Several people have asked my opinion on last week's NCAA rejection of the U of M appeal for reduced sanctions in the Derrick Rose/SAT affair. It's ugly, it's painful . . . but it should be no surprise, particularly to those (like most of Tiger Nation) who follow college basketball closely. I wrote an essay last November for Memphis magazine in which I propose a solution. Until college presidents are honest with themselves about the role big-time hoops play on campus, why should any of us expect honesty from the players and coaches who benefit most from the current system?
This is the fifth in a five-part review of the 2009-10 Tiger basketball season.
• SUNNY SIDE UP
“In my view, we’re not supposed to win any games. We’re going to have to earn what we get. We are not a team that’s going to come in and overbear teams. We’re gonna have to fight, kick, scratch. We have to come to play. I told our guys, you better have your egos in check. You better stay humble. There are no “supposed to” wins. We will have to play a nearly perfect game, night in and night out.” — Josh Pastner, November 20, 2009
He walks, talks, acts, even seems to breathe optimism. On opening night last November, when Tiger fans were first presented the team’s video intro, their first glimpse of new coach Josh Pastner came as a basketball slowly rotated forward — to the theme of “2001 A Space Odyssey” — and Pastner’s head slowly appeared, as if over a horizon. And the rest of the season, this image brought thunderous applause, from courtside to the nosebleeds at FedExForum.
However many headlines John Calipari made as Tiger coach for nine years, none was for optimism. Even as he won 137 games over his last four years in Memphis, Calipari did so against the perception that the national media — and sometimes, the local media — was clouding the program with negativity, giving voice to “the miserables” as they thirsted for a basketball program both successful and pure.
Now you have Pastner, thanking everyone not named Josh Pastner for making the Memphis program a success. Two things you can count on in a Pastner press conference: the team just beaten — or the next team on the schedule — is “well-coached” and the victory is a real credit to his players and assistant coaches. (I had my recorder in front of Calipari for nine years and never heard him so much as mention an assistant’s name.)
In coaching terms, Pastner remains a kid. He’ll turn 33 in September. But next November, he’ll lead the top-ranked recruiting class in the country to battle as a “veteran coach.” There will be a new dynamic, in that every observer — including national and local media — will have something to compare him with. If any coach in America had a free pass for the 2009-10 season, it was The Kid Who Picked Up the Pieces After Coach Cal Left. Not only did Pastner pick up the pieces, but he built a team that seemed to reflect the scrappiness he holds in such high regard. With a 24-win season now under his belt — and Joe Jackson, Will Barton, and Jelan Kendrick on their way — Pastner can take the program he’s already made his own back to a place his predecessor came to take for granted.
The 2009-10 Tigers needed more offense from their big men. They needed to knock off a top-20 team. They had precious little depth and were rescued by the transfer home of Elliot Williams. But the story of this Tiger season — the one we’ll reflect upon over the years and decades ahead — will be the dawn of the Josh Pastner Era. Rising gently over the horizon of that metaphorical basketball . . . .
This is the fourth in a five-part recap of the 2009-10 Tiger basketball season.
• ELLIOT PHONES HOME
He may be only the second best Elliot to suit up for the Tigers, but the graduate of St. George’s absolutely rescued this team by transferring from Duke before his sophomore season. No one wants to benefit at the expense of a person’s health, but it’s hard to imagine where the 2009-10 Tigers would have gone had Williams’ mother not been diagnosed with cancer, had Williams not decided to come home to be near her. With a compassionate waiver of the NCAA’s transfer rules, Williams was immediately eligible to suit up for Josh Pastner. He wasted little time in making the team his own.
After scoring 19 points in his Memphis debut, Williams scored at least 20 in his next seven games, the longest such streak since Penny Hardaway did so in 12 straight during his All-America season of 1992-93. Had his jump shot at the buzzer against Kansas fallen on November 17th, the season would have been different for both programs. Instead, Williams had one of the finest seasons in Tiger history . . . slightly off the radar of the national media. He finished second in C-USA in scoring, averaging 17.9 points per game. His 610 points are second only to that other Elliot (Perry) among sophomores in Tiger history.
