Tiger coach Josh Pastner has emphasized all winter that there’s no game his team is supposed to win, that particularly in this transition season, no opponent can be overlooked.
The SMU Mustangs shouldn’t necessarily be overlooked, but today’s matinee was a game the Tigers were, indeed, supposed to win. SMU has been among Conference USA’s bottom feeders throughout Matt Doherty’s four seasons as coach. (Doherty entered today’s game with a 42-68 record in Dallas.) Led by Papa Dia (23 points) and Derek Williams (25 points), SMU erased a five-point halftime deficit and beat the Tigers, 70-60, landing perhaps the most damaging blow to date to the U of M chances for reaching the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers’ short rotation caught up with them, as a whistle-happy officiating crew called a total of 27 fouls on the Tigers. (Five Memphis players had three fouls with eight minutes left to play.) Late three-pointers from Elliot Williams and Doneal Mack tightened the final score, but not enough to offset the advantage SMU gained at the free-throw line. The Mustangs hit 33 of 38 from the charity stripe, compared with the Tigers’ 12 of 19. SMU outrebounded the Tigers, 38-28. Only one Tiger pulled down as many as five boards (Roburt Sallie with six).
The loss was the Tigers’ first on the road in C-USA play since March 2, 2006 (at UAB), ending a streak of 27 victories. It’s the first loss to SMU since the Mustangs joined C-USA for the 2005-06 season.
Elliot Williams led the Tigers with 19 points, followed by Sallie with 17 and Mack with 16.
The loss damages the marquee value of the Tigers’ showdown with UAB next Wednesday. The Blazers (18-2, 6-0 in C-USA) take a seven-game winning streak to the floor tonight against UTEP. Memphis (15-6, 5-2) now needs an upset by the Miners to remain a game behind UAB in the C-USA standings.
Big day. The iPad is introduced. The president delivers the state of the union.
And the Tigers earn their biggest win of the season to date, a 75-72 victory at Marshall.
No question, the road win against the Thundering Herd (a team that entered the game with a record of 15-4 and tied with Memphis in C-USA at 4-1) is the most significant notch in Josh Pastner’s belt as a rookie coach.
Following last week’s loss against UTEP at FedExForum, Pastner emphasized a simple reality: “Now that we’ve given one away at home, we have to get one back on the road.”
Thanks to clutch shooting from Roburt Sallie and 24 points from Elliot Williams, the Tigers “got one back.” Sallie drained a pair of free throws with six seconds left after Marshall’s Shaquille Johnson missed two free throws that would have given the home team the lead with nine seconds to play.
Junior center Will Coleman had his best game in weeks, with 12 points and five rebounds off the bench for the Tigers. Memphis recovered after allowing Marshall to go on a 20-7 run to open the second half (the Tigers led at halftime, 36-26).
Next up for the 15-5 Tigers: a trip to SMU this Saturday.
In all likelihood, the four games Memphis plays over the next 11 days will determine the team's chances of receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. (Even if they win all four, a bid is no given. But lose two of these contests, and the chances are nil.)
The Tigers are currently ranked 89th in the RPI. (Their strength-of-schedule ranking: 146.) There are only three Conference USA teams ranked ahead of Memphis. The Tigers face Marshall (65) tomorrow night in Huntington, then host UAB (25) on February 3rd. Then on February 6th, the Tigers host their last non-conference opponent of the regular season, 23rd-ranked Gonzaga. The only break in this four-game stretch is the game at SMU this Saturday.
Tulsa is also ranked ahead of the Tigers (77). Memphis will face the Golden Hurricane on February 13th in Tulsa and March 6th at FedExForum.
Among all the eye-popping numbers the Tiger basketball program has put together over the last few years, I think this one’s my favorite: Memphis has had four winning streaks of at least 15 games (three of them at least 20 games) since the last time they lost two in a row.
The U of M had a nice bounce-back tonight against Houston, putting away any thoughts of the school’s first losing streak in almost five years. Tied at halftime with the Cougars, the Tigers reeled off a 13-2 run to start the second half and never let the margin fall below 10 points again.
It was as well-rounded a performance as the Tigers have enjoyed all season. Sharing the chore of guarding the nation’s leading scorer, Aubrey Coleman, Doneal Mack and Roburt Sallie picked up the scoring slack in the second half when Elliot Williams went to the bench with four fouls and 16 minutes left to play. They combined to drain five three-pointers in the second half, Sallie finishing the game with 20 points and Mack with 17. The tandem dished out nine assists against only one turnover. (As for Coleman, he got his points: 32. But many of them were in traffic and against tight defense, among the reasons Coleman will be wearing an NBA jersey next winter.)
