It's a good week to be young and coaching college basketball. While Butler's Brad Stevens (34) and VCU's Shaka Smart (34 next week) are preparing their teams for the Final Four in Houston, Tiger coach Josh Pastner (33) has signed a contract extension that will pay him a cool $1.7 million annually to help chart the course for a Memphis return to the NCAA tournament's final weekend. The extension runs through the 2015-16 season, when Pastner will still be shy of his 40th birthday.
"We are delighted that Coach Pastner has accepted our contract offer and will remain as our basketball coach for years to come," said Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson in a press release. "He is, without a doubt, one of the most exciting young coaches in the country, and we anticipate continued growth for our basketball program.
"Josh has proven himself to be an outstanding coach and recruiter," Johnson stated. "He has also demonstrated that his values and principles, pertaining to life off the basketball court, mirror those we expect of our student-athletes. Coach Pastner's leadership qualities are exemplary, and we are pleased that he has chosen to remain with the Tiger program."
Over his first two years at the helm of the Memphis program, Pastner has led the Tigers to a record of 49-20. An inconsistent regular season this past winter was all but forgotten when the Tigers reeled off three straight wins in El Paso to win the 2011 Conference USA tournament. The U of M battled highly ranked Arizona (Pastner's alma mater) to the buzzer before falling in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Today's announcement followed news Sunday that Atlantic 10 power Xavier has been added to the Memphis schedule for the next two seasons.
The parallel is too profound to ignore. Two Conference USA championship games, separated precisely by six years. In each contest, a freshman point guard goes to the foul line with a chance to win a bid to the NCAA tournament for the Memphis Tigers. If Joe Jackson (in 2011) had an advantage of seven seconds left on the clock (time had expired for Darius Washington in 2005), he also had to take his shots on the home floor of his opponent. Washington missed two of his three shots and collapsed to the FedExForum floor in tears. Jackson made both of his, earning MVP honors for the tournament and a hall pass for 31 pre-tournament games considered a disappointment by most Memphis fans. What a difference two free throws can make.
The 2010-11 Tigers were on the verge of being remembered collectively in much the same way Jackson would have been had the C-USA tournament unfolded differently. They were a group packed with talent and press clippings, but underwhelming after the games tipped off. A team that entered the season ranked among the country’s top 20 came up short against power-conference headliners on its schedule (Kansas, Georgetown, Tennessee) then stumbled against longtime C-USA weaklings (SMU, Rice, East Carolina). Its lone preseason all-conference selection — junior Wesley Witherspoon — missed 12 games, some due to a lingering knee injury, others punishment for behavior that would have been considered immature for his freshman teammates. These Tigers had no rhythm, a scattered identity (at last count, 17 starting lineups used by coach Josh Pastner), and no true star. (You have to go back 20 years to find a Tiger team with a rebounding leader with as few as Tarik Black’s 5.0 per game this season. You need 30 years to find a leading scorer with a figure lower than Will Barton’s 12.3. Neither the ’81 nor the ’91 team played in the NCAA tournament.)
But then came El Paso and what can only be described as a team’s collective maturation. The Tigers beat a solid Southern Miss squad for the third time this winter. They beat East Carolina handily, just nine days after getting whipped by the Pirates in Greenville. Then the epic 17-4 run to catch and defeat UTEP for the tournament championship. The win — the Tigers’ 25th of the season — gained merely a 12th seed in the Big Dance (an indication of how far the team’s national standing had fallen). But even when matched up against a top-20 foe — Pastner’s alma mater, Arizona — the Tigers were a blocked shot away from overtime. Whatever shortcomings this squad may have carried in the skills department, they can be said to have found plenty of heart when the games mattered most.
With the end of one season, speculation begins for what’s to come. We live in an age of one-year wonders across the college basketball landscape. The biggest headlines belong to the likes of Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, and John Wall. (Among those five, the closest to win a national championship was Rose, and we know his story.) The presumption that accumulating “freshman phenoms” was enough to play deep into the NCAAs proved faulty in the Tigers’ case. (Last Friday was the Memphis program’s 55th NCAA tournament game, but the first in which four freshmen started.) How many of the freshmen will return for a sophomore season? Will Wesley Witherspoon put this embattled season — and any friction with the Tiger coaching staff — behind him, and rebuild his pro credentials? Will Melrose star Adonis Thomas join the returning cast and make a difference beyond recruiting rankings? As with most college programs this time of year, the questions outnumber any answers.
