A few thoughts on tonight’s game in New York:
• Going in, I was convinced the Tigers would be overmatched by the Kansas big men: Marcus and Markieff Morris and Thomas Robinson. That trio combined for 40 points and 24 rebounds. Tarik Black, Will Coleman, and Angel Garcia — the closest such trio Memphis can offer — scored 14 points and pulled down nine rebounds. Garcia and Black each picked up two early fouls, and that impacted their stat line, but you can’t ignore the way the Morris twins and Robinson had their way inside, particularly in the second half. If Josh Pastner has a concern (looking toward March, beyond C-USA play), it’s the lack of muscle on this team.
• When the season started, if you asked me to name a Tiger enigma, it would have been Coleman. A “young senior” when it comes to his basketball experience, Coleman is learning the game at the NCAA’s highest level. And it shows with his inconsistency.
But after tonight, D.J. Stephens belongs in the enigmatic circle with Coleman. Three nights ago, Stephens was the best player on the floor against Western Kentucky (13 points, 11 rebounds). Tonight: nary a point or rebound, and less than 10 minutes of playing time. He’s undersized (as ESPN’s Jay Bilas pointed out), but can jump through the roof. He’s an “energy guy” who can make a difference in tight games, but lacks the skills to stay on the floor against the toughest Tiger foes. After what I saw Saturday night, I thought Stephens might surprise some viewers in Madison Square Garden. Thought he’d bring down at least one did-you-see-that dunk. He was a nonfactor.
• The Tigers won’t survive elite competition with Wesley Witherspoon shooting three for 11. The talented freshmen surrounding him means Witherspoon doesn’t have to force shots. But the junior — a preseason all-conference pick, remember — has to place himself in the flow of the offense. And he has to get to the free-throw line. Witherspoon entered tonight’s game having shot an average of almost eight free throws per game, and at an 83-percent clip. He didn’t take a foul shot against Kansas.
• The Tiger I’ve most enjoyed watching this season is freshman point guard Joe Jackson. The first impression I had upon seeing him on a college floor was that he’s small. But he’s quick enough, and understands basketball’s angles so well that his size hasn’t been a factor in the impact he makes offensively. Tonight, matched up with the Jayhawks’ 6’3” Tyshawn Taylor . . . Jackson looked small. Missed all four field-goal attempts and picked up but one assist.
• Consider the company Memphis kept tonight for the Jimmy V Classic. The coaches for Kansas, Syracuse, and Michigan State have taken their teams to a combined 10 Final Fours and have each won a national championship. Josh Pastner has yet to coach an NCAA tournament game. Pastner’s predecessor spoke often of coaching a “national program” at the U of M. It appears the status holds.
• My earliest college-basketball memory is North Carolina’s Michael Jordan draining a short jumper to beat Georgetown for the 1982 national championship. My earliest memory of a college-basketball coach is North Carolina State’s Jim Valvano running frantically around the court in Albuquerque, searching for someone to hug after his Wolfpack won the 1983 title. That’s a great feeling, one I’ve enjoyed on occasion: happiness so powerful you have to hug someone. It’s nice to see ESPN still broadcasting Valvano’s legacy 17 years after his death. The next time a coach acts like basketball is more important than a good hug, think of Jimmy V.