Williams scored 33 points in a narrow win at Southern Miss in early January and, two games later, lit up Rice for 32. He became an able distributor as well, dishing out at least six assists in six games. Simply put, he was the steadiest Tiger and the only one to start all 34 games. If there’s a blemish on his season — his shooting fell off over the season’s last three weeks — it’s likely due to Williams shouldering a larger load than a player of his size and experience should be expected to. As Doneal Mack and Roburt Sallie had their own shooting struggles, teams figured out that the first step to knocking off Memphis was bottling up its top scorer. Had Williams not been one of nine from the field in the C-USA quarterfinals against Houston, the one-point loss almost certainly would have turned the Tigers’ way.
After the U of M’s season-ending loss to Ole Miss in the NIT, Williams indicated he’ll be back for the 2010-11 campaign. Adding the likes of Joe Jackson, Will Barton, and Jelan Kendrick —heralded recruits on their way to Memphis — around Williams would create a match-up nightmare for Tiger opponents. (It’s hard to imagine all four of these scorers slumping together.) DraftExpress.com currently projects Williams as a late first-round pick in the 2010 NBA draft. Whether or not his mother’s health concerns play a role, Williams will certainly consider the guaranteed money that would come should he indeed be a top-30 draft pick this summer.
Williams came home having built a reputation as a defensive stopper during his freshman season at Duke. (He started 12 games for the Blue Devils in 2008-09.) And it was the humility he seemed to retain as he became a scoring force that made the biggest impression on me. After scoring 23 against Tennessee Tech in his third game as a Tiger, I asked Williams about the role, and how he might adapt. “I wouldn’t say we have a go-to guy,” he said. “We’re just taking what we’re given. I had a good game, because I was out on the break a lot, and finished well.”
Here’s hoping for a smooth and complete recovery for Delois Williams. And here’s hoping we see her son as a junior next season.
This is the third in a five-part recap of the 2009-10 Tiger basketball season.
• BACKUP PLAN?
The 2008-09 Tigers featured nine players who played at least 400 minutes for the season (averaging at least 12 a game), with five players logging as many as 700 minutes. This year, the Tigers had only seven players on the floor for 400 minutes, but six of them passed the 700-minute threshold. This was a thin, at times overworked roster that relied on exactly seven scholarship players (essentially trading Angel Garcia for the dismissed Pierre Henderson-Niles in February).
The short bench added an ironic twist to Josh Pastner’s first season as head coach. In some respects, his job was made easier by the lack of impact players available to substitute. When you’re down to seven scholarship players, there’s little head-scratching left to do when it comes to managing your rotation. Pierre Henderson-Niles picks up two fouls? In goes Will Coleman. Doneal Mack having an off night? Try Roburt Sallie. And that was about it. D.J. Stephens was a fun player to watch, every one of his 261 minutes on the floor. But “energy guys” are labeled such for a reason. Garcia returned ahead of schedule and proved to be a boon to the Tiger offense, but his minutes simply replaced those previously given to Henderson-Niles.
The biggest “What if?” of the 2009-10 season will be “What if Garcia had been healthy all season?” His size defensively and his long-range shooting touch would have been assets. Imagine Garcia getting hot from beyond the reach of Syracuse’s zone.
If Elliot Williams returns along with Sallie, Garcia, Witherspoon, and Coleman, the challenge for Pastner next season won’t be a lack of depth, but a lack of minutes to distribute. Presuming members of next year’s freshman class all qualify academically, there will be at least 11 players vying for extended playing time, fighting to be the kind of impact player — whether starting or off the bench — that D.J. Stephens is unlikely to become.
One man’s (somewhat premature) look at a starting lineup and rotation for next November:
Joe Jackson, Will Barton, and Elliot Williams starting in the backcourt, with Wesley Witherspoon and Will Coleman down low. Off the bench: Jelan Kendrick (could play the wing, in place of Barton, Williams, or Witherspoon), Tarik Black, Garcia, and Sallie. That’s nine players without a mention of Chris Crawford, yet another top-100 recruit on the way. That’s depth.
This is the second in a five-part review of the 2009-10 Tiger basketball season.
