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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News - Memphis faces obstacles on course to perfection

Memphis faces obstacles on course to perfection
Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News
Posted: December 28, 2007

The season was exactly 30 days old when I got the first call of the season from a reporter asking my opinion about whether a particular college basketball team could go undefeated. There's no real need to identify the gentleman who called or the newspaper that employed him, but it seems fair to point out the team in question lost before the week was out.

Undefeated is kind of a theme this weekend, so maybe USA Today can be forgiven for bringing up the subject in Friday's editions. That story singled out the Memphis Tigers as a team that could pursue perfection this season.

Memphis has played 10 games. Even if the goal only is to match what Saint Joseph's achieved in 2003-04 -- going through the regular-season schedule unbeaten -- there are 21 games remaining before the Tigers enter the Conference USA tournament. So they're not even a third of the way home.

And though the Tigers have played some spectacular basketball, notably in last weekend's destruction of Georgetown at the FedEx Forum, they haven't been so dominant as to warrant talk of a perfect season. They struggled against Cincinnati's sagging man-to-man defense and won by only 10. They trailed Connecticut at halftime. They needed overtime to escape the Southern California Trojans.

Memphis is a terrific basketball team. It is one of the leading contenders to win the 2008 NCAA championship. It will be favored in every game it plays for the remainder of the regular season. There are plenty of occasions when the Tigers could fall, though, between now and the unofficial beginning of March Madness:

Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, vs. Arizona. This will be among the most intriguing games for the Tigers because most opponents that have caused them problems have played zones or junk defenses. That's not what Kevin O'Neill does. His teams play hard man-to-man, and the Wildcats gradually are catching on to his approach. Will it work against an offense with so much depth and athleticism? Hey, it worked pretty well against Kansas.

Jan. 26, 12 p.m. ET, vs. Gonzaga. The Zags have made dramatic defensive improvements thanks to Jeremy Pargo's ability to guard the ball. Gonzaga still hasn't gained the offensive consistency we've come to expect from this program, but there's another month to get it figured out.

Jan. 30, 8 p.m. ET, at Houston. If the arena is full of Cougars, as it was for Houston's game against Kentucky, it can be as challenging as any opponent's court. And Houston is a very good team that will be seeking a resume-making victory to enhance its chances of reaching the NCAA tournament. Beating Memphis might be the one item that puts the Cougars over the top.

Feb. 23, 9 p.m. ET, vs. Tennessee. Nobody attacks with pressure defense more effectively than the Vols, and they're getting better at it with each game. They have excellent athletes and will be highly motivated against a cross-state rival.

There might be a time when it'll be safe to talk about the Tigers finishing the regular season with a perfect record.

I'd say Feb. 24 at the earliest.

Mike DeCourcy is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at

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