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Memphis is flying under the radar at the right time

APTOPIX UAB Memphis Basketball

Memphis’ Will Barton (5) celebrates after a dunk against UAB during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Mark Weber)


Back in December, Memphis didn’t look anything like a contender for a bid to the NCAA Tournament, let alone the Conference USA title.

After an embarrassing, 70-59 loss at Georgetown in DC on Dec. 22nd, Memphis was sitting at 6-5 in the country and playing such ugly, uninspired basketball that there were people already calling for Josh Pastner’s head. Fast forward three months and, thanks to a 78-66 win over Tulsa on Saturday, Memphis can officially call themselves Conference USA champions.

But the Tigers are so much more than that. This is a team that no one is going to want to play come tournament time. They have size. They have athleticism. Point guard Joe Jackson is playing as well as he has in his Memphis career. Wesley Witherspoon appears to have finally bought back into the concept of ‘team’. Will Barton deserves serious consideration for all-american candidacy.

We talk about underrated players all the time, but I’m not sure there is a player in the country that is more underrated than Barton. After going for 30 points, nine boards, four assists and three steals against Tulsa, Barton is averaging 18.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.9 apg and 1.5 spg on the season. He’s been the one constant for the Tigers all season, even throughout their early season struggles. If Memphis didn’t get off to such a slow start, Barton would be in the discussion for second or third-team all-american honors.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Pastner deserves heavy consideration for National Coach of the Year honors.

Think about where Memphis was when I wrote this article. They’ve lost three games since then by a total of six points and they are heading into the postseason playing their best basketball of the season; they’ve won their last four games by an average of 21.0 ppg and beat UCF, Marshall and Tulsa in the process. And they managed to do all of that while a) Jackson strongly considered leaving the program; b) they lost a future pro in Adonis Thomas to injury; and c) Witherspoon was getting benched.

All that is behind them now. So when Memphis makes it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, don’t say I didn’t try to tell you.