Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Memphis: Both Underrated and Overrated?
By Ross Lancaster
When the Selection Committee selects and seeds teams this week in an unknown Indianapolis hotel meeting room, one of the more interesting cases they will look at will be the 27-3 Memphis Tigers.
Of course, the Tigers are not going to be mentioned in that committee room along with bubble teams like West Virginia, Illinois, and Drexel, as Memphis seemingly locked up their dance ticket before Christmas when many of their conference cohorts had trouble with or lost to teams in the bottom rung of Division I.
Rather, the committee discussion will likely be about the Tigers' seeding for the simple reason that no one knows a whole lot about what they can do against elite competition.
Memphis has played five games this season against what could be considered quality competition. Four of those contests came before the start of the calendar year, with the fifth being a one-point overtime win at Gonzaga, in only the Zags' third game without now-infamous big man Josh Heytvelt on February 17.
The four that came while the season was still in 2006 included a win over Kentucky in Maui and losses against Georgia Tech, Tennessee, and Arizona.
Memphis' record against the RPI top 50 teams, a common measure of teams throughout the field, sits at 1-3 (Gonzaga is not in the top 50).
Meanwhile, the Tigers' RPI sits at 7, ahead of teams like Florida, Kansas, and Texas A&M, all of whom will likely be seeded higher that the Tigers come Sunday evening.
According to statistician Ken Pomeroy's calculation of the RPI, there has not been a team in the RPI top 10 with a losing record against the top 50 since 2000, when Texas went 6-8 against the top 50.
Now that you've seen the data Memphis has put against the RPI's top 50 teams in the country, tear it up into 15 pieces and throw it out the window on the interstate going 80 miles an hour.
Let's simply look at what the Tigers have done on the court. They have a 19-game winning streak and were perfect in conference. Yes, Conference USA is having its worst year yet and will send just one to the NCAA tournament, barring an upset at the Tigers' expense. However, Memphis has dominated the league by having a margin of victory under 10 just twice in 16 conference games.
While the Tigers are far from statistically the best against the top 50, they are near the mountaintop in many other categories.
Memphis plays a more up-tempo style than most teams in college basketball, and averages 70.9 possessions a game. The number is lower, or slower if you prefer, than North Carolina and Tennessee, but is faster than Notre Dame or Arizona, both commonly associated with a high-powered, quick offense.
Memphis' offensive efficiency, which is to say, the number of points the Tigers score for every 100 possessions is 112.6, putting them at number 18 in the country according to Pomeroy's all-encompassing website. The Tigers' defense is even more amazing than their offense, allowing just 88.1 points per 100 possessions.
These numbers mean that if Memphis plays a regular-paced game for themselves with their average efficiency numbers, then they will beat their opponent by a score of 80-62.
None of the Tigers' offensive success can be attributed to just one player, as John Calipari's team has great scoring balance.
Chris Douglas-Roberts leads the team with 15.4 ppg, but more importantly, shoots 54.1 percent from the field as a guard. Seven other players average over five points a game in a rotation that sees nine players get 10 or more minutes a game, with none seeing over 27 mpg.
On the defensive side, Memphis' usual three-guard lineup causes opponents' turnovers on nearly a quarter of defensive possessions with a huge number of steals. Space-eating 6-9, 260-pound Joey Dorsey is also a huge key, as he blocks over 10 percent of opponents' shots while he is on the floor. Dorsey's rebounding is crucial to Memphis' success, averaging nearly 10 a game.
The Memphis team of this season, while not as talented as a year ago, seems more like a true team than the club that achieved a number one seed a year ago. The players, unlike last year, do not seem like they are trying out for NBA roster spots, but rather just winning games with a fun-to-watch system.
Regardless of what seed and region the selection committee gives the Tigers, this team has the feel of one that could make a deep run in the tournament on its blend of athleticism and teamwork.