Why Memphis basketball needed to play Tennessee and what can be done to make up for it
NASHVILLE – What now?
The Memphis basketball program is in a state of flux after a pair of positive COVID-19 tests resulted in the cancellation of Saturday's marquee matchup with No. 18 Tennessee and then Tuesday's game against Alabama State.
What kind of effect could it have on the Tigers' season?
Win or lose, Saturday's bout with the Vols was a game Memphis needed to play in order to improve its NCAA Tournament stock. The Tigers were once a top-10 team with a flashy No. 1 recruiting class punctuated by Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren. But after winning their first five games in impressive fashion, the wheels came off for a couple of weeks.
Penny Hardaway's team lost four in a row. Two of its losses were against teams ranked well outside the top 100 in the NCAA's NET rankings. Another was a 2-point home loss to Murray State (No. 38 in the NET).
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Memphis was in need of resumè-boosting opportunities, and it got that on Tuesday with a dominant win over then-No. 8 Alabama. The Tigers, which had dropped to 77th in the NET, vaulted all the way up to 58th after beating the Crimson Tide — which is in range of the NCAA bubble.
But that's not enough by itself to repair the damage done by the four-game losing streak. A win over the Vols (top 10 in the NET) would have been Memphis' third Quadrant 1 win of the season — a key metric in establishing the NCAA's field of 68. The NCAA adopted the quadrant system for the 2017-18 season, and it's designed to measure the quality of a team's wins and losses.
Last season, the Tigers had just one Quad 1 win — a home win over a top-30 NET team, a neutral-site win over a top-50 team or a road win over a top-75 team — and wound up with a No. 1 seed in the National Invitation Tournament instead of an NCAA Tournament berth.
What makes the Tennessee game's cancellation so nerve-wracking is the fact Memphis has so few chances for Quad 1 wins left on its schedule. NET rankings change throughout the season, but as it stands the Tigers have just four regular-season games remaining versus Quad 1 teams: at UCF (No. 45, Jan. 12), at Cincinnati (No. 51, Feb. 3), at Houston (No. 5, Feb. 12) and Houston at FedExForum (March 6).
Although it's unlikely, if UCF and Cincinnati move into the top 30, that gives Memphis two more Quad 1 opportunities. The road game with Wichita State, currently No. 80, on Jan. 1, could also become a shot for a Quad 1 win if the Shockers finish the year inside the top 75.
But, there's no such thing as too many Quad 1 games and, based on Tennessee coach Rick Barnes' comments Saturday, Memphis' game with the Vols won't be rescheduled.
So, is there any room on the Tigers' schedule to add a game against a Quad 1 opponent? Maybe. Memphis does not have a game set from Feb. 13-19, making that the most ideal opening. It also doesn't play from Jan. 28-Feb. 2. If the Tigers can find an opponent, are there any that meet the Quad 1 criteria?
Belmont, currently 36th in the NET, might make the most sense. The Nashville-based program has games on Feb. 12 and Feb. 17, seemingly leaving Feb. 14 or Feb. 15 as possible potential viable dates.
Colorado State could also work. The Rams, who faced Memphis in last season's NIT, are currently No. 27 in the NET and do not have a game scheduled from Feb. 12-18.
Indiana, No. 40 in the NET, might also be a fit. The Hoosiers – coached by Mike Woodson, who was an assistant in the NBA under current Memphis assistant Larry Brown – are off Jan. 30-Feb. 4, making Jan. 31 or Feb. 1 possibilities.
Reach sports writer Jason Munz at email@example.com or on Twitter @munzly.