After two months and 15 games, there are, to say the least, some concerns about the Memphis Tiger basketball team. For a team sporting a 12-3 record, coach Josh Pastner’s second squad finds itself in somewhat unique crosshairs of criticism. A 20-win season is sure to come, postseason play (NCAA or NIT) all but certain. So what the heck is wrong with this team?!
A few observations, with the criticism in the form of questions:
• Can this team play defense?
After allowing Tennessee State to hit 12 three-point shots on January 2nd, Pastner said, “My biggest pet peeve is allowing three-point shots. It’s really not that hard a shot. We have to get in our opponents’ air space.” So how did his Tigers take the lesson? They gave up 12 three-pointers (on 21 shots) at Tennessee. Then allowed a weak East Carolina team to stay alive last Saturday by draining eight treys.
Interior defense would be a legitimate concern, you’d think, with Will Coleman and Tarik Black the only real shot-blocking threats. But what’s the problem on the perimeter? Could be a matter, in coach-speak, of “want to.” Wesley Witherspoon and Will Barton have that modern hoops commodity — length — that translates well on both sides of the ball. They, among others, must put forth the effort of invading opponents’ air space beyond the three-point arc.
• Is there an offensive scheme? Any?
You won’t see many Tiger possessions with four passes. (They seemed to pick up against East Carolina, but Memphis was twice called for a three-second violation.) Memphis fans need to get used to it. This ain’t Princeton. It’s not a Bobby Knight-coached team. John Wooden’s approach to teaching basketball is an art worth reflecting upon in a museum (or Hall of Fame), but you won’t see it at FedExForum.
This Tiger team is built on freshman athletes. Will Barton didn’t need back screens to score in high school. Joe Jackson wasn’t asked to master the pick-and-roll as he became a McDonald’s All-America at White Station High School. And I imagine the next time Tarik Black is fed the ball in the high post as a tool for attacking a defense will be the first.
With six of the top eight players (counting junior transfer Charles Carmouche) wearing a Memphis uniform for the first time, this is a team still getting used to individual likes and dislikes. The coaching staff is still trying to identify which units work best together. (One question: should Jackson and Antonio Barton ever be on the floor together?) In other words, a young team is evolving. There was a day when fans could close their eyes and imagine how such a team might look in a couple of years, when the Barton brothers, Chris Crawford, Black, and Jackson have had time to coalesce. That, of course, is fantasy now. All five of those players may need three years (at least) of college basketball seasoning. But there’s no chance all five will be Tigers for the 2012-13 season. Reality: the frosh have to gel as an offensive unit for this team to win in March.
• Can Pastner coach?
This one can get sticky. A colleague of mine last week had a sensible concern: can a man who prides himself on never cursing fully connect with a group of young men who associate precisely that (cursing) with discipline? Maybe the Bartons, Jackson, and Black never heard a four-letter shout as they developed their games in high school and AAU travels. But the likelihood is they did. Are they able to hear criticism and instruction — however impassioned — that is entirely PG?
Coaches get famous for winning. But they learn their trade through losing. Pastner spoke of learning more about his team after the Tennessee game than he knew over the first two months of the season. What he learned over 40 minutes in Knoxville is that his team is flawed, and changes — improvements — are necessary for both individuals and the group. The Tigers can win games despite their flaws in C-USA (see the win over ECU). So Pastner’s challenge will be to retain focus on improving even as the win column inflates. Let’s give Pastner time to incorporate some changes (and maybe even lose a few more games) before judging his credentials as a coach.
• Is Wesley Witherspoon a star, or merely adequate?
Even with the influx of star freshmen, Witherspoon was supposed to be The Guy this season. A third-team all-conference pick last year, Witherspoon was named to the preseason first-team last fall. He’s had two stellar games: 24 points and 12 rebounds against Northwestern State in November, 28 points and 14 rebounds against Lipscomb on December 30th, his second game after returning from knee surgery.
But in four of Witherspoon’s five games since his return, he’s been a virtual no-show. He made one field in each of three games (Georgetown, Tennessee State, and Tennessee), then hit three against East Carolina but committed six turnovers (without a single assist). That breeze Witherspoon feels these days is his draft stock plummeting to earth, and with it the ceiling for his team. If there’s a single player whose re-emergence could have a ripple effect throughout the Tiger rotation, it’s Witherspoon. And his coach knows it.
“We just have to get him to produce,” says Pastner. “Actions speak louder than words. I love Wesley, I believe in him. He’s gonna come through for us. He will snap out of it. It’s just gonna be a matter of time. He knows it and I know it.”