Joe Jackson

Sean Kilpatrick, Geron Johnson

Where did the defense go for No. 20 Memphis?

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Entering Tuesday night’s date with No. 20 Memphis, offensively-challenged No. 15 Cincinnati had scored more than 80 points in a game just five times.

Their victims? Campbell, Kennesaw State, USC Upstate and Chicago State all lost to the Bearcats before Christmas. Temple, one of the bottom-feeders in the American, managed to score exactly 80 points back in January.

Memphis allowed the Bearcats to put up 97 points.

Seriously.

To be fair, Cincinnati probably would have scored closer to 88 or 90 points if Memphis didn’t continue to foul well into the second half, but that’s not really the point. Cincinnati is not a good offensive team. As a matter of fact, outside of Sean Kilpatrick — who is having an all-american caliber season — they are a bad offensive basketball team. And Memphis still found a way to lose 97-84 to them.

That’s a problem.

Part of the reason is that Mick Cronin has Memphis figured out. The Bearcats were able to get out and run on Memphis, whether it was off of turnover or a missed shot. But that wasn’t the only issue defensively, as Memphis also allowed the Bearcats to find endless driving lanes and put them on the line for 38 free throw attempts. Think about it like this: Cincinnati, who is not a good shooting team, shot 53.3% from the floor, got to the line 38 times, scored 1.37 PPP and committed just three turnovers.

That’s pretty close to perfect.

The good news?

Joe Jackson looks like he’s snapped out of his slump. He finished with 21 points and six assists, hitting his first three-pointer since February 12th. Entering the night, he was 3-for-14 in his last two games.

So maybe there’s a glimmer of a silver lining in an otherwise ugly night.

No. 20 Memphis’ infrequent trips to the foul line prove problematic on Saturday

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No. 20 Memphis did not play particularly well in its first meeting with No. 24 UConn, with DeAndre Daniels scoring 31 points and the Huskies grabbing 52% of its missed shots in their 83-73 win. With that game as a reference point, two of the objectives for Memphis were clear entering the rematch with both involving their big men: limit Daniels’ looks, especially in pick-and-pop situations, and do a much better job on the boards.

The Tigers did both on Saturday afternoon, limiting Daniels to just eight points on 2-for-8 shooting and limiting UConn to just seven offensive and 23 total rebounds. But it still wasn’t enough, as Shabazz Napier scored a career-high 34 points and Ryan Boatright added 21 in leading the Huskies to the 86-81 overtime win.

So what was the problem for Memphis on Saturday? The free throw line. UConn was able to attempt 36 shots from the charity stripe, making 29, while Memphis finished the game 6-for-9. Regardless of how well a team shoots from the field or from three, making up that kind of difference is extremely difficult.

Josh Pastner’s team shot 54% from the field and 7-for-15 from beyond the arc, with all four of their talented guards scoring in double figures. Joe Jackson was excellent, scoring 24 points (10-for-17 FG) and dishing out seven assists with just two turnovers, and Geron Johnson snapped out of his two-game slump (4-for-13 FG) by making seven of his ten shots from the field. Johnson finished the game with 15 points to go along with eight rebounds, leading the way on the glass for the Tigers.

There will be lessons to be learned from this result, including how hard the Memphis big men hedge on ball screens, with an eye towards a possible third meeting in the American Athletic Conference tournament. But it’s hard to find much fault with the way in which Memphis played in Hartford, other than the struggles in getting to the foul line.

In conference play Memphis ranks fifth in the American in free throw rate, which comes as a bit of a surprise given how good their guards can be at attacking off the dribble. Moving forward, the Tigers will need to improve their standing in this area if they’re to fully take advantage of their offensive talent.

Joe Jackson’s block sparks second-half rally for No. 24 Memphis (VIDEO)

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No. 24 Memphis was struggling in the first six-plus minutes of the second half in their non-conference battle with No. 23 Gonzaga. Gonzaga led by just three point at the half, but they outscored the Tigers 17-9 to open the second stanza and led 42-31 with 13:41 remaining. Memphis needed a spark, and it was at this point that Joe Jackson (on his birthday) made a play.

7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski went up for the dunk attempt, and with the 6-foot-1 Jackson being the only person between he and the basket it seemed certain that the sophomore big man would extend Gonzaga’s lead to 13 points. But Jackson had other ideas.

