After making exactly one-third of its shots in an embarrassing home loss to Cincinnati last Saturday, No. 24 Memphis needed to come out and play more efficient offense against No. 12 Louisville. Behind Shaq Goodwin and Joe Jackson, the Tigers did just that in a huge 63-57 win over the defending national champions. They also picked up what could prove to be a key victory in the American Athletic Conference.
Memphis shot 28-for-55 from the floor, making nearly 51-percent of its shots in the win. The Tigers bounced back from that dreadful performance against Cincinnati thanks in large part to getting Goodwin, their second-leading scorer, more involved. He had just five attempts in 35 minutes in the loss to the Bearcats, despite the fact that he knocks down 66.3-percent of his shots. He got 10 attempts on Tuesday, making six of them and pouring in a team-high 15 points. When Montrezl Harrell slammed home a vicious dunk to give Louisville a five-point lead with 3:50 left, Memphis went right to Goodwin for a dunk of his own. A minute-and-a-half later, he made two free throws to put the Tigers back in front.
While Josh Pastner was understandably disappointed with his team's play at home against the Bearcats, Mick Cronin's bunch has risen to the top of the AAC on the back of its defense, which ranks fifth in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defense rankings. Louisville is no slouch, either, coming in at 14th, but the Tigers had a sounder gameplan at the KFC Yum! Center on Tuesday.
Furthermore, in a conference that features a true round robin schedule with each team playing a home-and-home with every opponent, getting a win on the road against one of the top teams in the league will go a long way toward driving Memphis to a potential conference championship. Connecticut is 0-2 in the conference after dropping road games to Houston and Southern Methodist, making the AAC look like a three-horse race at this early juncture. Getting the 1-seed in the conference tournament and avoiding the 2-3 showdown could make a big difference when the Selection Committee sits down on that fateful Sunday two months from now. With the win at Louisville, Memphis did itself a huge favor.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, remain a team without a signature win that has failed in each of its tests this season. They boast exactly one win over a team ranked in the top 100 overall at kenpom.com, No. 50 Southern Miss. Once again, the team struggled to get consistent offense when one of its leading scorers, Russ Smith or Chris Jones, faltered. This time it was Jones, who shot just 1-9, missed all three of his attempts from long distance, and turned the ball over three times. Smith ended up scoring 19 points, but was 6-15 from the floor, including 1-6 in the first half.
Louisville has struggled to find a third scorer to go alongside Smith and Jones all season. It wasn't just that weakness that became even more acute when the team dismissed Chane Behanan late last month. The team's interior defense also took a hit, a fact which showed up on Tuesday. In addition to Goodwin's 15 points on 6-10 shooting, Memphis forward Austin Nichols went 5-7 for 10 points. Stephan Van Treese had two blocks in 31 minutes, but he grabbed just five rebounds and does not look to be anywhere near the presence Behanan was in the paint. The one silver lining for Louisville was the apparent return to form for Luke Hancock, last year's Final Four Most Outstanding Player. He dealt with an Achilles injury during the preseason, and while it only forced him to miss one game, he clearly still felt the effects of it for most of the non-conference slate. On Tuesday, he played a season-high 30 minutes and provided some much-needed scoring punch in the first half. He entered the game about halfway through the opening stanza and dropped 12 points in fewer than four minutes. Hancock, the team's best outside-shooting threat, can be the scorer the Cardinals need and can help to stretch the floor, which should create more space for Smith and Jones.