Posted on: March 12, 2011 2:41 pm
Edited on: March 12, 2011 7:26 pm

Memphis overcomes adversity for C-USA title

Coming off a year filled with moments that many would love to forget, the Memphis Tigers are nevertheless dancing once again. After trailing UTEP on its home floor throughout the entire Conference USA championship game, freshman Joe Jackson was fouled with 7.5 seconds remaining and calmly drained two free throws to give Memphis an improbable 67-66 victory. The Tigers were down by as much as 12 in the second half and even had a deficit of 9 with under 5 minutes to go. But led by some clutch shooting by Jackson and Chris Crawford, Memphis clawed back to punch a ticket for another NCAA tournament after last year’s uncharacteristic absence.

When the final horn sounded, Tiger coach Josh Pastner ran onto the El Paso court, fists pumping with such energy that he gave off the vibe of a well-dressed Memphis frat guy who had broken C-USA security. While he quickly composed himself for the post-game handshakes the feeling of sheer excitement certainly stemmed from what has been a bizarre and stressful year inside the Memphis program. If there is a stress that could befall a major college basketball team, Memphis has had it, from the Wesley Witherspoon suspension to the release of highly touted freshman Jelan Kendrick to the underachievement of the Tigers' highly touted freshman class, problems have constantly manifested. No team in America has received more criticism, most of it deserved, than the Tigers and none have been more embattled on a daily basis than Josh Pastner’s group.

The stress reached a breaking point in El Paso, where freshman Jackson broke down with his friend, walk-on Trey Draper prior to the tournament. After having underachieved throughout the season and feeling he had let his family and city down, Jackson vowed to come strong with a complete Conference USA tournament. What followed was one of his best three-game stretches of the season, in which he was a crucial component of each victory. Against Southern Miss, he hit two late free throws to give Memphis its final lead and then followed that performance up with a career-high 24 points in a semifinal victory over East Carolina.

But both of those games will pale in Tigers’ fans memories behind the free throws Jackson drained on a Saturday morning in El Paso. Forced to play on their opponents’ home court and with a 9:30 a.m. local start, Memphis’s struggles throughout the game seemed entirely predictable. But the Tigers found a way to overcome their early poor play and a loud Miner crowd in order to stay within striking distance early. Then with five minutes to go, the young Tigers looked more poised and executed better than a Miners’ team loaded with seniors playing at home. While UTEP played with a hesitancy of a team realizing what was at stake, Memphis attacked with aggression, producing an impressive performance that speaks well of the Memphis players and Josh Pastner.

Memphis now moves onto the NCAA tournament, where it will try to overcome a season of disappointment by continuing its strong postseason run. This is still a very talented Memphis team, albeit one that has traversed an unbelievably bumpy road. Two weeks ago there were rumors that Jackson and fellow freshman Will Barton might look to transfer, and the entire Memphis program looked to be in serious flux. Now the team is heading to the NCAA tournament as a talented, and dangerous, double-digit seed. If you are the type that likes gritty underdog stories and supporting those that have overcome adversity, you may want to try this Tiger team out. It is true that there aren't many Disney movies made about heartwarming teams that win you over with players who were previously suspended for mocking assistant coaches. But if there was one that could overcome its past problems due to sheer effort and resiliency, it would be this suddenly likable group of Tigers, who are dancing once again.

Posted by MATT JONES

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Posted on: March 12, 2011 12:18 am

Conference USA Final Preview

A wide open Conference USA tournament will end with a couple of very familiar faces playing for the league’s automatic NCAA bid. Memphis (24-9, 10-6) defeated an outmanned East Carolina team 76-56 on Friday behind a career-high 24 points from Joe Jackson. The Tigers jumped out to a 9-2 lead in the opening minutes and never looked back, keeping a comfortable margin over the Pirates throughout the game. The Tigers maintained their hot shooting ways throughout the game, shooting over 50% from the field, including 58.9% in the first half.

In the other semifinal game, UTEP (25-8, 11-5) utilized its distinct home court advantage  to go on an 18-5 run in the second half and pull away from Tulsa 66-54. Randy Culpepper showcased once again that he is the most talented individual player in C-USA, scoring 26 points on 9-16 shooting. The Miners shot 66 percent in the second half to pull away from Tulsa and with the victory, set up an opportunity to play once again for the NCAA tournament on their home court.