That block would spark an 11-2 run to pull the Tigers to within three points, and Memphis would use a 12-2 run later in the second half to grab control of the game. Memphis would go on to win by the final score of 60-54, scoring the final ten points of the game. Memphis ramped up the intensity on the defensive end of the floor, suddenly keeping the Bulldogs out of the paint and making them hoist up challenged perimeter shots that missed their mark.

Gonzaga scoring 20 of its 25 points in the paint, with Shaq Goodwin picking up his second foul making it easier for the Bulldogs to work the ball inside. Frankly, Memphis was soft defensively. They got tougher in the second half, with Jackson’s block serving as the catalyst the Tigers needed.

And that carried over to the offensive end as well. Memphis scored just 16 points in the paint in the second half but they attacked, and the result was 24 free throw attempts (making 17) after attempting just three free throws in the first half. Michael Dixon Jr. scored all 11 of his points in the second half and freshman Nick King, while he did struggle at the foul line, provided a much-needed spark on the boards.

The question for Memphis in the aftermath of this comeback win is why don’t they play like this consistently? On too many occasions this season Josh Pastner’s team has settled for rushed perimeter shots instead of attacking the paint, either by way of dribble penetration or the pass. Memphis has some more big games in front of them with Louisville, UConn, Cincinnati and SMU all on the schedule, so there are opportunities for more quality wins.

And if they bring the effort they put forth in the final 12 minutes against Gonzaga, Memphis is certainly capable of taking advantage of those opportunities.

POSTERIZED: Memphis’ Joe Jackson ends the first half with authority (VIDEO)

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With the combination of New Year’s Eve bowl games and college basketball games with more suspense, No. 18 Memphis’ 88-73 win over USF in the American opener for both teams didn’t receive a great deal of attention. Josh Pastner’s Tigers were expected to take care of business against the undermanned Bulls and that they did, with Geron Johnson accounting for a team-high 19 points to go along with five steals and four steals.

The play of the game? That would be Joe Jackson’s coast-to-coast drive and flush to end the first half, giving Memphis a 48-32 lead at the intermission. Impressive stuff from the 6-foot-1 senior guard.

h/t Jason Smith

American Conference Catchup: Louisville and Memphis reign

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source: Getty Images

College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Shabazz Napier, UConn

This decision really isn’t all that hard. Napier has led the Huskies to an 11-1 record this season. Included in those 11 wins are one possession victories over Boston College, Indiana, Florida and Maryland, three of which Napier’s heroics are directly responsible for. His numbers (15.5 points, 6.3 boards and 5.9 assists) would look a lot better if he didn’t play as passive as he does in games that UConn has control over.

All-Atlantic 10 First Team:

  • Shabazz Napier, UConn
  • Joe Jackson, Memphis
  • Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
  • Russ Smith, Louisville
  • Tashawn Thomas, Houston

Midseason Coach of the Year: Kevin Ollie, UConn

By the end of the year, I think that Josh Pastner will end up being the Coach of the Year in the American, but this far into the season, it’s Ollie’s honor. We’ll get into it more in a bit, but this UConn team is not as good as their record or ranking would indicate. And while much of that credit goes to Napier, Ollie’s been terrific this year in his own right.

Favorite: Louisville Cardinals

You can go ahead and write off Louisville with Chane Behanan’s suspension if you want, but I’m not going to. The biggest issue plaguing this team wasn’t something that Behanan provided. They needed more production from the supporting cast. They needed to have to rely less on Russ Smith and Chris Jones for production. Can this team win the national title? Maybe. I wouldn’t call them a favorite anymore. But I certainly wouldn’t think that they’re anything less than the best team in the AAC.

And three more contenders: 

  • The knock of Memphis during Josh Pastner’s tenure has been their inability to win the big one. They finally got a top 25 win against Oklahoma State this year and impressed in a loss to Florida in the Garden.
  • The bad news for UConn is that they have a front line that leaves much to be desired in terms of strength and rebounding. The good news? Neither Memphis or Louisville has an overpowering front line.
  • Are we overlooking Cincinnati? They have some scoring issues, but this group can defend and they have Sean Kilpatrick. And they are playing in a conference that it wide open after the top two. Things could be much worse for Mick Cronin’s club.

