Laken Litman: First thing's first: SMU, Houston and UCF are headed to the Big East (along with Boise State and San Diego State, but they're football members only). The Big East was built on basketball, but football has been the driving force behind its expansion. Still, the league takes their hoops very seriously. What's been the feeling on campus and in the athletic department about not being invited into the Big East, especially since Memphis has a storied basketball program? Does anyone think that the league could invite them later on down the road?
John Martin: I think obviously there's a massive sentiment of disappointment among the fan base, especially since the basketball program is traditionally superior to the three departing C-USA schools. But the fact is that, as virtually everyone now knows, football drives the market and dollars in college athletics with the BCS system.
On top of that, Memphis had its chance in the early 2000's when the Big East picked Marquette, South Florida, Louisville, and DePaul over Memphis. The administration clearly failed in that instance, and that's the stark truth that I think the majority of Memphis fans have accepted by now.
More recently, with a football program that's gone a combined 5-31 in the last three seasons, it's not too difficult to see why Memphis was excluded from the Big East candidate pool this time around. Still, I think plenty of fans are counting down the days until exiting athletic director R.C. Johnson leaves his post at the end of the fiscal year.
LL: Memphis was preseason Top 15 and a few weeks later was No. 8 in the country. Then they suffered losses to ranked teams like Michigan, (now-ranked) Murray State, Louisville, Georgetown (twice)...what happened to this team? Is it youth and inexperience, or is the talent not as great as predicted?
JM: With McDonald's All-Americans like Joe Jackson and Adonis Thomas on the roster, along with several other once-highly touted recruits, there's an unquestionable abundance of individual talent. I always thought a Top 10 preseason ranking was too high for them, though.
When they went 1-2 in Maui, sophomore forward Tarik Black had issues staying in the game because of foul trouble, and there wasn't a serviceable option at backup (an issue Memphis is still dealing with today now that the aforementioned Thomas is likely out for the season). They struggled on the offensive glass and allowed teams far too many second chance points, which is the exact reason why they lost to Georgetown in Maui and at home to Murray State.
Since junior forward and Seton Hall transfer Ferrakohn Hall became eligible in mid-December, they've been a much better rebounding team and were 6-0 with him in the starting lineup before losing at UCF on Wednesday.
There's still tons of youth. But for a team with as much raw talent as Memphis boasts, six losses in January is excessive, and I think Memphis coach Josh Pastner recognizes that. Their late-half/execution has left a lot to be desired, but they've made strides since those five early losses. I think the theme now is how they plan to overcome the loss of Thomas, who was second on the team in minutes and third in scoring at 9.7 points per game.
LL: Will Barton leads C-USA averaging 18.2 points per game and has already had nine double-doubles this season. What is his weakness? How can SMU contain him? What other weapons should the Mustangs be aware of?
JM: It's hard to pinpoint a weakness for a 175-pounder who's averaging almost a double-double this season, but if I had to find one, I'd say Barton can tend to force the issue offensively. That may sound blasphemous for a guy who's shooting over 50 percent from the field, but he's been known to take his fair share of ill-advised shots. He's also second on the team in turnovers at 2.3 per game.
Barton is a guy who, even on a bad night, can give you 11 and 8. He plays hard for 40 minutes (and lately, he's been playing the full 40), so even if he's not shooting great, he'll find ways to score. He's adept at creating his own shot. He's gone from shooting 27 percent from deep last season to almost 40 percent this season, so he can be a lot to handle offensively for opposing teams.
LL: A handful of games have come down to the final seconds for SMU this season. It appears Memphis is coming off a similar experience in its most recent 68-67 loss to UCF. What's the vibe coming from the Tigers this week as they prepare for SMU?
JM: Will Barton was down about the UCF loss at Thursday's media availability. He was upset mostly because even though the Tigers got down by 13 points early in the second half, they were a box-out away from escaping Orlando with a really hard-fought win. But they all vividly remember the feeling in the locker room after they lost to SMU last season in Dallas, and they're determined not to suffer through that again.
JM: With a shooter like Robert Nyakundi, SMU can give Memphis fits if the Tigers aren't closing out on perimeter shots. Returning home after a tough road loss though, I expect Memphis to be focused and prepared for the Mustangs. I'll go 74-60, Memphis.
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