Belmont-Memphis Preview

BY foxsports • November 14, 2011

With nearly all of its offense returning from last season's 25-win team, Memphis faces its highest expectations in the three years since Josh Pastner took over the program.

Although the team is hoping the season ends with a deep run in the NCAA tournament, Pastner is wary of how it will begin.

In an opening-round game for the Maui Invitational, Pastner's 10th-ranked Tigers look to avoid an upset Tuesday when they take the court against Belmont, which nearly stunned one of the nation's top teams in its opener.

For the first time since John Calipari bolted for Kentucky following the 2008-09 season, Memphis is again considered a Top 10 program.

The Tigers return all five starters and nine of their top 10 scorers from last season's team that won the Conference USA tournament championship before losing to Arizona 77-75 in their NCAA opener. That team finished 25-10 and featured a freshman-heavy rotation.

One of those freshmen was Will Barton, who has been named to the preseason all-conference first team after averaging a team-best 12.3 points last season. Fellow sophomores Joe Jackson, who averaged 9.9 points and 3.1 assists, and Tarik Black, who averaged 9.1 points and a team-best 5.0 rebounds, were named to the second team.

Memphis follows Tuesday's contest with a trip to Maui for three games in three days. The first one will be against No. 17 Michigan next Monday followed by a matchup with sixth-ranked Duke or Tennessee, then a game against possibly No. 12 Kansas, UCLA or Georgetown.

One of the Tigers' toughest tests, however, could come before the team boards a plane for Hawaii.

"I have been saying it from the beginning, and I don't think that everyone believes me, Belmont is a really good team," Pastner said. "They have everyone back from a 30-win team last year and they are good."

Pastner made that comment after Memphis defeated Christian Brothers University 79-56 in its final exhibition tuneup Friday. That same evening, Belmont opened its season with a 77-76 loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

That likely got the Tigers' attention.

"We know they're a tough team, but we're a tough team also," Barton said. "We're not going to take them for granted."

Belmont, which returns four starters from a team that made its fourth NCAA tournament appearance since 2006, erased most of a 16-point deficit against the Blue Devils.

Kerron Johnson had a team-best 15 points and Ian Clark added 13 for the Bruins, who forced the Blue Devils into 19 turnovers. Last season, Belmont forced an average of 19.0 turnovers, third-best in the nation.

"When your team can come into Cameron Indoor Stadium and make that kind of a comeback ... and almost win the game, then as I just told (the players), we're no worse a team because we lost by one than we would have been had we won," coach Rick Byrd said.

"If that's a Top 10 team and we went on the road in their gym and played them to one point, then we can be a Top 25 team for sure," he added. "I hope they believe that."

Despite the loss, Belmont actually saw an increase of 13 votes in Monday's AP poll, bringing its total to a school-record 21.

Although the Bruins are sitting just outside the Top 25, they've lost 13 straight to ranked opponents since a 71-67 victory at No. 23 Missouri on Dec. 20, 2003. Four of the last nine, though, have been decided by no more than two points.

The Tigers have run off 55 consecutive wins over unranked opponents at home since a 72-59 loss to Providence on Dec. 23, 2004.

Memphis won 89-83 in the only previous meeting between these schools in 2003.


share story