John Klein: Memphis still king of Conference USA
BY JOHN KLEIN Senior Sports Columnist
Saturday, December 29, 2012
12/29/12 at 7:22 AM
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Memphis has not played to the dizzying heights many expected, but the Tigers certainly look the part of Conference USA's best team.
It would be shocking if Memphis is not the top seed when the Conference USA basketball tournament comes to Tulsa's BOK Center in mid-March.
"We are a totally different team now than we were early in the year," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner. "We are just better.
"We are a better team now. We've improved a lot."
The Tigers have stumbled a few times early this season, but they appear to be headed down the right path toward another league title, and the reasons were on display against Oral Roberts on Friday night at the FedExForum.
ORU, finishing up a brutal stretch in its challenging nonconference schedule, was good enough to hang around with Memphis, but the Tigers took control just before halftime and went on to a 72-57 victory that was surprisingly competitive.
"Oral Roberts has a good team," said Pastner. "That is a good win for us. They are going to win their league and be in the NCAA Tournament, so that is a good win for us.
"Coach (Scott) Sutton is an excellent coach, and that program is very good. They've got good players. Warren Niles is a big-time player. He's a pro prospect. So, for us to play that well on him is very good."
Niles, who came in averaging just over 21 points per game, was held to two points (1-of-11 shooting).
"We're not going to win many games when Warren shoots 1-for-11," said Sutton. "But, I was happy with the way we competed. We competed hard even though we didn't play particularly well.
"But this is a very tough environment and that's another very good team. They are really good."
It was the end of what has been a disappointing month for the Golden Eagles, now 5-7. They blew comfortable second-half leads in losses to Oklahoma and Tulsa. In addition, ORU got crushed at Arizona and Memphis.
However, unlike the loss at Arizona, the Eagles appeared to compete harder for much of the game against the Tigers.
Memphis may have been unranked when ORU visited, but the Tigers compare favorably to Arizona in talent.
"Memphis has big, strong and long athletes," said Sutton. "They have very athletic players and a whole lot of them. To be honest, I think they are deeper than Arizona. They probably aren't as good as Arizona, but they are just going to keep getting better and better as this season goes on. They have a chance to be a very, very good team. They are already very good."
It is that overall athleticism that has made Memphis the king of Conference USA.
Since the league realigned, including Tulsa's move into the conference, no one has been able to consistently challenge Memphis. As a result, the national perception of Conference USA has suffered. Although there are a handful of traditional basketball schools in C-USA, including TU, Memphis has dominated.
That may happen again this season. There was no hint in the rout of Oral Roberts that Memphis has dropped off in talent, ability or potential.
The Tigers are 8-3 and appear headed to 10-3 (Loyola and at Tennessee) before opening the C-USA season at home with East Carolina.
Memphis has appeared vulnerable a few times this season, including a recent nine-point loss at home to Louisville. Memphis also lost to VCU and Minnesota.
But, as the Tigers have done the past two years, they seem to be hitting their stride just as they are coming into the conference season.
Tulsa comes to Memphis on Feb. 2. By then, most expect the Tigers to be comfortably in control of the Conference USA race.
Certainly, the Tigers have the weapons. Joe Jackson, who has been the Conference USA Tournament MVP two straight years, was fabulous in the victory over ORU with 13 points. More importantly, he had no turnovers and five assists.
Memphis was 26-9 and 13-3 in the league a year ago, sweeping the regular season and tournament for the fifth time in the past seven years.
Every year there is hope around Conference USA that there are teams that may rise up and challenge Memphis. So far, that has seldom happened.
The last time it happened was 2010, the same season the Conference USA Tournament came to Tulsa for the first time.
That season, UTEP won the regular season and then Houston pulled off a stunning upset in the finals to grab the league's automatic berth.
Could that happen again? Sure.
But Memphis appears plenty capable of sweeping Conference USA again.
Original Print Headline: Memphis still king of C-USA
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Memphis' Shaq Goodwin, center, drives for a rebound in front of Oral Roberts' Damen Bell-Holter, left, and Brandon Conley, right, during first-half NCAA college basketball game action in Memphis, Tenn. MARK WEBER/AP Photo