• The Cougars enter tonight’s game with a record of 10-8 (3-2 in Conference USA play). They lead C-USA in scoring (82.7 points per game) but have also given up the most points in the league (76.6). Houston has won each of its road games in C-USA play (at Rice and East Carolina). And they beat UTEP at home on January 13th. Their conference losses came against Tulsa and last Wednesday against UCF.
• Houston’s senior guard Aubrey Coleman has the inside track for C-USA Player of the Year honors. Coleman leads the country in scoring with 25.3 points per game and leads C-USA in steals (3.3). Remarkably, he’s also second on the Cougars in rebounding (7.4). Senior guard Kelvin Lewis is averaging 17.0 points, while junior forward Maurice McNeil is averaging 8.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. Lewis is among the best three-point shooters in the country. (The Tigers’ Elliot Williams is second to Coleman in C-USA scoring.)
• The Tigers have won their last 10 meetings with Houston, including wins in the 2007 and 2009 C-USA tourneys. The Cougars last beat Memphis on February 5, 2005. The most famous Memphis-Houston cat fights came in the NCAA tournament in 1983 and 1984. Each year, a top-five Houston team led by Hakeem Olajuwon beat a top-20 Memphis team led by Keith Lee in the Sweet Sixteen. (And each year, Houston lost in the national championship game.) Overall, Memphis holds a 23-10 lead in the series.
• Alumni of Tufts University don’t get to boast of much in the national sports arena. But as long as Houston coach Tom Penders continues to climb the alltime wins chart, the Jumbos have a source of athletic pride. (Penders coached at Tufts from 1971 to 1974 and won 54 games there.) Having also coached at Columbia, Fordham, Rhode Island, Texas, and George Washington, Penders enters tonight’s game with 639 career victories.
• The last time Memphis lost consecutive games was at the end of the 2004-05 regular season, when the Tigers lost four straight between February 23rd and March 5th.
• Houston is one of five C-USA opponents Memphis will play twice this season (along with Tulsa, SMU, Southern Miss, and UAB).
• The Tigers have been outrebounded in their last three games and five of their last seven.
Knowing I’d miss dinner tonight, one of my daughters slipped a Starburst fruit chew into my coat pocket before I headed downtown to the arena. As sweet as the gesture was, I never should have eaten that candy.
It was orange.
The Tigers’ much-talked-about winning streak in Conference USA play came to an end at the hands of the Miners. This was the first such loss in the careers of seniors Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, and Pierre Henderson-Niles. (Out of character, Mack wouldn’t even talk with the media after the game.) And it was the fifth consecutive home loss the Tigers have suffered at the hands of a team wearing orange. (Though they handled Houston Baptist on January 3rd.)
They may have been wearing orange, but it was a contingent of Memphis friends who pulled off this upset, if it can be called such. UTEP guard Randy Culpepper scored 13 points and Jeremy Williams added 18 points and 12 rebounds to steal the show in their hometown. Miner coach Tony Barbee (a longtime assistant to John Calipari at Memphis) employed a bench that outscored the Tiger reserves 33-10, with Christian Polk draining three of five three-point attempts.
• UTEP enters Wednesday night’s game with a record of 11-5 (2-1 in Conference USA play, a game behind the Tigers). The Miners have lost three of their last four road games, at Ole Miss, Texas Tech, and Houston, but beat Oklahoma (in Oklahoma City) on December 21st. They beat Southern Miss, 56-49, in their last game, Saturday night in El Paso.
• Picked to finish third in C-USA’s preseason media poll, UTEP has beaten Memphis only once in nine meetings. The Miners won in El Paso on December 18, 1971 (Larry Finch’s junior season). The Tigers have won all four games since UTEP joined C-USA in 2005. (The six-point win on February 2, 2008, came during the U of M’s month-long run as the top-ranked team in the country.) Memphis won in El Paso last season, 70-63, behind 25 points from Tyreke Evans.
• There are Memphis connections galore in the Miner program. Coach Tony Barbee spent six years as an assistant on John Calipari’s staff at Memphis before taking over at UTEP in 2006. His record currently stands at 67-50, though he has yet to lead the Miners to the NCAA tournament. Barbee’s assistant, Tony Madlock, played for Memphis and was the point guard for the Tigers’ 1992 Elite Eight team. Another assistant, Milt Wagner, earned his degree at Memphis during his time as an assistant for Calipari.
No fewer than five Miner players hail from the Bluff City. Sophomore forward Arnett Moultrie (12.4 points, 7.1 rebounds) played at Raleigh-Egypt; junior guard Randy Culpepper (16.3 points) played at Sheffield; junior guard Gabriel McCulley played at Craigmont; and both junior guard Myron Strong and junior forward Jeremy Williams (9.8 points, 4.5 rebounds) played at Hamilton.