Here’s an attempt to answer one question: “Is Pastner the right guy?” Dana Kirk and John Calipari each needed three seasons to take the Tigers to the NCAA tournament. Still shy of his 34th birthday, Pastner has done it in two. He needed every ounce of that 17-4 run against UTEP two Saturdays ago, but he took the Memphis program where it’s expected to be every March. Pastner earned some criticism this season for his team’s uninspired play at SMU (at least in the second half) and at UTEP near the end of the regular season. He also earned a healthy dose of credit for making his young squad believe it could beat that same Miner team to reach the promised land.
Rare is the 21st-century college basketball team that can be considered seasoned. Memphis fans may have seen their last senior-laden group of players. But there’s something to be said for watching a team (and its coach, for that matter) grow.
The Tigers' run to the Conference USA tournament championship - the most unlikely tourney title in the program's history - is a shining example of a team becoming what it can be, just in the nick of time. A team lacking the nerve (guts?) to win under pressure won three games in three days on the same floor where, two weeks earlier, it took the worst beating the Tigers had suffered in more than a decade. A team that finished at the bottom of C-USA in three-point shooting drained 10 in its semifinal drubbing of East Carolina. A rumored sharp-shooter who had misfired for three months - freshman Chris Crawford - drilled a trey to tie the championship game against UTEP with less than twominutes to play. Best of all, the native son who suited up with the entire community on his shoulders - freshman Joe Jackson - played like the high school legend he became. Three months of under-performing are forgotten with two free throws worth an NCAA tournament bid.
Second-year coach Josh Pastner has insisted his team earn its headlines on the floor, that recruiting rankings are worth a stack full of stat sheets. Well, with three wins in west Texas, the 2010-11 Tigers have made a headline that will be felt in every office pool in America come Monday morning.
What kind of run are the 25-9 Tigers capable of? Will Jackson pick up where he left off, a new giant in a point guard's clothing? Can shooters like Crawford and Charles Carmouche find their mark on their sport's biggest stage? And what about this squad's lone senior? Memphis doesn't win the C-USA title without the muscle and effort (the shiner didn't hurt) of Will Coleman.
More than 300 college basketball teams start the season hoping to answer questions like these under the lights of the NCAA tournament. Thanks to a sudden (unexpected?) boost in confidence, heart, and grit, one of the 68 teams that get the chance will be the Memphis Tigers.
For the Memphis Tigers, the NCAA tournament begins Saturday morning (10:30 central time) in El Paso, Texas. With a win in the Conference USA championship game against host UTEP, the Tigers would return to the NCAA tournament after a year of relegation to the NIT. (With 24 wins now and a top-40 RPI ranking, even with a loss the Tigers should force the tournament selection committee to consider their credentials.)
The Tigers found their long-range shooting touch — and a star turn by freshman point guard Joe Jackson — to avenge a loss to East Carolina just nine days ago in Greenville. Memphis hit 10 of 18 shots from three-point range, their most treys in a game since January 5th. And Jackson scored a season-high 24 points, 18 of them in an explosive first half that saw the fourth-seeded Tigers take a 42-29 lead over the eighth-seeded Pirates. (ECU played its third game in three days, and was without Brock Young — C-USA's Sixth Man Award winner — who injured a knee in Thursday's quarterfinal upset of UAB.)
Junior guard Charles Carmouche hit three of four from long-distance and scored 19 points for Memphis, also a season high. Senior center Will Coleman scored 11 points and grabbed four rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench for the Tigers. The Tigers limited ECU to 36-percent shooting for the game.
The U of M will again be looking to even a score in Saturday's title tilt. On February 26th at the Don Haskins Center, UTEP demolished the Tigers, 74-47. Memphian Randy Culpepper had 20 points in that game, one in which the Tigers hit only one of 18 three-point attempts. The Tigers and Miners have never faced each other in a C-USA tournament.
Here's a look at how the Tigers fared in their five previous appearances in the C-USA championship (all games were played at FedExForum):
* 2005: Louisville 75, Memphis 74
* 2006: Memphis 57, UAB 46 (MVP - Shawne Williams)
* 2007: Memphis 71, Houston 59 (MVP - Chris Douglas-Roberts)
* 2008: Memphis 77, Tulsa 51 (MVP - Antonio Anderson)
* 2009: Memphis 64, Tulsa 39 (MVP - Tyreke Evans)
The Tigers finally have a win in Texas.
In front of a sparse crowd at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Memphis pulled out its third victory over Southern Miss this season (and 17th in a row dating back to January 2004). The win advances the Tigers (23-9) to the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament, where they'll face East Carolina Friday afternoon. The Pirates upset C-USA regular-season champion UAB in Thursday's first game. (If UTEP or Tulsa wins tonight, Memphis and ECU will play at 5:30 p.m. Friday. If both the Miners and Golden Hurricane are upset, the Tigers' game will tip off at 3 p.m.)
