Michael Cobbins, Michael Dixon, Markel Brown

Business as usual: No. 11 Memphis can’t win a big game



It’s a topic that has become all too common for hoops fans in the city of Memphis.

The Tigers entered the season with all kinds of hype and promise, finding themselves ranked in the top 15 based on the immense talent on their roster. And in their first marquee matchup of the season … they don’t show up to play.

On Tuesday night, the team with arguably the nation’s most talented back court got eviscerated by Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, getting smacked around as the No. 7 Cowboys took a sledgehammer to the Tigers, winning 101-80 in a game that certainly wasn’t as competitive as the final score would indicate.

It was embarrassing.

But it wasn’t unexpected, unfortunately. That’s what happens when you’re Josh Pastner and you’ve developed a reputation for the complete inability to win a big game. He’s now 0-13 against teams ranked in the AP top 25. He did win a game against St. Mary’s in the NCAA tournament last season — the Gaels were 48 hours removed from playing in the play-in game in a different city — and Randy Bennett’s club was ranked No. 25 in the coaches poll at the time, so in fairness, Pastner has beaten a top 25 team in his head coaching career. Barely.

(MORE: Marcus Smart added his name to the Player of the Year list)

It was also his first career NCAA tournament victory.

No. 11 Memphis was supposed to be different this season. They have four talented seniors in their back court with the addition of Michael Dixon, and those four were supposed to provide the leadership necessary to buck this trend of losing when the lights are the brightest. They were going to be able to spread the floor and create mismatches and rely on their bevy of offensive talent to be able to breakdown defenses and win games. Dixon, Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson were going to give opposing back courts fits as they tried to handle the ball and run offense. There was going to be a mental toughness spurred on by the addition of Dixon, a bulldog of a lead guard that has been through enough ups-and-downs in his career to realize that no game can be taken for granted.

Instead, it was the same old stuff from the Tigers. That spread offense was a disaster, as Pastner’s team looked like they were running AAU sets offensively. Instead of having any kind of flow or movement on that end of the floor, the Tigers seemed content to simply swing the ball around the perimeter until one of their wings decided to try to beat their man one-on-one.

How’d that work out? Their vaunted back court combined to go 8-for-34 from the floor with ten turnovers. Dixon and Johnson were especially bad, finishing 2-for-20 combined. As a team, the Tigers were 2-for-24 on shots outside the paint.

As bad as they were on that end, Memphis was worse defensively, allowing Smart to basically do whatever he wanted to.

At some point, that’s forgivable. Everyone has off-nights, and when one of the best players in the country gets into the kind of rhythm that Smart was in last night — he scored 24 points in the first 12 minutes of the game — that’s tough to deal with.

What’s unforgivable is the fact that Memphis rolled over and took it.

I don’t know if it’s right to say they quit last night. I think the more accurate description is that they were resigned to their fate, like the culture of the Memphis locker is the expectation of a loss. They took their beating without really fighting back. That’s a bad sign for a team playing in a league that now includes Louisville and UConn and Cincinnati.

So what’s the answer?

I don’t know, but one thing that’s clear is that the people of Memphis are tired of asking the same question, over and over, year after year.

And when the media in Memphis starts doing things like saying that Josh Pastner can’t coach, it won’t be long for him in that town.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.