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.