Most Surprising Team: Memphis Tigers

source: Getty ImagesOk, so it shouldn’t actually be a surprise that the Tigers are winning games. They are one of the most talented teams in the conference and were a preseason top 15 team. That said, this is a Memphis team that seemingly perennially disappointed in big games. Well, after getting mollywhopped by Oklahoma State on the road in their second game of the season, the Tigers bounced back to beat Marcus Smart and company in Florida and followed that up by putting together an arguably-more impressive performance in a loss to Florida in New York.

Most Disappointing Team: Temple Owls

We knew Temple was going to have a down year in 2014. They graduated quite a bit of talent, namely Khalif Wyatt, in a year that they made a move to a new, bigger conference. Having said that, this is still Temple and they are still coached by Fran Dunphy. Seeing them lose to the likes of Texas Southern at home will never not be a shock.

Most Important Player (in league play): Luke Hancock, Louisville

The thing that Louisville missed the most this season was a secondary scorer and perimeter shooting. Enter Luke Hancock. That’s what he does. Do you need me to queue up a video of the Final Four? Losing Chane Behanan won’t help matters, but the Cardinals are going to be just fine if they can get Hancock healthy and playing well.

Who will slide?: UConn Huskies

I love Shabazz Napier as much as anyone possibly can, but there is only so long that UConn can survive on his heroics. Look at what happened when Napier had an off-night against Stanford. Look at what happened when Napier had an slow half at Houston. The bottom-line is that this is a team with a young front line that relies on two unreliable players — Ryan Boatright and Deandre Daniels — as secondary scorers.

Who is the sleeper?: Houston Cougars

It’s not really a surprise that Houston is good this season. They have a bunch of talent, headlined by athletic big man Tashawn Thomas. What’s surprising is that the Cougars knocked off then-No. 17 UConn despite playing without L.J. Rose and Danuel House. If this team can get healthy, they have the pieces to make some noise in league play.

New Power Rankings

1. Louisville
2. Memphis
3. UConn
4. Cincinnati
5. SMU
6. Houston
7. UCF
8. Temple
9. South Florida
10. Rutgers

Memphis defeats LSU, will face Oklahoma State in championship game of the Old Spice Classic

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Memphis failed in their first test of the season losing big to Oklahoma State, but passed their second one against a solid LSU team by the score of 76-69 in the semifinals of the Old Spice Classic. With the win, Memphis will now have another shot against Oklahoma State on Sunday evening.

Much of the talk about Memphis revolves around their guard play, namely Joe Jackson, Michael Dixon, and Chris Crawford. Against LSU, however, freshman forward Austin Nichols was the story. Nichols finished with 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds to lead the Tigers. The fact that Nichols has gotten off to such a nice start as a freshman — he is averaging 17 points and 7.3 rebounds in the past three games — is of critical importance, especially considering that fellow freshman big man Dominic Woodson is still adjusting to the college game.

Woodson is a big body standing at 6-foot-10 and weighing 310 pounds, and young big men often take longer to develop than other players. When Shaq Goodwin went to the bench in the first half with foul trouble, Woodson came in and took a couple of bad shots and picked up two fouls. Pastner yanked him after the second foul and he never saw any time in the second half.

Memphis is a guard oriented team, everyone knows that. But, the emergence of Nichols in the frontcourt to go along with the already solid Shaq Goodwin, makes Memphis a much better team in the half court due to their post play.

Things looked bleak midway through the second half as LSU extended their lead to 57-49 on a Malik Morgan layup, but Memphis responded with a quick 11-2 run over a two minute stretch to take the lead 60-59. Nichols had key buckets on consecutive possessions to fuel the run.

The knock on Memphis and Josh Pastner has been their inability to win big games. Pastner has had little issue running through Conference USA with ease during the past two seasons, but earning victories in the non-conference portion of their schedule against quality opponents hasn’t been easy. With Memphis making the transition to the AAC and facing the likes of Louisville, UConn, and Cincinnati, they won’t have the luxury of feasting on mediocre competition.

Tonight was definitely a step in the right direction for Pastner and the Tigers. They responded well when LSU doubled their halftime advantage from four to eight midway through the second half and showed poise down the stretch, which hasn’t always been the case for Pastner-coached teams. On the surface, a win over LSU may not seem like much, but LSU was coming off a dominating win over St. Joseph’s and figures to be one of the top teams in the SEC.

In the championship game of the Old Spice Classic on Sunday, Memphis will look to avenge their 101-80 loss to Oklahoma State less than two weeks ago.