Tennessee to be Major Hurdle For Memphis
by Trevor Whenham - 02/08/2008
Can Memphis go undefeated? Absolutely. They only have nine games to go, including four against teams that they have already beaten, and they have wins over some pretty decent teams already. Will Memphis go undefeated? Well, that's an entirely different story. (Whether they should strive to go into the tournament undefeated is a different question entirely, and we will leave that for another time) Let's take a look:
Conference play: Eight of the nine remaining games take place within Conference USA. That shouldn't scare the Tigers too badly. The last time that they lost a conference game was in March of 2006, and they were giving their bench every opportunity to play that game because they had already clinched everything that there was to clinch. That's 25-straight conference wins since then. The last time Memphis struggled with conference play was back in 2005 when there were other real basketball schools to play against - Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette. Since the exodus to the Big East happened following that season the Tigers have been like a whale in a goldfish tank.
Tennessee: This monster matchup at Memphis on Feb. 23 looms large. If Memphis can win this they will probably win it all. It won't be easy, though. Memphis is at No. 3 in the RPI, but Tennessee tops the list. The Vols are obviously playing very well this year, but the matchup is a pretty good one for Memphis. As we have seen time and again with Tennessee, most noticeably last year in the tournament against Ohio State, they are a team that relies heavily on outside shots. They don't have the inside offense that top teams need to go far. Memphis is in the top five for defensive field goal percentage, and the top 10 for defending the three, so Tennessee could have problems. Add to that that the home crowd will be truly insane and Memphis has a game that they certainly can win. They haven't faltered against other top competition this year, and they have played an impressive amount - Gonzaga, Arizona, Georgetown, USC, UConn, Oklahoma. They are 4-2 ATS over that stretch, and were only really scared by an overtime trip against USC.
Stats: Defensively, as we have already discussed, this team measures up with anyone statistically. Offense is where we have a few more concerns. Their field goal shooting, hovering around 60th in the country, is fine, but not outstanding. Three-point shooting is less of a strength - they are 10 percentage points worse than the top teams, and they are only about 200th overall. It's when you look at free throws that things really get ugly, though. They shoot 58 percent from the charity stripe. That's not a misprint. There are more than 300 schools in the country who are more efficient than Memphis at free throws. The top team in the country, Florida State, is more than 20 percentage points better from the line. This would be a problem for any team, but is especially a problem for a team that is so effective and aggressive defensively. Teams get frustrated when they can't score, and they commit fouls. Memphis is in the top 20 for foul shots attempted, so their ineptness is throwing points away. That could be a problem against Tennessee, but it could also be a problem against a much lesser team if other things don't go well and Memphis finds themselves in an unexpected battle late.
Robert Dozier: The last thing a team needs when it is trying to pull something off like an undefeated season is outside distractions. The pursuit of perfection provides more than enough distractions itself. Junior forward Robert Dozier is proving to be one heck of a distraction. He sat out Wednesday night's game after getting caught visiting a nightclub Saturday night. Coach John Calipari is a disciplinarian, and that is a violation of team rules. That's just the beginning, though. Now police are investigating a fight between the player and his girlfriend that allegedly occurred that evening. If Dozier crossed a line then Calipari could be forced to take more significant action. That could hurt the team badly, because Dozier is a key player. He is second on the team in rebounds, and he is one of only three players on the low scoring team to average double digits in points. Even if he isn't disciplined beyond what has already happened, though, he is a distraction to his coach and could be the same to his team down the stretch as the pressure increases.
ATS: The Tigers' ATS record isn't stellar - 11-9-2. That is one of most misleading stats in the country, though. This team is much better at meeting and exceeding reasonable expectations than that record would indicate. Six of the spreads that they have covered, and the two that they have pushed, have been more than 20 points. They have won all eight games by at least 16 points. This is not an explosive offense, and Calipari isn't the type of coach that kicks a team when it is already down and out, so it is irrelevant in my mind if Memphis beats a team by 16 or 32 if the game is firmly in control. The point is that they have won the games handily that they are supposed to win handily, and bettors that are jumping on huge spreads and making them bigger probably aren't making the soundest decisions possible. I don't see a lot of merit in the argument that the team is vulnerable because they aren't doing as well as expected.