• THE ELUSIVE BIG W
There’s no getting over this blemish on the Tigers’ performance this season. However close that Elliot Williams jumper at the buzzer in St. Louis may have been, the Tigers didn’t beat Kansas, and they didn’t beat Tennessee, and they didn’t beat Syracuse. Sure, these were monster contests: Kansas and Syracuse each spent time atop the national polls and Tennessee finds itself playing in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. But Memphis needed to claim an upset somewhere among these titans to shed the “big fish in small C-USA” label the program gets every winter. You can be sure the NCAA selection committee noticed the scar on the Memphis schedule. (The Tigers received at least a number-two seed in the previous four NCAA tournaments, and this had more to do with the way they handled foes like Kentucky, Georgetown, and Connecticut than with any undefeated C-USA run.)
You have to go back 21 years — to the 1988-89 season — to find a Tiger team that didn’t knock off at least one team from the ACC, SEC, Big East, Big 10, Pac 10, or Big 12. The opening-round victory over St. John’s in the NIT, of course, will keep Elliot Perry’s sophomore season in the record book for a dubious non-achievement. (That team actually made the NCAA tournament despite losses to Michigan, Missouri, Washington, and Tennessee.) But a solitary upset this winter over the Jayhawks, Vols, or Orange would have punched the Tigers’ ticket to the Big Dance.
There’s another important reason Memphis needs to win games against power-conference teams: they’re auditioning. Conferences are sure to realign in the decade ahead, some expanding, others perhaps shuffling programs to find the right regional — and revenue-generating — mix. The possibility of the Tiger program moving to the Big East has been discussed at least since former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese was hired by U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson to advise on possibilities. With every win over a major program, the Tigers enhance their curb value to the decision-makers among the big six. At the very least, they need to beat the Big East’s 13th-place team. So in that sense, mission accomplished.
This is the first in a five-part review of the 2009-10 Tiger basketball season.
A HOLE IN THE MIDDLE
Not since Chris Massie in 2003 have the Tigers been able to suit up a low-post scoring presence. (Joey Dorsey managed to play in 149 games — the second most in Tiger history — without reaching the 1,000-point plateau.) Shawn Taggart averaged 10.4 points a game in 2008-09, but was better suited to the power forward position.
This season, though, that offensive vacuum at the center position became especially evident. Pierre Henderson-Niles played in 23 games before being dismissed from the team in early February, and reached double figures but four times. (He scored more than 11 points only once.) Will Coleman, like Dorsey, is built for the part, but not until March arrived did he become the kind of presence that might force an opponent to sag into the middle. In 34 games, Coleman scored as many as10 points eight times, and four of those performances came this month.
Considering the Tigers won 24 games with an offense driven by long-distance shooting and Elliot Williams’ ability to get inside, it’s scary to consider what this team may have been with an inside threat. Had opponents been forced into a zone more often, Doneal Mack and Roburt Sallie would have had that much more elbow room from beyond the arc.
The Tiger offense was an outside-in attack this season. In their 10 losses, the center position (for seven of those games Henderson-Niles and Coleman, the last three Coleman alone) averaged 8.8 points. Particularly in a league like Conference USA — hardly known for its bruising or size — 8.8 points per game from your big men simply won’t cut it.
But there’s reason for hope. Over his last four games, Coleman averaged 13.5 points and 10.7 rebounds. If 6’11” Angel Garcia returns healthy for the 2010-11 campaign, he’ll boost the interior attack by himself (as long as he doesn’t fall in love with his long-distance shooting, which should be a complementary weapon in his arsenal). Then there’s Tarik Black. Ranked as the seventh-best prep center in the country by Rivals.com, Black is a more developed offensive player than Henderson-Niles . . . as a senior at Ridgeway High School. Nothing like a little competition for playing time to raise the intensity level at the center position. You can bet coach Josh Pastner will be looking at this trio’s ability to “score the ball” as his predecessor often emphasized.