The Tigers dominated early against the Golden Eagles, leading 26-13 and 29-21 at halftime. But with seven minutes to play, the teams were tied at 48. Charles Carmouche hit a three-pointer from the left wing to the Tigers a 57-52 lead with three minutes left, and the Tigers held on down the stretch (despite three missed free throws and Tarik Black fouling out). Joe Jackson slammed home a dunk on a press-breaking give-and-go with Antonio Barton with less than 30 seconds to play to give the Tigers a 62-59 lead. He later committed a turnover that gave Southern Miss the ball under the Tiger basket with 11 seconds to play. An Ahyaro Phillips tip-in made the score 64-63, but Jackson followed with a pair of free throws to provide the winning margin. (The Eagles' D.J. Newbill banked in a three-pointer from the top of the key just after the final buzzer.)
Jackson led the Tigers with 15 points off the bench, his highest total since February 2nd. Antonio Barton added 12, with Will Barton and Charles Carmouche each contributing 10.
Friday's semifinal will be the third meeting between Memphis and East Carolina this season. The Tigers won at FedExForum on January 8th (61-58) and ECU won in Greenville on March 2nd (68-57). As the higher seed, the Tigers will again wear their home whites against the Pirates.
As the fourth seed in this week’s Conference USA tournament in El Paso, the Tigers have a mountain to climb if they’re to win C-USA’s lone automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. If seeds hold, Memphis will have to beat a pair of teams — Southern Miss and UAB — a third time this season just to reach the championship, where they’ll likely face a UTEP team on the same floor where they lost to the Miners by 27 points on February 26th.
But mountains are there to be climbed. Here are five recommendations for the 22-9 Tigers as they prepare for Thursday’s quarterfinal tip-off (2:30 pm).
• Stop Experimenting
Coach Josh Pastner drew up 17 different starting lineups over the Tigers’ 31-game regular season. That’s a ridiculous number, and it screams uncertainty. If the head coach is uncertain about the best way to attack an opponent, how certain do you think the players are about the roles they’re expected to play? Adjustments aren’t just necessary over the course of a basketball season; they’re required. But again . . . 17 lineups? Only one quintet started more than three games.
Before the team’s first practice in El Paso, Pastner should name his starting five for the duration of the postseason, however long it lasts. Every player on the roster could then go to bed at night knowing his role for the challenge ahead. Some might be angry. So be it. Pastner expects commitment from his players. It’s time he shows some commitment himself. My lineup? Antonio Barton, Chris Crawford, Will Barton, Will Coleman, and Tarik Black. Which brings me to the next point.
• Go Big
Basketball remains a big man’s game. I’m mystified by Pastner’s reluctance to play his two big men (the senior Coleman and freshman Black are co-captains) together. Too much rebounding? Too much interior defense? There were eight games this season in which Coleman and Black each played at least 20 minutes. Memphis won seven of them.
Last Saturday against Tulane (C-USA’s last-place team), Pastner chose to go small, prioritizing perimeter defense against the Green Wave’s three-point shooters. Tulane proceeded to hit nine of 18 shots from long distance. The strategy didn’t work at all, and Coleman sat on the bench for 34 minutes on a day he was honored before the tip-off. The Tigers escaped with a victory by making a comeback over the game’s final ten minutes. Black delivered his first career double-double. You have to wonder what kind of numbers Coleman might have added as a supplementary post presence. When Coleman (or Black) sits, the Tigers are essentially playing a four-guard lineup. A four-guard lineup without a consistent shooter. This team needs all the muscle it can get on the floor.
• Forget the Trey
Here are the Tiger shooting percentages from three-point range over their last 12 games: 33, 24, 21, 20, 27, 35, 31, 27, 18, 31, 6(!), 25, 29. That’s not a trend; it’s a habit. This is a poor-shooting team, and they won’t discover a collective flaw to spur a run though any field, be it C-USA, NCAA, or NIT. This Tiger club is best when pushing the pace, scoring in transition, and getting ugly second-chance baskets (again, go big). I’d go so far as to recommend that if a Tiger attempts a shot from beyond the arc, he immediately sits. Look at those percentages again. The lone exception I’d make: If the game’s tight in the last three minutes, Antonio Barton can let it fly.
