Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The crime of the Conference-USA

We all know that the big story on campus this weekend is going to be the Bobcats' crucial Bracketbuters showdown with George Mason on Saturday, but in the evening, eyes everywhere will be glued to the biggest regular season showdown to not involve a North Carolina team in a while. No. 1 Memphis faces No. 2 Tennessee for the first 1-2 interstate match-up (excepting North Carolina) since Ohio State and Cincinnati battled for Buckeye State supremacy over 40 years ago.

Just like the rest of the sports world, Memphis head coach John Calipari can't wait, as ESPN's Andy Katz writes, since this is "finally a game that we're allowed to lose," as Calipari puts it.

It's no secret that Memphis plays in a relatively cupcake conference. The Conference-USA is more respectable than in years past, but barring a deep run into the conference tournament (at the very least) by Houston, the C-USA, the No. 9-rated conference by RPI (rated below mid-major powerhouse factory Missouri Valley Conference and the top-heavy, unimpressive Mountain West) is going to get only one tourney bid. You can say all you want about the conference's improvements, but the number-one team in the land should be able to waltz right through that conference schedule unfazed.

But Memphis has proven itself as a very good team. It played the 10th-toughest non-conference schedule, beating Connecticut and Oklahoma by double-digits on a neutral floor and blowing out Georgetown at home. Calipari complains that if the Tigers had lost to UAB following an uncharacteristically poor defensive showing, they would have dropped eight or nine spots. Unless the pollsters are completely backward, there is no way that would have happened. C-USA is weak, but that can't diminish what the Tigers have accomplished so far.

If the Tigers lose on Saturday, they will do so to the hands of a fast-paced Tennessee offense that has scorers like Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Tyler Smith all averaging over 13 points per game. But the Tigers have more balanced players, and they should have enough to hang in with and defeat the Vols. They have the athleticism to keep up on defense, and Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense should be more than enough to crack a flawed Tennessee defense. But if they lose and drop more than four spots in the poll, the Tigers are just an unfortunate victim of circumstance.

Of course, as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Geoff Calkins writes, none of this matters if Memphis and Tennessee don't take care of their cakewalks on Wednesday.