The finals matchup will be on Saturday morning at 9:30 am local time in El Paso. Due to the national television scheduling, the early morning tipoff means that both teams will have a quick turnaround and an early wakeup call before the game. However for Memphis, the hope is that the result will not follow the pattern of the two teams’ previous encounter. Just two weeks ago, the two teams battled in El Paso and UTEP won 74-47 in a game that was never really close.

In that game, UTEP did what it hopes to accomplish again on Saturday, mainly close out on Memphis’s perimeter shooters and force them to find offense on the interior. In the first meeting, UTEP held Memphis to 1-18 shooting from three-point range and even found holes in the Tigers’ interior defense, allowing backup center John Bohannon to score 15 points off the bench. In this rematch, Memphis will have clean up that defense and find a way to score easy baskets from their explosive scorers. If the Tigers are unable to once again find a rhythm from outside, it will be a second consecutive NCAA trip for the Miners.

Posted by Matt Jones

Posted on: March 1, 2011 9:23 am
Edited on: March 1, 2011 9:26 am

Tim Floyd is delusional about C-USA's quality

Posted by Matt Norlander

It's a cliché that needs to be called out on more often: coaches praising the quality of their conference.

You know the jargon. You go up and down throughout this league and there's not an easy win. I'll put our league up against anybody. The fact of the matter is, you can't take any team for granted.

After Tim Floyd and UTEP absolutely embarrassed Memphis Saturday afternoon, defeating the Tigers in El Paso, 74-47, the often-embattled coach took the the postgame microphone and used it as a means of making a PR pitch about his conference.

He also took a swipe at Andy Katz for writing this.

The heart of the folly of what Floyd has to say is in the first two minutes of the presser.

Goodness does that irk me. Rice? RICE? You're making Rice references as means to how good your league is? And Central Florida may as well be a different species, let alone team, from what it was when it knocked off Florida. At a certain point, the conference coachspeak moves beyond a dry, worn-out quote and enters territory of tunnel vision and absurdity.

Floyd seems fairly comfortable there.

Let the record show: Conference USA is ranked as the eighth-best league by most statistical indicators and no longer has one team considered anywhere near a lock by any mainstream big-bracket prognosticator.

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Category: NCAAB
Tags: Tim Floyd, UTEP
Posted on: February 24, 2011 9:28 am

Tim Floyd will not go quietly into that night

Posted by Matt Norlander

What we have here is our viral video of the day.

Why does Tim Floyd have that NHL feel to him? That we only talk about him whenever things don't seem to be going well or there's controversy surrounding him. It's never about the success or good times with Floyd, whose UTEP team started out 17-4 with nary a positive column written about it.

Now the Miners are 20-8 on the heels of last night's 83-76 road loss to Eastern Carolina, an at-large bid surely all but evaporated. The game, as you can see above, is one Floyd was ejected from and had to be restrained/removed by building security. Such a sentence never says good things about the state of your coach or program.

You don't see Jamie Dixon, Rick Barnes, John Calipari, Bo Ryan, Tom Izzo, Sean Miller getting tossed from games and needing uniformed men ushering them into the bowels of arenas.

The reasons for Floyd's temper tantrum are surely myriad, but ECU's 45 attempts from the foul line had to be a primary catalyst. But reasons aren't reason for this behavior. Look at the video again. It's embarrassing.

For all the wrong reasons, Floyd's the closest thing we have today to Bob Knight.

In the first 35 seconds of the video you can see the UTEP players convening, sans Floyd, and trying to regroup themselves amid struggles on the road against .500 team. Floyd's too busy making demeaning chatter with the official, whose mouth you can read; he's clearing saying, "Back off."

After a brief lapse of time, the video cuts to a few moments later, when Floyd can't keep his yap shut, storming down the sideline and berating an official, looking right out of a Looney Tunes episode with the way his mouth is motoring. Then the T comes, and Floyd's instantly in the paint and charging the official.

