STILLWATER — Memphis arrives in Stillwater with the nation's No. 11 ranking.
And perhaps the nation's No. 1 backcourt.
“I've heard,” said Oklahoma State guard Markel Brown, “but I guess we'll see who has the best.”
Mark a stripe on Eddie Sutton Court and declare “game on” in what shapes up as a Backcourt Battleground with the Tigers and Cowboys clashing Tuesday night inside Gallagher-Iba Arena. Tip time is 7 (ESPN).
The Memphis guards, five deep and led by 2012-13 Conference USA Player of the Year Joe Jackson, command much praise among national analysts. In a preseason ranking of the nation's top backcourts by CBSSports.com, the Tigers carry the top spot, billed as a versatile group boasting every strength: ball-handling, defense, scoring and shooting.
It's a veteran group, too, with Jackson, defensive whiz Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford all returning seniors, bolstered by Missouri transfer Michael Dixon's arrival as a senior.
“All the magazines do have them ranked the No. 1 backcourt in the country.” said Cowboys coach Travis Ford, “Deservedly so, because they're four seniors. Very, very talented. One fifth-year senior.
“They're an extremely talented, very unselfish backcourt.”
Ditto, most would agree, about the Cowboys.
They've got game, too, enough to come in at No. 3 in that same CBSSports.com ranking, with Brown and Marcus Smart and Phil Forte and Stevie Clark offering all those same qualities as the Tigers.
“It'll be a great matchup,” Smart said. “Between veteran guys on their side and veteran guys on this side that understand the game and know what it takes to win …”
Not to suggest that Memphis forwards Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols won't impact the game, or that OSU's Le'Bryan Nash, Brian Williams and Michael Cobbins aren't in play, but the spotlight clearly focuses on the backcourts.
From the defensive tone to the pace of play — matching strengths and seeking out weaknesses — the game's guards are on full display.
Of course, Smart and Brown remain the face of the No. 7 Cowboys. Forte's long-range shooting has him leading the Cowboys in scoring at 21 points per game, even as a reserve. And Clark, whose speed and quickness might be needed against the Tigers' smaller guards, sets up as a wild card.
Jackson might be one of the nation's best-kept secrets, having toiled in Conference USA before Memphis' move to the American Athletic Conference this season. A year ago, he shot 51.9 percent from the floor, including 44.7 percent from 3-point range. Along with his C-USA Player of the Year nod, he's been the MVP of two conference tournaments.
Johnson is considered a lockdown defender, although he averaged 10.4 points and 3.5 assists last season.
“Like I've been telling everybody, as a competitor this is what you live for, these types of moments right here,” Smart said. “Two good teams going at it, two highly ranked teams so it will be a really good game.”
And likely, a really fast-paced game.
Both teams like to push the pace and apply pressure, promising an entertaining brand of basketball, especially if the college game's new rules deliver on unimpeded play, and not frequent fouls.
“It's going to be fast,” Ford said. “I told our team, ‘You remind me throughout the season if there's a faster team than Memphis.' This will probably be the fastest team we will play and maybe the fastest team in America.”
Not that anyone's opposed to that, particularly on the Cowboys side.
“We're pretty fast,” Ford said. “I'd say we're up there (with the faster teams). We're definitely up there.”
OSU and Memphis are up there in the rankings.
Their backcourts are up there, too.
“This one ranks pretty high for a nonconference game,” Brown said. “You've got the No. 7 team in the Cowboys and the No. 11 in the Tigers. It's a big one.
“It's early November, but it's a good one for both teams to find out who we are.”
And to find out whose backcourt is best.