Moments after notching a hotly contested 60-58 win against pesky Southern Miss on Wednesday, University of Memphis coach Josh Pastner used his post-game radio show as a vehicle to vent some pent-up frustration.
Pastner, who’s almost never been flustered enough to call someone out publicly, challenged anybody that’s recently affronted Conference USA and its overall collection of talent outside of Memphis.
Those people are living in 2005, Pastner said, and they don’t know basketball.
And one day later, his stance in regards to C-USA hadn’t softened a bit.
“There’s a lot of people who think C-USA teams really aren’t that good, and it’s wrong,” Pastner said. “It’s the wrong attitude. It’s the wrong perception. The perception of (the league) is what it was 7 or 8 years ago.”
This season, the Tigers have gotten off to a solid 2-0 start in conference play with hard-fought wins at UAB and at home against the Golden Eagles. But even though the Tigers played a daunting non-conference schedule that featured two games against Georgetown, the Tigers’ best win — statistically, at least — came Wednesday against the Golden Eagles, who entered the game with a Top 15 RPI.
Pastner said he doesn’t feel like his team got enough credit for pulling out those victories, partly because the local and national perceptions of the league are so downbeat.
“(That perception) hurts everything,” Pastner said. “It’s like if you win a game in C-USA, well, you’re supposed to win. If you lose a game in C-USA, the earth is back to being flat. That’s how it is. That’s literally how it is, so your margin of error is zero.”
With the Tigers’ strenuous non-conference slates in recent years, C-USA hasn’t historically prevented Memphis from receiving a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament. But the problem, Pastner said, is that conference victories, even against the toughest teams, have equated to almost nothing for the Tigers, while losses within the league can decimate their entire resume.
At 11-5, the Tigers currently have a 33 RPI.
“You win a game on the road — like beating UAB at UAB on the road — that’s a good win,” Pastner said. “Well, you don’t get really credit for that. That’s my whole thing. Beating Southern Miss — my number one thing is, anybody can beat anybody on any given night.”
Last season, the senior-laden conference was one of three to boast six teams with Top 66 RPIs. C-USA ultimately sent just two teams to the NCAA tournament: Memphis as an automatic bid and UAB as a play-in.
The Tigers, who went 10-6 in the conference last season, snuck in as a 12-seed after an epic 67-66 win against UTEP in El Paso in the C-USA tournament championship.
“No one wants to talk about C-USA,” Pastner said. “Our league was top five in the country. We didn’t get any credit for our league. We should’ve had three teams in.”
According to WarrenNolan.com, C-USA ranks 10th out of 33 leagues with an RPI of .542. With a non-conference record of 90-59, the league has more wins and a better winning percentage than the Pac-12, but is ranked one spot lower in the site’s ratings.
Marshall beat a Cincinnati team on Nov. 25 that’s now 13-4 overall and 3-1 in the Big East. Central Florida knocked off then-No. 4 Connecticut on a neutral floor the same day.
The league also ranks behind the Mountain West, Atlantic-10, and Missouri Valley conferences.
“We’re better than a lot of these other leagues,” Pastner said. “But because of the perception of the league (being) what it was four or five, six years ago, when Memphis went through it — because of Memphis’ dominance, it made everybody else have to force to get better. And that’s what they’ve done.”
The truth of the matter is that, even though C-USA has improved in the last few years, the Tigers’ six losses within the conference last season were excessive considering their sheer ability.
Sophomore forward Tarik Black said he didn‘t expect to take as many losses in conference play last season, but he has a hard time believing any other good team in the nation wouldn‘t have its struggles, too.
“If some of these other great teams that get all the accolades came to our conference, they wouldn’t be going through our conference just like people expect us to,” Black said. “They wouldn’t be going through it. It’d be a rough season for them too, rough in-conference schedule, and they’d have to fight their way out of it just like we do.”
But on some level, there’s a lingering sense of entitlement within the fan base that stems from the three-year span from 2006-2009 in which the Tigers went undefeated in league play, a run that will most likely never be duplicated, not just in C-USA but any league in the nation.
“It just gets such a bad rap that it’s just unfortunate,” Pastner said. “People don’t understand. Maybe I’m looking at it as the glass is overflowing, but that’s gonna be my outlook. Every league game is tough.”
While the middle-to-lower rungs of the conference are hardly vaunted, the top four teams in the league — Central Florida, Marshall, Memphis, and Southern Miss — are certainly capable enough to win a game or perhaps more in the NCAA tournament.
But until they do that, Pastner said, the league will most likely continue to be discounted and overlooked — and he‘ll remain at the vanguard of C-USA’s cause.
“C-USA gets zero appreciation,” he said. “If you win a C-USA game, you should get tons of credit. If you lose, it shouldn’t be the end of the world. Perception hasn't caught up with reality. All I can do is continue to try to promote it and help educate about our league.”