Apology to come or not, this isn't what UTEP or Conference USA needs. The driving headlines out of the conference this year have been about Memphis players transferring, the overall lack of an uptick in play in the wake of Memphis' drift back to mortality in the conference ... and now this.

The worst thing about Floyd's behavior: it's not surprising. Pay for what you get, UTEP.
Category: NCAAB
Tags: Tim Floyd, UTEP
Posted on: February 20, 2011 9:14 am

Video: Randy Culpepper's 33 points for UTEP

Posted by Eric Angevine

There was so much great basketball on the tube yesterday that I feared this star turn by UTEP's Randy Culpepper might have been lost in the shuffle. The Miners are embroiled in the tightest league race in the nation in C-USA, and need every win they can get, and having Culpepper in rare form is exactly what they'll need to repeat their tourney trip from last season, which happened under current Auburn head coach Tony Barbee.

We'll be back later today with the big stories from our Sunday slate of games.
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: February 4, 2011 10:02 am
Edited on: February 4, 2011 2:52 pm

Whatever happened to Conference USA?

Tim Floyd and Randy Culpepper can lead UTEP to the Big Dance

Posted by Eric Angevine

For years, the only team that mattered in Conference USA was Memphis. The Tigers had historically been a good to great team anyway, but John Calipari brought star power and the attendant riches in talent and support that go along with it. Starting in 2005, when Cincinnati, Marquette, Louisville, South Florida and TCU left the fold, Memphis topped the league standings four years running, going undefeated in conference play the final three seasons of Cal's tenure. Memphis was an apex predator of a program, and C-USA's other programs got a little fame out of the deal in the same way that the gazelle co-stars with the cheetah in a National Geographic documentary.

These days, Josh Pastner still has Memphis humming, but the 16-0 seasons are -- at least temporarily -- a thing of the past. Last year, it was another Calipari protege, then-UTEP coach Tony Barbee, who captured the league title. This season, the Miners are there again, but with veteran head coach Tim Floyd in charge. In fact, the league's retreads are bunched around Memphis in the standings, with Floyd and former Iowa State leader Larry Eustachy (with Southern Miss) slightly ahead of the Tigers, and Mike Davis (Indiana to UAB) and Matt Doherty (UNC to SMU) nipping at his heels. Jeff Lebo (ex-Auburn) and James Dickey (ex-Texas Tech) are in the mix as well.

Now, this could have gone very differently. One of the most baffling collapses of the season thus far must be owned by the UCF Knights. The Knights were 14-0 and ranked in the national Top 25 on January 5, having just beat Marshall for their first C-USA win of the season. It was also their last C-USA win of the season, as they added six straight losses to the ledger, including a home flame-out against league doormat Rice. It has been a stunning reversal of fortune for a team that upset in-state big boys USF, Florida and Miami along the way. The Knights quite simply became one of the most turnover-prone teams in the nation, seemingly overnight.

With the Knights falling off the face of the planet, C-USA's chances for two bids to the dance have gone to practically nil. UTEP, currently leading the league with a 5-2 record, has ugly losses to Pacific, Georgia Tech and, most recently, Tulsa to overcome. Eustachy's non-conference losses to Ole Miss and surging Colorado State aren't devastating, but three losses to league foes of varying strength put the kibosh on Golden Eagle hopes for an at-large. Memphis will go to Spokane to play Gonzaga this weekend in what could have been a real resume-booster if the Zags weren't also a shadow of their former selves.

If it's to be a one-bid league, then the league's best representative would have to be UTEP. With Floyd directing Randy Culpepper (above) alongside fellow seniors Julyan Stone, Christian Polk and Jeremy Williams, the Miners could be rounding into prime giant-killing shape.

For the future of the league at large, however, things must change. Memphis, UAB and Southern Miss can solidify the upper echelon of the league if they can find some consistency, meaning they should only lose to one another if they want to be taken seriously. The teams in the middle of the conference seem to often be able to challenge in the league race as well. It's tough to champion parity in a league like this one, because the outside world tends to view it as mediocrity. The NCAA selection committee knows what's up, though, and they'll no doubt notice that Memphis, UAB and Southern Mississippi have RPI numbers above 60, with the Blazers' 45 standing out. UTEP and Marshall are in the 60s.