• Use Your ’Spoon
You get the impression a divorce is unfolding between Pastner and Wesley Witherspoon. Healthy and in uniform, Witherspoon didn’t get off the bench in the loss at East Carolina last week, then played all of 14 minutes against Tulane Saturday. It’s been a rocky junior season for Witherspoon, much of it his own doing. But he’s too talented — and too tall — for Pastner to ignore if the Tigers are to win a postseason game or two. Back to role-defining: Witherspoon needs to understand when he’ll be playing and how much. Is he expected to be a scorer? A facilitator? A defensive stopper? It’s too late for Witherspoon to meet the expectations of his preseason all-conference nod. But what about an all-tourney selection?
• Ignore All the Boots
Playing in Pastner’s native state of Texas hasn’t been good to the Tigers this winter. They lost at SMU in January, then at Rice and UTEP in February. Perhaps wearing their home whites, as they will in Thursday’s quarterfinal, will help. El Paso is a haul, even for the traveling division of Tiger Nation and the Don Haskins Center has a stench to it for the Tigers. Whatever it takes, though, Memphis has to reverse its Lone Star losing streak.
There is no such thing as a “gimme” for these Memphis Tigers. Facing Conference USA’s cellar-dwellers, the Tigers needed a 13-3 run over a five-minute stretch late in the second half to avoid becoming only the fourth C-USA victim for Tulane. A late three-pointer by Antonio Barton gave the Tigers their largest lead of the game — 64-58 — with 1:08 left in the game. The clinching shot was one of four treys the Tiger converted (in 14 attempts), compared with nine (in 18 shots) by Tulane.
The win completes the Tigers’ regular season with a record of 22-9 and earns the U of M a bye into the quarterfinals of next week’s C-USA tournament in El Paso. Better yet, the win ends a two-game losing streak that was gaining in weight on the Tigers’ collective psyche.
“Tulane lost 12 games in a row,” said coach Josh Pastner after the game, “but I think eight of those games were single digits. They lost to UTEP by three, should have beaten Marshall. A team that shoots like that . . . they’re a good team. I’d like to win by 30 or 40, but the way the league is this year — and our youth — there hasn’t been any separation.”
Positive as ever, Pastner nonetheless managed to quell any euphoria in the locker room. “I told them there’s no celebrating,” said Pastner. “I told them we’re getting on a plane Monday, and to not get on if they’re not planning on winning three games [and the C-USA championship]. Everybody’s got to be ready.”
The Tigers’ lone senior, Will Coleman, was honored before the game, strolling to midcourt with his parents and sister to thunderous applause from the crowd of 17,278 at FedExForum. He played the first six minutes of the game (scoring three points and grabbing three rebounds) then sat on the bench the remainder of the contest.
“I love Will Coleman,” said Pastner, “and I wish I could have played him 40 minutes. But because of the game and the lineup that Tulane has — they shoot threes — and the way Tarik [Black] was playing, I felt it was best for us to go small.” Freshman center Black came off the bench for Coleman and had a season-high 24 points with 11 rebounds, his first career double-double.
“It was emotional,” said Coleman. “My mom can barely walk; her back is bad. But she drove here to support me, and I love her to death.” Coleman was pleased to get the win, emphasizing that his team has work to do. “Three games is always better than four,” he stressed, “in a hostile environment like El Paso.”
The Tigers picked up 20 assists on 26 made field goals, a remarkably high percentage for a team that’s struggled with ball movement for long stretches of the season. Will Barton dished out six assists to go with 15 points and five rebounds, his finest outing since the win over UAB on February 16th. Fellow freshman Chris Crawford was also integral with seven assists and a late three-pointer that seized a 57-55 lead for the Tigers.
“It felt good to see one go down,” said Crawford. “It’s just my confidence, a mind thing. Everyone expects us to blow teams out, but Tulane’s a good team; they make shots. If we can start making shots, our confidence will be sky-high.
“I can pass, I can shoot, I can be a lock-down defender,” said Crawford. “I want to do whatever it takes to win.” Crawford and Charles Carmouche combined to limit Tulane’s Kendall Timmons to 14 points. All five Green Wave starters reached double figures in scoring.
As the Memphis locker room cleared, Black smiled when asked about the impact Will Coleman has had on him during their only season as teammates. “He’s probably influenced me more than the coaches,” said Black. “He’s where I learned everything. Playing against him, I’ve felt if I can score on him, I can score on anybody.
“The things he does in the community — I’m that kind of personality anyway, but he showed me how to do it. And just being a student in college. The first week of class, I was walking around, had to ask Will where my class was. He asked which teacher I had, told me I’d be alright. That makes you a better person all-around. I’m gonna miss him greatly; we’ll definitely stay in touch.”
