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December 1, 2013

Memphis Eyes Re-Match with Cowboys


The time has come for the No. 19/21 ranked Memphis Tigers (4-1) to step onto the court with the fifth-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys (7-0) for the second and last time this season, unless they meet again in March in the NCAA Tournament.

Both of these talented squads were successful in the earlier rounds of the Old Spice Classic, contested at the HP Fieldhouse at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, FL. Now it comes down to the one game that will determine a champion, and it's the matchup that seemingly everyone in the nation wanted to see.

Memphis knows what's at stake and right now, the Cowboys have their number following their humbling 101-80 loss to Oklahoma State two weeks ago. Marcus Smart torched Memphis, exploding for a career-high 39 points.

Meanwhile, the four senior guards for Memphis (Chris Crawford, Michael Dixon, Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson) combined for just 21 points on putrid 8-of-34 shooting (23.5 percent).

Neither team had an easy time getting to the championship game, however.

Memphis got started with an easy outing against Siena, who couldn't handle the Memphis big men, especially sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin. Goodwin had a night to remember, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds while shooting 80 percent (8-of-10) from the field.

The senior guards for Memphis took advantage of the Saints' youth in the back court. Joe Jackson and Michael Dixon each scored in double figures, 18 and 16, respectively.

In the semifinals, though, Memphis had to defeat the LSU Tigers. In order to pull out the victory they had to contain center Johnny O'Bryant, III. Memphis did just enough to throw O'Bryant and his team off their A-game, forcing them to turn the ball over 24 times. O'Bryant accounted for a staggering 10 of the 24 turnovers by himself.

O'Bryant still managed to finish the game with 14 points, nine rebounds and two assists. With excellent play from freshman forward Austin Nichols who led Memphis in scoring with 19 points, the Tigers were able to hold off LSU and move onto the championship game.

Memphis free throw shooting pushed them over the edge, as the Tigers shot 78.9 percent (15-of-19) from the line. The final score of the game was 76-69.

As for the Cowboys, their first game against Purdue was a bit of a scare. At halftime, the Cowboys appeared to have run away from the Boilermakers with a 52-29 lead, but that lead disappeared in the second half.

Purdue was able to storm back in the second half and pulled within four points (84-80) on a three-pointer by Kendall Stephens with under three minutes left. Markel Brown and Smart for the Cowboys made clutch shots down the stretch to help them win by the final score of 97-87.

OSU then had to beat the Butler Bulldogs to play in the championship game Sunday evening. Once again, OSU blew a big lead and gave Butler hopes of scoring an upset.

Smart didn't have his best game but still finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Butler made life hard for Smart on the offensive end, forcing him into five. Smart went 8-of-15 (53.3 percent) from the field.

Smart would miss the front end of a 1-and-1 with a 68-67 lead in the final seconds.

Butler had a chance to take the lead but Khyle Marshall missed two free throws with 8.4 seconds remaining. They had a final, last-gasp three-point attempt blocked at the buzzer and the Cowboys escaped with a 69-67 victory.

With the earlier rounds out of the way, Memphis vs. OSU is the game the people want to see. Tiger Nation wants to see how Memphis responds to the previous beat down they took at the hands of OSU.

Memphis could come into this game feeling more comfortable since the contest will be played on a neutral court. This game will come down to the team who knocks down key free throws, plays the best team defense, and makes smart decisions with the basketball.

For Memphis to pull off the victory, the four senior guards (Crawford, Dixon, Jackson, Johnson) have to be on the same page. Any one of these guys can put up points individually, but playing as a team and communicating with each other on the floor will have to come into effect. Not following the game plan and trying to get into a personal scoring battle with the red hot smart led to the embarrassment the first time around.

Secondly, the Tigers have to force Smart to take bad shots. When Butler played him, he was constantly doubled-team and he either forced up a shot or passed the ball to a teammate. As good as he is, he still hit a high percentage of his shots but his touches were limited.

Finally, Memphis has to knock down free throws. They did a good job against LSU, especially late in the second half when it counted the most, but can it continue? For the season, the Tigers are shooting a mediocre 66 percent (101-of-153) from the foul line, which must improve.

For the Cowboys, Smart will have to continue to be the floor general for the team. When he's getting his teammates involved, then his day on the court becomes a lot easier. The defense can't become solely focused on Smart when Phil Forte, Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown handle their fair share of the scoring load.

Second, Smart has to knock down his free throws in crunch time. His mistakes at the line almost cost his team the victory over Butler. Everyone on the planet knows that the ball will be in his hands with the game on the line, so when he gets fouled he must make the Tigers pay.

Lastly, OSU has to get the Memphis big men in early foul trouble. For example, Goodwin picked up two quick fouls against LSU in Friday's game and immediately went to the bench. LSU was able to capitalize on his absence and kept the game close, even taking a lead (38-34) into the second half.

Memphis infamously has yet to manage big wins under fifth year head coach Josh Pastner, who is still looking for his first big regular season win against a top ranked team. His record is currently 0-13.

Sunday will be his second chance this season to remove that stigma from a young coach who by any other measure has been a stunning success.


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