The recipe for beating the Tigers this season was never complicated. Bottle up Elliot Williams and the Tigers' offense was minus its sharpest claws. The Houston Cougars figured it out, holding the Tigers' top scorer to 3-for-18 shooting in two late-season upsets. And tonight at the Tad Pad in Oxford, the Ole Miss Rebels pulled the same trick. Williams had exactly one field goal in the game's first 35 minutes. Despite another stellar game from Will Coleman (15 points and 14 rebounds), Memphis didn't have enough to keep pace with Terrico White, Chris Warren and friends. The Rebels' 90-81 win means they'll host a third-round game against the winner of Texas Tech and Jacksonville.
The Tigers pulled within three (50-47) after an 8-0 run eight minutes into the second half. (The run was aided by an overlooked shot-clock violation that resulted in a three-point play by Wesley Witherspoon.) But a combination of long-distance marksmanship from White (21 points) and Zach Graham (19) and a pair of alley-oop dunks within a minute of play (by White and Murphy Holloway) extended the Ole Miss lead to 64-51 with seven minutes to play. A pair of late treys by Williams and Doneal Mack closed the deficit to eight points, but Memphis was forced to foul over the last two minutes of the game. Six of the seven Tigers who played had at least three fouls. Witherspoon fouled out with 13 points. Angel Garcia led Memphis with 17.
Josh Pastner's first season at the helm ends with a record of 24-10. The only Tiger coaches to have a more successful debut season are Larry Finch (26 wins in 1986-87) and Eugene Lambert (25 in 1951-52). Seniors Willie Kemp and Doneal Mack finished their Tiger careers with 128 wins, second only to the class that preceded them.
This from my friend and colleague, Greg Akers, who happens to be the maestro of Contemporary Media's office pool (friendly wagers only, of course):
"One of the things I'll be watching this year is if there is a benevolent higher power in the universe or if it's all just chemical chaos. That all-time-great question will be answered with the outcome of the tournament. If Kentucky wins it all, there is no god. (Or, perhaps god is Worldwide Wes). If Kentucky doesn't win, it's evidence that there is a being who is master of all our fates, John Calipari included. Depending upon the fashion in which Kentucky loses, I believe we can even settle upon which variation of god is applicable. Eliminated so far: the god from Exodus (very direct, with plagues and such; would've eliminated Kentucky in the first round). Still in play: the god from Genesis (long-term planner), the New Testament (martyrs — maybe Omar Samhan goes after DeMarcus Cousins to get him ejected), Buddha (karmic finale vs. Kansas), Kali (lots of blocked shots), and many others."
Being the KISS fan I am, I can only hope the God of Thunder plays a role in Kentucky's march to ruin. We must find faith where we can.
There was a lot of green among the crowd of 10,231 at FedExForum tonight, and I swear I saw a leprechaun blow a kiss at the last shot taken. With his team's season on the line, Wesley Witherspoon took a pass from Elliot Williams at the top of the key, drove through the lane and tossed up a leaning, off-the-glass rim-tickler that fell through the basket only after the buzzer had sounded to beat St. John's, 73-71, in the first round of the 2010 NIT. The ball hung on the right side of the rim just long enough to tease before gently deciding to tumble through the net. Leprechaun or otherwise, a blown kiss seemed to play a part. (The Tigers are now 8-0 in games played on St. Patrick's Day.)
"I have never experienced anything like that in my life," said an ebullient Will Coleman after the game. "The noise when the ball went through almost tore the roof off the Forum. I've never, ever heard anything that loud in my life. It was great; I'm glad I was on the winning team." Coleman lifted his game against the Big East visitors, scoring 10 points and adding 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. But like each of his teammates, it was Witherspoon's buzzer-beater that was the talk of the locker room.
"It was a lucky shot," admitted Witherspoon. "I won't say I tried to make it like that, but it went in by the grace of God. The play was for Elliot, to get to the basket and make an unbelievable shot. But I saw the defense collapse, and I called for the ball. I lost the ball for a second, but I got it back and I made the shot."
Witherspoon actually scored the last seven points of the game for the Tigers, draining a three-pointer from the left corner with 42 seconds left to give Memphis a 69-67 lead, then hitting a pair of free throws with 28 seconds left to extend the lead to 71-68. A three-pointer by the Red Storm's Anthony Mason Jr. (son of the former New York Knick enforcer and a graduate of Fairley High School) tied the game at 71, setting up Witherspoon's game-winner.
