Tigers get their shot to halt Louisville

After a disappointing 76-72 loss to unranked Murray State last Sunday, University of Memphis sophomore guard Will Barton pressed pause on a season that many said afterward was headed in the wrong direction.

After a disappointing 76-72 loss to unranked Murray State last Sunday, University of Memphis sophomore guard Will Barton pressed pause on a season that was headed, many said afterward, downward.

With a monumental nonconference road game against No. 4 Louisville looming large, Barton, the Tigers' leading scorer and rebounder called a players meeting.

What was said can only be left up to imagination. Whether his message got through to his teammates will likely be proven tomorrow against the Cardinals.

"We couldn't just go out of the locker room after a loss like that like nothing just happened," Barton said. "I think guys needed to be talked to. We need to hold ourselves accountable and stop blaming it on coaches and referees and stuff like that. We have to hold ourselves accountable."

The loss to the Racers prompted questions about the Tigers' mental wherewithal. Do the Tigers listen to their coach, Josh Pastner? Just how overrated is Memphis? Can the Tigers still win Conference USA, or are fans destined for a letdown season?

The answers to those questions won't be provided by a non-conference game in December against a favored Louisville team. But the week leading up to the rehashed rivalry game was devoted to focus and "ignoring the noise," Pastner said.

"If there was anything last year I did well — because who knows if I can coach, who knows — I always stayed positive, even when things seemed to be in the depths of despair in the world of basketball," Pastner said. "I just kept it very positive and upbeat. … That's my job, to make sure we stay at a good pace mentally and we're ready to go for not only Saturday but beyond that as well."

Earlier this week, sophomore guard Chris Crawford and freshman forward Adonis Thomas got rid of their Twitter accounts, presumably to focus their whole efforts on basketball and avoid the distractions social media can bring.

A 5-3 start for a team that was ranked No. 9 in the preseason lends itself to vast criticism, and Pastner said he understands that. But the season is young, he said, and it's not yet time to abandon any and all hope for a team as talented and capable as the Tigers.

"There's no need to panic. There doesn't need to be a panic button," Pastner said. "We're gonna get hot. We're gonna get on a streak, there's no question. It's just a matter of when. I'm hoping it starts on Saturday."

A win against the Top 5-ranked Cardinals would go a long way in reverting what has to this point been an underwhelming season for the Tigers. Like Memphis, Louisville is made up of several athletes and can play with Memphis in the open court.

Also like Memphis, the Cardinals are at their best defensively when pressuring the ball. Both teams average nine steals a game, a stat that figures to play a large part in determining who wins the game Saturday.

"If we don't take care of the ball, it's gonna be a long night," Barton said. "I think that's the main issue, taking care of the ball against them. Their pressure is real good and once they see any sign of you being scared or weak with the ball, they're just gonna keep bringing it and keep bringing it."

While at one point in history Louisville and Memphis were bitter conference rivals, the series essentially ceased to exist when the Cardinals bolted for the Big East in 2005.

This offseason, Memphis and Louisville agreed to a home-and-home series which begins at the Yum! Center tomorrow and returns to FedExForum next season.

Most emotional ties to the rivalry, though, have been severed with time. Most Memphis players conceded that Saturday's game was "big," but there's hardly any animosity or ill will toward the Cardinals.

"The only thing I'm concerned about is us," junior forward Ferrakohn Hall said. "We've just gotta come out and be amped up to have energy and be ready to play those guys. We're just as good as them. We've just gotta go out and show it."

The area Louisville figures to dominate the most is on the boards. The Cardinals rank in the nation's top 20 with 40.9 rebounds per game. The Tigers, on the other hand, are 206th in the country with 34.8 per game.

The Cardinals have a fairly balanced offensive attack, with three players — Kyle Kuric, Chris Smith, and Peyton Siva — averaging 10 points per game or more. Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan average just a shade under double digits at 9.9 and 9.2 points per game, respectively.

"We wanna come out there and knock them off," Hall said. "Louisville's a good team but at the same time they are human beings, and we still feel like we've got one of the greatest teams in the country."

WHEN: 3 p.m. central
WHERE: Louisville, Ky. KFC Yum! Center TV: Nationally televised, CBS

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