's basketball team on Saturday in Connecticut, but the University of Connecticut made both hard to come by for the Memphis (19-6, 8-4 AAC) in the 86-81 UConn (20-5, 8-4 AAC) win in overtime.

The loss puts Memphis, who stayed in the AP Top 25 on Monday, in fifth place in the American Athletic Conference behind the University of Cincinnati, the University of Louisville, Southern Methodist University and UConn, respectively. It also gave UConn the advantage over the Tigers in the case of a tie in conference record come tournament time.

Memphis head coach Josh Pastner would have liked to get the win on Saturday, but he was pleased with the way his team performed. 

"I'm glad that we stayed in the polls," the fifth-year coach said. "Saturday was a great high-level game. We played really well as did UConn, and they made a couple of extra plays and that's kind of what it was."

All four teams ahead of Memphis in the American currently sit inside the top 25 except SMU (20-5, 9-3 AAC), who fell out this week following a tough-road loss to Temple.

The No. 22 U of M has battled every inner-conference foe at least once, and they've faced several teams twice. The American has proved to be a much more daunting task than their former conference - Conference USA. 

Pastner feels like the tougher conference has prepared the Tigers for postseason play more so than in previous years. 

"I think the schedule - both non-conference and conference - have prepared us for the NCAA Tournament," Pastner said. "Now for us to get to the NCAA Tournament, we have to win more games. It's not a birthright. You're not guaranteed to get in. You've got to work to get there."

The AAC has also proved to be a five-horse race. UConn and Memphis each have an 8-4 conference record and sit at fourth and fifth, respectively. The sixth-ranked team in the AAC, the University of South Florida, holds a 3-10 conference record. For any of the bottom five teams to catch UConn or Memphis, the Tigers or Huskies would have to lose the remainder of their games with any of the bottom five winning out, which is highly unlikely.

Memphis still has time to surge to the top of the American standings. They are only three games back of Cincinnati --the current leader - in the loss column with six games remaining.

"For what's at stake, there's not an option but for us to play unbelievable and great and have so much respect for our opponent," Pastner said. "You've got to bring it, and at this time of the year if there's any slippage, you shouldn't be playing."

The Tigers play six more conference games before the conference tournament here in Memphis. They travel to Rutgers University on Thursday to take on the Scarlet Knights, who the Tigers crushed 101-69 in their first meeting. Then, the Blue and Gray host Temple, who they beat 79-69 earlier in the season on the road, at FedExForum on Saturday. Then, the Tigers have two road games - at Cincinnati and the University of Houston - and two home games (Louisville and SMU) before starting the postseason.

Memphis boasts victories over Rutgers, Temple, Houston and Louisville, but they will be looking for their first wins over SMU and Cincinnati. The Mustangs beat the U of M in Dallas 87-72 on Feb. 1, and the Bearcats defeated the Tigers 69-53 at FedExForum on Jan. 4. Both game are especially important in case of a tiebreak.

The Rutgers, Temple and Houston games shouldn't present the 22nd ranked Tigers with too much of challenge, but the games against SMU, Cincinnati and Louisville hold numerous postseason implications for seeding in both the AAC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. 

With games against Rutgers and Temple this week, the Tigers refuse to take anyone lightly.

"Right after the game, coach (Pastner) stressed about how this week is going to be important for us," senior forward David Pellom said. "We need to get two victories this week. Coming out with two wins this week will definitely give us an edge."

Pastner agreed with Pellom, saying the next three games are more important than the games against Louisville, Cincinnati and UConn because of the way the RPI ranking works - tending to punish teams more for bad losses than quality wins.

With losses to SMU and Cincinnati earlier, Memphis can only force a split, meaning a tie would be determined based on which team fared better against the American's top teams all the way down the rankings until one team gained an advantage, rather than the two teams' head-to-head record. For example, if Memphis beats Cincinnati and both teams finish with the same conference record, the team that fared better against the highest ranked teams in the conference would receive the higher seed.

A win over Louisville would guarantee the Tigers an advantage in the case of a tie.

Wins over those three teams would be huge for Tigers in climbing the American's standings as well. With each win, Memphis would gain a game in both the win and loss columns. 

The U of M can still secure the regular season conference championship with a strong finish and some missteps from the teams ahead in the standings, but it all begins Thursday with a matchup against Rutgers at 6 p.m.

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