Memphis needed a marquee win badly prior to tonight's game with rival Tennessee. Whether beating the Volunteers 85-80 in Knoxville counts is debatable.
Tennessee was the last team with any teeth remaining on the Tigers' schedule until a Feb. 26 game against Xavier and the way the Musketeers have been playing lately that one already looks like a dud. The Tigers have lost every other NCAA-tournament-resume building game they have played in the nonconference portion of their schedule.
The reality is, Conference USA isn't loaded with teams who will be playing in the tournament this year, which makes building a case for inclusion in March Madness tough on anyone in that conference. The other contenders for the league title such as Tulane and Houston are off to great starts, but neither has wins about which to brag.
Memphis needed to win at least a game or two against better competition prior to conference play and there wasn't much of that this season on the schedule. The Tigers lost to VCU, Minnesota and Louisville, the three best teams it has faced this season, leaving it almost in must-win mode against the Volunteers, not that the rivalry needed any more juice.
Memphis built a big lead and withstood Tennessee's rally to win, capping a turbulent few days for coach Josh Pastner who had vowed repeatedly to make this season's game with the Volunteers the last in the series for the time being. Pastner was booed during pregame introductions.
Pastner took his stance because he doesn't want to give Tennessee the ability to play in the recruiting hotbed of Memphis every two years. But athletic director Tom Bowen undercut him publicly Thursday by admitting he was talking with Tennessee about extending the series.
Losing tonight would have been bad all around for Memphis, but it might have strained the relationship between Pastner and Bowen further. Memphis won its third straight, tying its longest winning streak in the history of the series, but the question remains how much it will help the Tigers in the long run. Tennessee, after all, has only one notable win so far over Wichita State in mid-December.
It looks like Memphis might need to win the Conference USA tournament to assure itself of a trip to the tournament in March.
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