Earlier this week, a colleague of mine described those who fill out NIT brackets as "nerdy." So as I adjust my pocket protector, put my comic books away, and silence my talking Darth Vader bobblehead, I'll share my picks for the four Big Apple-bound teams in the 2010 National Invitation Tournament. (And sue me for being late in doing this. Last night's Seton Hall-Texas Tech game was a tipping point.)
* VIRGINIA TECH — One year after another, the Hokies seem to be among the chronically snubbed. This team went 10-6 in the ACC.
* UAB — Gotta go with C-USA when I can. And I happen to like Blazer coach Mike Davis; handles hecklers better than any other coach I've seen. And after the free-throw display late in the SEC championship game, I wouldn't back Mississippi State in the CBI, let alone the oldest postseason tournament in the sport.
* DAYTON — Would be nice to see C-USA's Tulsa emerge from this quadrant of the bracket, but unlikely. And furthermore, I pick against teams called the Flyers at my own peril.
* MEMPHIS — You're darn right. Most important variable to watch, starting tonight against St. John's: If Elliot Williams scores, the Tigers advance. If he's held in check . . . .
Mark your calendars, football fans.
September 4 at Mississippi State
September 11 at East Carolina
September 18 MIDDLE TENNESSEE
September 25 at UTEP
October 2 TULSA
October 9 at Louisville
October 16 SOUTHERN MISS
October 30 HOUSTON
November 6 TENNESSEE
November 13 at Marshall
November 20 at UAB
November 27 UCF
A pair of programs that played in the 1985 Final Four will face off Wednesday night at FedExForum, in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. The Tigers will host St. John's at 8 pm. The Red Storm went 17-15 this season, but won only six of 18 games in Big East play. (The game will be televised on ESPN2.)
Be sure and wear your green.
As you ponder this weekend what might have been, had the Tigers not been tossed from the C-USA tournament by Houston yesterday, consider the tale of the 2001-02 Memphis team, and how past can sometimes be prologue.
• John Calipari's second club in Memphis featured Dajuan Wagner, who would score a single-season-record 762 points in his only season of college basketball. But the team struggled against big-name competition, going 2-4 against teams from major conferences. (This year's Tigers have gone 0-5 against such teams.)
• The 2002 Tigers finished 12-4 in Conference USA play, good enough to win its division of the league in those days. (This year's club went 13-3 in C-USA, good enough for the second seed at this week's tournament.)
• The 2002 Tigers finished the regular season with an overall record of 22-8 before losing to — wait for it — Houston in the first round of the C-USA tournament in Cincinnati. (This year's team was 23-8 before yesterday's loss.)
That 2002 team, of course, reeled off five straight wins to take the NIT championship. Here's hoping for one more parallel before the 2009-10 season concludes.
Aubrey Coleman — the NCAA's scoring leader — hit a bucket with five seconds left to give his Houston Cougars a 66-65 victory over the Tigers in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament. Willie Kemp had scored 10 points over the game's last five minutes to erase what was once an 11-point deficit for the Tigers. His last points of the game gave the Tigers a 65-64 lead with 29 seconds left before Coleman's heroics. (Coleman finished with 21 points for the game.)
Elliot Williams made only one of nine field-goal attempts for the Tigers, scoring eight of his 10 points from the free-throw line. Will Coleman added 14 and Kemp led the Tigers with 15.
The loss is the Tigers' first in C-USA tournament play since the 2005 championship. With a record of 23-9, Memphis will now have an agonizing wait until selections for the NCAA tournament are made Sunday afternoon. Having lost in the first round of their conference tourney to a team with an RPI well over 100, the Tigers are likely headed for the NIT.
The Tigers are down, 36-27, at halftime of their C-USA quarterfinal game with Houston. Very little offense from Elliot Williams (0 for 4 from the field, three points on free throws). Memphis led early, but was outscored 30-17 over the last 13 minutes of the half.
Roburt Sallie leads the U of M with 7 points. Aubrey Coleman has 12 for the Cougars. The Tigers have been outrebounded, 26-17.