On Sunday evening down in Orlando, Memphis head coach Josh Pastner finally picked up that elusive, first top 25 win.
Entering Sunday, his Memphis teams had gone 0-13 against teams ranked in the AP top 25. If you want to quibble with that stat, you can. Technically the Tiger’s do have one top 25 win under Pastner. In the opening round of the 2013 NCAA tournament, the Tigers knocked off St. Mary’s, a team that a) needed to win the play-in game just to reach No. 6 seed Memphis and b) sat at No. 25 in the Coaches Poll.
So yes, Pastner had won a top 25 game before.
But quibbling with semantics belabors the larger point here: the Tigers had made an unhealthy habit of failing to show up in big games. They’d been getting drubbed in marquee non-conferences games and fizzling out of the NCAA tournament too early, their reputation being staked on their dominating performances against mediocre Conference USA competition.
The narrative was, quite frankly, valid.
For all his recruiting success and personability, Josh Pastner’s teams had never proven they could win big games. They couldn’t handle adversity. When the going got tough, Memphis folded. And nothing was more exemplary of that fact than the matchup with Oklahoma State two weeks ago, when Marcus Smart’s 39 points spurred the Cowboys to a 101-80 pasting of the Tigers in which Memphis seemingly rolled over and died.
That’s what makes Sunday’s win so important.
It’s not simply that Memphis beat then-No. 5 Oklahoma State. It’s that they came back from a double-digit deficit, winning a game against a very good team when they didn’t play their best and shot a measly 12-for-24 from the charity stripe.
Memphis showed fight on Sunday, and that’s more important than any stat about the top 25 or any ranking they’ll receive as a result. There’s a mental hurdle to clear when it comes to winning and winning big games. The ability to handle the pressure of the big moment, of a big game, is a learned skill, and Memphis took a huge step in the right direction on Sunday.
But that’s all it is at this point.
It’s a win that Memphis needed to get. It’s a win they got in a way that we haven’t seen out of them in Pastner’s tenure. It’s a win that will absolutely help with their NCAA tournament seeding, one that will provide a measure of confidence heading forward.
But this isn’t a narrative-changing win, as Gary Parrish wrote on Sunday evening, at least not yet. The Tigers play Florida on Dec. 17th at Madison Square Garden. They visit Louisville on January 9th and host UConn a week later. The play Gonzaga on February 8th.
You want to call this a narrative-changing victory? Win two or three of those games and you can.
Until then, the Tigers are just a team that finally broke through against a quality opponent.
Because if this ends up being the high-point of the 2013-2014 season for the Tigers, I’m not sure that anything will have actually changed.