Will Coleman didn’t have to come to the University of Memphis. In the spring of 2009, Coleman had a ready-made excuse for finding another program to help sculpt his late-developing skills on the hardwood. Having been originally recruited (out of Miami Dade College) by John Calipari, Coleman would have raised few eyebrows had he chosen to forsake a Tiger career when Calipari left to coach at Kentucky. Instead, he met Calipari’s successor and chose to honor his commitment.
The son of a military man, Coleman is familiar with commitment. Look at the oversized Tiger logo now tattooed on Coleman’s left biceps, and you get a sense of the commitment he’s made over his two years playing for Josh Pastner and the rabid Tiger fan base. When he’s the lone Tiger marching to center court for a Senior Day salute Saturday afternoon at FedExForum, Coleman will have his shoulders high, chin up, and likely a broad smile on his face.
“I have faith in my guys; we’re gonna be okay.” I’ve heard this quote from Coleman a dozen times over the last two seasons. An agreeable, unusually enthusiastic postgame interview, Coleman likes to talk about his “guys,” and how his faith is unwavering, however much doubt may be growing among media types and the Twitterati. As menacing as he can appear when slamming a lob home for a thunderous dunk, Coleman’s personality is engaging and what I’d call passionately sensitive. He’s an easy player to like.
On the floor, Coleman’s development hasn’t been what Pastner envisioned before the 2010-11 season opened. In terms of average, Coleman’s minutes, rebounds, and blocks are all down from his junior season. He endured a three-game stretch in February when he played a total of 27 minutes. (Coleman was on the floor for only four minutes in the February 19th loss to Rice, a team that was relatively undersized.) Consistency has been elusive for Coleman: 19 points and 11 rebounds in a victory over Marshall, then 2 points and 2 rebounds in a road loss to the same team.
The emergence of freshman center Tarik Black has impacted Coleman’s numbers and playing time, so there’s some irony to the two big men being named co-captain by Pastner at midseason. The shared leadership is a point of pride for Coleman, and the Tigers have enjoyed stretches of dominance — if rare — with both big men on the floor.
“I feel like me and Black, we have a relationship amongst bigs that no one else has,” said Coleman after the Marshall win on January 15th. “I love him to death. We work together, we hang out together, we’re in the gym together.”
Years from now, when I think of Will Coleman, I’ll think of the transition Tiger basketball has made from an era — under Calipari — of over-the-top dominance to one of scratching, clawing, biting for the respect and national admiration many Memphis fans had come to take for granted. For a young man playing merely his sixth season of organized basketball, Will Coleman has been dynamic at times and adrift at others. He’s helped win many games, and contributed to a few losses. In other words, he symbolizes his two seasons as a Memphis Tiger every bit as much as that tattoo on his left arm.
The Tigers' late-season swoon continued tonight in Greenville, North Carolina, as the U of dropped its first game — ever — to the Pirates of ECU. To the list of former Tiger "automatics" that have become roadblocks to the postseason (Marshall, SMU, Rice) we now add East Carolina.
The Pirates opened up a game that had been tied (28-28) at halftime, finding their range from long distance to go on a 13-1 run and take a commanding 60-47 lead with just over four minutes to play. Jamar Abrams, Jontae Sherrod, and Brock Young combined to hit seven of 15 three-point attempts on Senior Night in Greenville. The Tigers were four for 16 from beyond the three-point line and again committed more turnovers (15) than they dished out assists (13). Antonio Barton was the only Memphis player to reach double figures in scoring (15). His older brother Will scored eight points and grabbed eight rebounds, but missed nine of his 12 shots. Junior forward Wesley Witherspoon, while in uniform, never came off the bench for the Tigers.
The loss is a crippling blow to the Tigers' chances at a Conference USA regular season title (they were officially eliminated when UAB beat Southern Miss tonight), as well as their chances for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. Memphis will host lowly Tulane Saturday at FedExForum in an attempt to stop a skid that has featured three losses in four games. The Tigers' nine losses equal their total on Selection Sunday a year ago, a figure that sent them to the NIT.
Now this is a promo to love, one Rollie Fingers and the swingin' A's of the 1970s would appreciate.
Throughout March, the U of M baseball team will grow mustaches as part of "Mustache March" to benefit the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Memphis. Donations will be accepted at all Tiger home games, and fake mustaches will be sold for $1 each.
The Tigers host 11 games this month, including a game at AutoZone Park (against Arkansas) on March 23rd. All the hairy fun begins this Friday when the Tigers host Oral Roberts at FedExPark. First pitch is at 4:30. The game serves as the opener for the U of M Baseball Classic.