The Memphis quintet is complemented by Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter, who is averaging 13.6 points and 8.3 rebounds in his first season as a Miner.
• Junior guard Elliot Williams has topped 30 points in each of the Tigers’ last two road games (at Southern Miss and Rice), but has been held under 20 in has last three games at FedExForum (Tennessee, Houston Baptist, East Carolina).
• A victory over UTEP would give Memphis 65 consecutive wins in Conference USA play, which would break the intra-conference record set by Kentucky in the SEC from 1945 to 1950.
I’m a sucker for banners in a basketball arena. Probably started during my college days, when on rare visits to Boston Garden I’d stare up at 16 NBA championship banners. I always felt that was the first ingredient to any home-court advantage the Celtics enjoyed. (Tell that to the Celtic teams of the late Nineties, though.)
If you’re like me, you may have noticed a new banner at FedExForum on December 22nd (the Tigers’ seventh regular-season home game this season). There was no ceremony, no spotlight, no p.a. announcement, but the banner honoring the Tigers’ 2009 Sweet Sixteen team was in place before tip-off against Southeast Missouri State. (Honestly, could the raising of a banner be less ceremonious?)
There was, in fact, a ceremony during this rare Tuesday-afternoon game. And another banner was raised, honoring former Tiger coach Gene Bartow, recently elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame. You can now see Bartow’s banner hanging among the eight retired numbers of Tiger Greats, from Forest Arnold to Penny Hardaway.
But back to that 2009 NCAA tournament banner. This is the 22nd such banner to occupy a spot in the FedExForum rafters, one for every U of M appearance in the Big Dance. There are also 16 NIT banners, which I’ve long argued are excessive. (The equivalent of the Celtics hanging a banner for every division title.) When I’m named athletic director at Memphis, the four NIT banners representing appearances at Madison Square Garden (the event’s “final four”) will remain. So the Tigers have a total of 47 banners — take that, Bill Russell! — celebrating Memphis basketball history. Forty-eight if you count the banner honoring Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier, and Chance McGrady for the most wins in NCAA history (still missing the big number: 137).
It wasn’t exactly Willis Reed limping onto the court at Madison Square Garden before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, but when Wesley Witherspoon returned merely minutes after what appeared could be a season-ending knee injury at Rice tonight, Tiger Nation — starting with coach Josh Pastner — managed to exhale.
With the 80-68 victory, the Tigers improved to 13-4 for the season (3-0 in Conference USA) and earned the program’s 64th consecutive win in conference play, tying Kentucky’s 60-year-old record. (The Tigers will next take the floor Wednesday at FedExForum against UTEP, the first top-tier C-USA team they will have faced. A 65th-straight win is hardly a given.)
While Elliot Williams is unquestionably the Tigers’ most valuable player this season — a week after scoring 33 at Southern Miss, he had 32 tonight at Rice — Witherspoon would be as damaging a loss as any player on the Tiger roster. His height (6’9”) and versatility (Witherspoon can shoot from 15 feet and beyond and defend both guards and forwards) make him the equivalent of two players in one for a team with a rotation only seven deep. The sight of him being helped off the floor in the first half by a pair of Memphis trainers had to tighten Pastner’s throat a bit. Likewise, his return seemed to kickstart the Tigers before halftime. He wound up scoring six points and tying for the team lead with seven rebounds in 30 minutes of play.
• It’s a shame Rice won’t be coming to Memphis this season. I’d love to see Arsalan Kazemi — a native of Iran — play in person. Kazemi scored 15 points (with a few emphatic dunks) and grabbed 11 rebounds against the Tigers tonight. I love the fact an Iranian player is thriving — if only off the national radar — in the home state of George W. Bush. Wonder what Kazemi thinks of the “axis of evil.”
• There’s a fine story in the January 18th issue of Sports Illustrated (by Kelli Anderson) on the impact transfers are having in college basketball this season. Two of the four players profiled — Williams and UTEP’s Derrick Caracter — will face each other Wednesday night in Memphis.
When I interviewed Shawne Williams shortly before his freshman season — the only one he would play — with the Tigers, I was struck by how easily he smiled. The afternoon we chatted at the Finch Center (following a Tiger practice) Williams was adorned in jewelry, a white New York Yankees hat a size too big, and blue jeans that he couldn't quite fill. Whether or not this is an "urban" look, it's certainly the look of youth. And combined with that smile, Williams came across as younger than any college freshman I've met, before or since.
