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Upcoming stretch is pivotal for men's basketball NCAA Tournament hopes

<p>Jimario Rivers pulls up for a jump shot. Rivers played at Southwest Tennessee CC before transferring to Memphis.</p>
Jimario Rivers pulls up for a jump shot. Rivers played at Southwest Tennessee CC before transferring to Memphis.

The University of Memphis men’s basketball team may have some work ahead of them if they want to avoid being left out of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season.

Each March, the NCAA selection committee looks at many factors when observing the resumes of tournament-worthy teams. According to, these include strength of schedule, road record, head-to-head results, quality of wins and various computer metrics. These statistics give the committee a barometer to use as they narrow their selection down to 36 schools from a pool of 351 eligible Division 1 men’s basketball programs. That group of 36 will join the 32 outright conference tournament winners to make up the field of 68 in the NCAA Tournament.

The Tigers’ standing in these crucial statistics is rather pedestrian due to their currently underwhelming resumé and mediocre overall record (13-7, 4-3 AAC). According to, the Tigers are rated 103 in the RPI, or rating percentage index, with an overall strength of schedule of 109. Their road/neutral court record stands at 1-6, including damaging losses at UAB (RPI 146) in late November and at Tulsa (RPI 126) on Saturday night. Memphis’ poor schedule has not afforded them many opportunities to rack up quality wins either, as the Tigers have amassed only 3 top-100 victories (Tulane RPI 89, UConn RPI 85,  at Temple RPI 47) and an 0-2 record against those in the top 25.

To put these numbers in perspective and for comparison, one can look at a couple at-large bids from last year’s NCAA Tournament as a point of reference. Vanderbilt (19-15, 10-8 SEC) had an RPI of 38, the No. 1 strength of schedule, an 8-10 record in road/neutral games and 11-14 record against the top 100.  Xavier (21-13, 9-9 Big East) had an RPI of 36, strength of schedule of 16, 9-9 record in road/neutral games and 8-13 record against the top 100.

In 2006, Air Force of the Mountain West Conference was invited to the NCAA Tournament with an RPI of 50 as an at-large selection. Since then, no other non-power five conference school has received an at-large bid with an RPI higher than 50.

It is easy to come to the conclusion that Memphis has to step up in a big way over the season’s final two months to elevate their case for an NCAA bid. The Tigers can simply win the American Athletic Conference Tournament in early March, which would be their first AAC tournament crown.

Luckily for Memphis, their sole road win against Temple qualifies as a Tier 1 road victory (Top 75 RPI road win) under new RPI rules. Another plus is the fact that their schedule hits its prickliest portion of the season starting with a pivotal home game against RPI 22 Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon. 

This will begin a nine-game stretch where the Tigers will face seven top-100 RPI teams, five of which are on the road. Wichita State (RPI 29) comes to Memphis on Feb. 6 for another must-win resumé-padding game. Memphis must hoard wins during this time to prove to the committee that they can win on the road and against quality competition. Even if they perform well, they’ll need many other teams to falter in front of them for things to fall into place.

It will be tough, but men’s basketball head coach Tubby Smith is going to have to dig deep into his basketball acumen to secure a 2018 NCAA Tournament invitation. Despite their slow start, poor schedule, waning attendance figures and the drama surrounding the team, the Tigers control their own destiny. For them to achieve it, however, they’ll need to perform better than they have at any point during Smith’s tenure. 

Jimario Rivers pulls up for a jump shot. Rivers played at Southwest Tennessee CC before transferring to Memphis.

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