The Memphis Tigers raised the lid on the 2008-09 basketball season Saturday night with a 90-63 victory over Fairfield (a team expected to contend in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) at FedExForum. As with any opening night, the game was packaged with first impressions. Some of these are worth noting -- and pocketing -- for the four months ahead.
Seniors Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozer are the decorated leaders of this team, and freshman Tyreke Evans will steal many of the headlines with his ability to score, but if you want to trace the arc of the season ahead, you'd do well to follow the progress of juniors Willie Kemp and Shawn Taggart.
Back in the starting lineup after a one-year apprenticeship under Derrick Rose, Kemp played 20 minutes Saturday night (after averaging under 14 as a sophomore). He dished out five assists (with only one turnover) and picked up four steals. As for Taggart, the Tigers' starting center played 26 minutes (after averaging 17 a year ago), scoring 14 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
Elevated play from Kemp and Taggart will raise the Memphis ship in ways the more known variables can't. Particularly on defense, Taggart will combine with Pierre Henderson-Niles as a tandem replacement for Joey Dorsey in the pivot. Henderson-Niles wasn't as active on the boards against Fairfield as he'll need to be (only two rebounds), but he ran the floor better than he ever has, at one point putting a charge into the crowd by sprinting back to deflect a fullcourt pass that might have otherwise been an easy Stag layup.
"Shawn's longer than I am," noted Henderson-Niles. "He blocks shots, but I'm stronger on the inside. We just have to work together, doing what we do. I think we can hold it down." weighing in at 300 pounds, Henderson-Niles says he has three more to lose in an effort to reach the preseason goal established by Tiger coach John Calipari.
"For Shawn and Pierre," emphasized Calipari after the game, "it's about sustaining the effort for 40 minutes [between them]."
The most anticipated debut of the evening was that of Tiger swingman Evans, this year's "freshman phenom." Having missed 10 of 12 workouts (including the team's only exhibition game) with an ankle injury and stomach ailment, Evans rose from the bench three minutes into the game and was welcomed to the floor by a roar from the 17,741 in attendance. For the record, Evans' first Tiger points came on a slashing layup a minute-and-a-half later, following a fastbreak feed from Antonio Anderson.
Evans went on to lead Memphis with 19 points in 24 minutes of action. But it was a quiet 19, with nary a dunk or three-pointer. Particularly near the basket, Evans showed an acumen for finishing, converting seven of 12 field-goal attempts (and five of seven from the free-throw stripe). His endurance was compromised by the recent time away, with cramps forcing him to the bench at one point in the second half. Calipari explained after the game that he brought Evans off the bench because he was convinced he'd exhaust himself if exposed to the quick pace of a game's start.
Look for Evans to be in the starting lineup in the very near future, with closer to 30 minutes on his postgame stat line. In size, appearance, and scoring ability, Evans calls to mind Bernard King, the former Tennessee All-America who had a long and successful career as a scorer in the NBA.
I asked Kemp and Henderson-Niles about the impact of the new three-point line (a foot deeper than it was a year ago), and if the extension might actually help the Tigers' motion offense, as zone defenses -- like the one played by Fairfield -- might have to stretch further to contest Memphis shooters. While Kemp emphasized that this will be the case only if shooters are on target, Henderson-Niles added some perspective from the interior. "We have great shooters," he said, "so if defenses pressure them, it opens the middle. They can flash to the middle, or it could leave the lane wide open and they can dump the ball off to a big man."
Sophomore guard Roburt Sallie -- a rookie in the Tiger program - drained two three-pointers early in the second half. If he can complement the long-distance shooting of Kemp, Anderson, Evans, and Doneal Mack (three treys Saturday night), the Tigers may well embrace that extra foot for the interior elbow room it ultimately provides.