There was nothing automatic about tonight's Opening Night win over the Southwestern Athletic Conference's favorite Tigers. It may have been a life-changer for rookie head coach Josh Pastner — "I'm only 799 behind Jim Boeheim," he cracked after the game — but it was no automatic win. With seven scholarship players in his rotation, and only two players you'd classify as "big men," Pastner will count the wins from his first season in the big chair like a 2008 stock broker counted his coins. None taken for granted, and every last one counts.
After jumping out to a 17-6 lead, the U of M went four minutes without scoring — allowing JSU to close within two — before putting 14 on the board in the next three. Sophomore guard Elliot Williams (making his Tiger debut after a freshman season at Duke) drilled two three-pointers in the spurt, on his way to leading Memphis with 19 points for the game. Jackson State started the second half on an 11-3 run to make things interesting again, only to watch Williams and another Memphis rookie — juco transfer Will Coleman — impose themselves in such a way that the final score did seem to fall in line with recent lid-lifters against the likes of Savannah State, UT-Martin, and Fairfield. A huge disparity in free throws — Memphis made 30 of 48 while JSU hit 7 of 13 — reflected the push-it-to-the-rim offense Pastner is urging out of his undersized team.
"We can't afford lapses," said Pastner after the game. "It can't be 28 minutes, 32 minutes . . . it's gotta be 40 minutes." The challenge, though, is maintaining a lapse-free, frenetic pace that can hide the team's lack of size, with a bench not deep enough for many reinforcements. "It's going to be a fine line," added the coach. "Conditioning, while also staying fresh — physically and mentally — with our lack of numbers."
Among the "numbers" who mattered Friday night were a pair of holdovers from last season's 33-4 squad. Senior point guard Willie Kemp played 33 minutes (after averaging 13 each of the last two seasons) and sophomore Wesley Witherspoon did the Penny Hardaway impression Tiger fans thirst for, blocking a dunk attempt on defense and pushing the ball up the court on offense as Pastner's point-forward on the fast break. Limited to 20 minutes because of foul trouble, Witherspoon scored 13 points.
Coleman and Pierre Henderson-Niles — the only real frontcourt muscle this team can call upon — combined to play 39 minutes, each picking up only a single foul. Coleman's line (16 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocked shots) would make a coach smile even if he weren't already known for his dimples. "I've never, ever dreamed of playing in front of that many people [17,584]," said Coleman. "It feels good to be a spark plug, to get a big dunk and get my team going, get the crowd going."
• I asked Williams after the game how Opening Night at FedExForum compares with what he experienced at hallowed Cameron Indoor in Durham. "It's different, this being my hometown, so it was an emotional moment for me," he said. "They were both exciting. I get nervous before every game, but once the ball goes up, it's basketball. I was okay."