Josh Pastner

Memphis loss shouldn’t feed narrative about Josh Pastner, big games

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NEW YORK — I’m staying with a couple of college buddies here in New York while I cover the Jimmy V Classic and the Duke-UCLA game. This morning, I was chatting with one of them — I’ll call him Rizzo — about the game last night. He’s a big sports fan and watches his fair share of college hoops, although his reason for watching the games has a lot more to do with betting lines than it does a full-blown love for the game.

Hey, whatever gets the people into college basketball, right?

Anyway, Rizzo’s reaction to the game last night: “I’d never pick Memphis in a big game.” Not in the tournament, not against a ranked team, not when they play on national television, and Rizzo is far from alone in echoing that sentiment.

Fair or not, the public perception of the Tigers is that they can’t win the big one, that Josh Pastner is not the kind of coach that can lead his guys through adversity when the lights are shining the brightest. A revenge win over Oklahoma State in the Old Spice Classic didn’t do much to change his mind.

(MORE: Casey Prather is now a star. How and why.)

Now, I’m not here to quibble with you about the narrative. Not today. And I’m not here to try to explain to you that everything Pastner has done with the program outside of hoops — keeping his players out of trouble, graduating players, etc. — has been somewhere between commendable and remarkable.

What I’m here to tell you is that this Memphis team is different. This team will beat some big names in American play and they’ll win some games in the NCAA tournament. I truly believe that for one reason: the Tigers didn’t quit on Tuesday night.

It sounds simple, but it’s not.

You see, the biggest reason that I was ready to write No. 16 Memphis off after their embarrassing loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater a month ago was that they rolled over and let themselves get beaten when the Cowboys jumped out on top. They didn’t fight back. They took that whooping. They looked like a team that expected to lose. It was tough to watch.

But less than two weeks later, in the finals of the Old Spice Classic, the Tigers erased a double-digit halftime deficit to comeback and beat Marcus Smart and company, the first time in Josh Pastner’s tenure that he had knocked off a consensus top 25 team.

Now, if you weren’t watching closely, you would probably write off last night’s 77-75 loss to No. 15 Florida as Memphis reverting back to their old ways, somehow pinning the Oklahoma State win on a combination of Marcus Smart choking and Memphis getting lucky. It wouldn’t be difficult to make a reference to broken clocks being right twice a day.

But, again, you’d be wrong. For two reasons:

1) Florida is a really, really good basketball team. Like, top-five-in-the-country, national-title-contender good. I truly believe that, especially now that they are back to full strength and have Casey Prather playing like an animal. There ain’t no shame in losing to the Gators by two points.

2) Florida was ready to pull away from Memphis on a number of different occasions, but Memphis didn’t let it happen. The Gators were up double-figures early in the first half, but Michael Dixon pulled the Tigers back to make a game of it at the half. Memphis took the lead at a couple of different points in the second half, but Florida again made a run. Their lead stretched to nine late in the second half, and this time it was Joe Jackson that led the Tigers on a surge to get back into the game.

Just when you thought that Memphis was going to roll over and quit … they didn’t.

Memphis played well on Tuesday night. If a couple of breaks had gone their way — David Pellom doesn’t get called for a goaltend, Michael Dixon doesn’t pick up a phantom fourth foul midway through the second half, Shaq Goodwin doesn’t get a technical when he got too close to the rim trying to get a rebound, Joe Jackson’s layup at the end drops in instead of bouncing of the rim — this would have been a very different story.

Memphis looked like a team tough and talented enough to make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

“All you can ask for is the ball in your hands with a chance to win, and that’s what we had,” Pastner said after the game.

And if they get it next time, against Louisville or UConn or Gonzaga, more often than not the outcome will be positive.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
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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
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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.