Having been traded by the Dallas Mavericks and waived by the New Jersey Nets, the worst week of Williams' life officially bottomed out today when he turned himself in to Shelby County authorities after being indicted Tuesday on various drug-related charges. One of more than 24 defendants in the Memphis Police Department's "Operation: Lockdown," Williams has jail time ahead, it would appear.
How quickly Williams fell. Part of the finest freshman class Memphis has seen in years (if not ever), Williams was the 2006 Conference USA Freshman of the Year (an honor he earned over teammates Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, and Robert Dozier). He was named MVP of the 2006 C-USA tournament at FedExForum, and was integral to the Tigers' 33-4 season and a trip to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. Blessed with an ability to shoot in traffic, run the floor, and defend big guards and small forwards, Williams had a little Scottie Pippen in him. Only with a smile — and wardrobe — that made him seem much, much younger. He was selected by the Indiana Pacers with the 17th pick in the 2006 NBA draft. Larry Bird saw something in Williams, too.
Now? Like the previous paragraph, Williams' basketball career will be spoken of in the past tense, with him still well shy of his 30th birthday. The hope, of course, must be for redemption, that Williams can find a way to eliminate the influences that have interrupted his professional basketball career. That he might find his way back to the NBA, a journey that has been shown to be challenging for other star Tiger freshmen recruited by former coach John Calipari. (Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans are on their way to fame, but where are you, Dajuan Wagner, Sean Banks, Darius Washingon?)
Williams was a Tiger basketball fan before he ever suited up at FedExForum. His favorite player as a child was Mingo Johnson, the three-point artist from the mid-Nineties. Williams liked the way a three-pointer always brought the crowd to its feet, "raised the roof." Williams, as it turned out, had more talent than Johnson on his finest day. And he brought Tiger fans to their feet aplenty.
Sad to see his mug shot today. He looks considerably older than I remember.
Coach Josh Pastner described his team’s first half as “lackluster.” The Tigers were outrebounded for the second straight game, this time 33-32 by one of Conference USA’s bottom-feeders, East Carolina. The U of M’s top scorer, Elliot Williams, was held 11 points under his season average. And the Tigers had no one grab more than five rebounds or dish out more than three assists.
Swallow all that, and consider Memphis won the game by 20 points. The much-talked-about streak in C-USA play is now at 63, one shy of the record Kentucky set in the SEC between 1945 and 1950. (The Tigers — now 12-4 — can tie the record Saturday night, when they play at Rice.)
After leading by only seven (33-26) at halftime, the Tigers opened the second half on a 15-3 spurt that allowed them to coast for the last 15 minutes. Barely two minutes after halftime, senior Doneal Mack drained a three-pointer to become the 46th Tiger to reach 1,000 for his career.
• The Pirates enter Wednesday’s game with a record of 6-10 and 0-2 in C-USA play (losses to UAB and Marshall). ECU hasn’t fared well against major-conference competition, losing by 31 to Wake Forest and 39 to Tennessee. Their top scorer is junior guard Brock Young (16.1 ppg). Three other Pirates average double figures in the scoring column: forwards Darrius Morrow and Jamar Abrams, and guard Jontae Sherrod.
• The Tigers and Pirates have played seven times, with the U of M winning every game. The closest contests came in 2004 and 2005, when the Tigers won each time by six points. In last year’s game (in Greenville), Willie Kemp hit three treys in the 85-64 victory. Abrams led the Pirates with 18 points.
• A victory tonight for Memphis would be the Tigers’ 51st consecutive regular-season win in C-USA play. The streak would surpass UCLA’s record of 50 straight regular-season wins (in the Pac 8) from 1970 to 1974. Including postseason games, a win would be the 63rd straight for the Tigers, one shy of Kentucky’s record in the SEC (1945-50).
• Currently ranked 101st in the RPI index, the Tigers won’t gain much by beating ECU (156) at home. The RPI rankings of the Tigers’ next three opponents: Rice (260), UTEP (137), Houston (144).
• With eight points, Doneal Mack will become the 46th Tiger to score 1,000 in his career. If Mack continues to average 10 points a game, he has a shot at catching Vincent Askew (1,171, 27th) or even Marcus Moody (1,208, 24th) on the all-time Tiger scoring chart.