The seeds are there for this league to more closely resemble the Mountain West or A-10 than the Horizon League. In fact, kenpom.com currently has C-USA ranked eighth in his conference standings based on the average rating of its member teams, just under the SEC and just above the A-10. Establishing three or four consistently dangerous teams at the top, and winning some of those big non-con matchups in the future will go a long ways toward balancing the ledger a bit, and getting this league to live up to its multi-bid potential.
Posted on: January 8, 2011 11:53 pm

Five Takeaways from Saturday's Action

Posted by MATT JONES

Five Lessons from Saturday’s crazy day of college basketball:

 Upsets will be plentiful:  Outside of the top three teams in America that seem to have separated themselves (Duke, Ohio State and Kansas), the rest of the country is filled with good teams that will find difficulties when they hit the road.  Today we saw Missouri fall in Boulder to Colorado, Kentucky lose in Athens to Georgia and Central Florida drop its first game of the year in Houston.  In all cases, the teams that beat the three ranked squads were much more talented than the general public realizes, but the bigger issue is with the teams that were defeated.  All are good enough to be able to make noise in March, but none are good enough to roll roughshod over middle-tier teams in their leagues.  Thus Saturdays where they, and other similar conference powers, lose on the road to good teams will be commonplace.

Michigan State is in trouble:  While most of the teams that lost today shouldn’t’ panic, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State team may be in a different situation.  Losing on the road in the Big Ten happens, but not on the road at Penn State when you are a team that began the season with national title aspirations.  The Spartans are not playing their usual defense, have trouble scoring in big spots and simply don’t have the look of a Tom Izzo club.  The optimist would say that Michigan State always struggles early in the season and there is nothing stopping them from yet another Final Four appearance.  But one begins to wonder if the actual Spartan squad is not the group that got hot at the end of the season last year and made a run to the Final Four, but instead is the team we saw throughout the year that underachieved and struggled.  If so, making another magic run may be too much to ask.

Kemba Walker is the early Player of the Year:  If one looks at UCONN objectively, it is hard to see the Huskies as a team that would deserve national attention.  They have virtually no scoring weapons on the wing and their defense, while athletic, seems to lack toughness when faced with aggression, as in the game early this year versus Pittsburgh.  But Jim Calhoun does have Kemba Walker and when it matters most, that may be enough.  To go on the road today and win in Austin versus Texas, is the type of victory that will give UCONN the chance to get a top seed even if it struggles in the Big East.  As for Kemba, his poise on the last possession, in which it was clear that he wouldn’t be passing the ball, but would get a good shot, was a thing of beauty to watch and solidifies why he has been the best story in college basketball early this season.

Tennessee is impossible to define:  No team has had a more bizarre week than the Vols, who looked like an SEC contender in their utter dismantling of Memphis early in the week, but then fell to a member of the embarrassing SEC West today against Arkansas.  With Bruce Pearl beginning his eight game SEC suspension, Tennessee was down the entire game to the Razorbacks and looked decidedly ordinary throughout.  While Arkansas now looks to be the top team in the SEC West, at this point that is as impressive as saying Robert Deniro is the bright spot in “Little Fockers.”  Losing to the Razorbacks starts Tennessee on a slide at the beginning of the Pearl suspension, and if it doesn’t stop, the Vols will find themselves potentially out of the NCAA Tournament conversation before he returns.

The game of the year was in Birmingham:  If you missed the UTEP-UAB battle in Birmingham today, you could have been forgiven.  No one would have imagined that it would have been anything more than a mildly interesting story for college basketball diehards.  But after the 100-97 3 OT thriller, those that watched were able to say they saw what will likely be the game of the year.  Buzzer beaters were made at the end of regulation and the first overtime, and Cameron Moore’s three with time running down at the end of the third overtime sealed the game for the Blazers.  With Central Florida losing and Memphis down this season, Conference USA is up for grabs and this game showcases that both of these teams are conference contenders.  But more importantly, for one day they put on a show unlike any other and made Bartow Arena the place to be in college basketball..

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com