There are ugly wins, and then there’s the Jackson Pollock the Tigers put up tonight in Hattiesburg. Fitting, I suppose, for a rivalry that in football terms has been called “Black and Blue.” Some thoughts:
• Sometimes halftime can be terribly inconvenient. Elliot Williams erased memories of a certain missed dunk by drilling seven three-pointers in the first half — seven treys in 20 minutes — to stake the Tigers to a 41-26 halftime lead. I was surprised to see Josh Pastner shake up his starting lineup by sitting point guard Willie Kemp to make room for Wesley Witherspoon. But in doing so, the Tiger offense had to go through Williams, and his shot was all they needed in the first half. (By the way, the only player to make more than seven three-pointers in an entire game for Memphis is Roburt Sallie, who dropped ten in the Tigers’ opening-round win of last season’s NCAA tournament. His eight for the game are a Tiger regular-season record.)
Great to see Kemp drain those game-winning free throws, even with his minutes reduced to 17.
• The tandem of Pierre Henderson-Niles and Will Coleman in the pivot for Memphis is baffling. The only true big men Pastner can turn to, the pair tonight combined for 10 rebounds (PHN played 24 minutes, Coleman 23). Southern Miss outrebounded Memphis, 32-26, making this only the second game the Tigers have won this season after losing the rebound battle.
Just as troubling as the inability of PHN and Coleman to control the boards is the fact they combined for exactly two field-goal attempts. There is simply no interior presence to the Tigers’ offense. PHN’s hands aren’t exactly soft, and Coleman’s game is, well, unrefined. Makes an opposing team’s decision to double-team perimeter threats an easy one.
• Where is Doneal Mack? Facing two teams that played lots of zone, Mack missed 10 of 12 shots against Syracuse and nine of 10 tonight. With an eight- or nine-man rotation, a basketball team can hide a cold shooter. But for this year’s Tiger squad, Mack and Sallie — when unable to score from long-distance — are that sore pimple squarely in the middle of their team’s forehead.
• I’ve seen enough of D.J. Stephens’ leaping ability to grow convinced he should play 10 to 15 minutes a game for two elements he brings: shot-blocking ability and offensive rebounding. He’s good for at least one “surprise” block a game when a shooter simply underestimates his hops. And he’ll attack the glass on the offensive end in a way I haven’t seen from the big boys yet.
The Tigers will open conference play tomorrow night at Southern Miss with a 61-game winning streak in Conference USA play. Considering their last C-USA loss came on March 2, 2006 (at UAB), the U of M has built some lengthy streaks against their league brethren. Here's a breakdown of the current streak the Tigers are enjoying against each of their 11 C-USA rivals. (Keep in mind that some of these winning streaks began prior to the 2005-06 season.)
• Tulane - 17 games
• Southern Miss - 12
• Tulsa - 10
• Houston - 10
• SMU - 8
• UAB - 7
• UCF - 7
• East Carolina - 7
• UTEP - 6
• Marshall - 6
• Rice - 6
Here’s a three-step program for college basketball misery:
1) Decide on a rotation of seven players.
2) Start four guards.
3) Visit a Big East team that lost its last game in early January.
As they did for 40 minutes against Kansas in November, the Tigers played a top-10 team tough tonight, if only for the first 20 minutes. Four first-half treys from Roburt Sallie, combined with some sloppy inside play by Syracuse’s big men, had the score tied at halftime, 32-32.
But when the Orange’s Andy Rautins started the second half the same way he ended the first — draining a triple — Memphis had its fate sealed. The seventh-ranked Orange outscored the Tigers 42-25 over the final 20 minutes, making Elliot Williams’ missed dunk — that would have drawn the Tigers within a point with 14 minutes to play — merely an embarrassing scratch from a street fight won by unanimous decision.
You have to hope the legacy of the 2009-10 Tigers won’t be playing above themselves against top-tier opponents . . . only to lose. They’ll open Conference USA play Saturday at Southern Miss with precisely zero big wins this season. (Sad truth: the biggest victory the U of M can claim is their win over Oakland, currently 59th in the RPI rankings.) The Tigers entered tonight’s game ranked 134 in the RPI (out of 347 Division I teams). The only C-USA teams in the RPI’s top 100 are UAB (21), Marshall (39), and Tulsa (79), and each of those teams’ ranking will drop when conference play begins. The Tigers’ lone remaining chance for an RPI booster will be their game against Gonzaga (currently 17th) on February 6th at FedExForum.
NCAA tournament? Memphis will likely have to win its fifth straight Conference USA championship. (A tournament title would bring an automatic bid.) More than three losses in C-USA will mean NIT time for this bunch.
• I could listen to Hall of Famer Bob Knight all season long. Unlike his buddy Dick Vitale, Knight actually teaches basketball as he analyzes (imagine that, with 900 wins under his belt).
When facing a zone defense, “Never pass the ball in the direction you’re dribbling.” Elementary, and profound.
“The back line of a zone must know what’s behind it.” Pay attention, kids, when Coach Knight is calling a game.