Memphis fans clamoring for attention from the Big East have received a pair of promotional demonstrations over the last six days. First a loss at Louisville last Saturday, then tonight in the nation's capital a defeat at the hands of the Georgetown Hoyas. Now 6-5, the Tigers face a steep climb for an NCAA tournament bid, let alone a seed higher than the 12th they received last March after winning the Conference USA tournament.
The 16th-ranked Hoyas led only 29-28 late in the first half before going on a 13-0 run that bridged halftime. Memphis played sloppily from the outset, turning the ball over nine times in the game's first 12 minutes. Playing their second straight game with essentially a seven-man rotation, the Tigers were dominated by the Hoyas inside and got precious little from starting center Tarik Black. (The sophomore fouled out with just under 10 minutes to play in the game having scored seven points with no rebounds.)
The Tigers picked up the pace of their offense after falling behind 54-34 eight minutes into the second half. With Adonis Thomas, Chris Crawford, and Will Barton trading forays to the basket, the Tigers went on a 15-5 run, then closed to within seven points with 4:23 to play. But the Hoyas finished the game on a 9-5 run of their own. Hollis Thompson led Georgetown with 18 points and nine rebounds, while Jason Clark added 17 points and Henry Sims scored 12 and added 10 rebounds.
Memphis was led by Crawford with a season-high 17 points. Will Barton scored 12 and grabbed 11 rebounds. It was Barton's lowest scoring output in six games. No other Tiger reached double figures on the scoreboard.
The Tigers have now lost 11 straight games against ranked opponents, dating back to the 2008-09 season. In 12 meetings with the Hoyas, Memphis has won exactly two. Information to consider as the campaign for Big East membership continues.
Josh Pastner's squad will lick its wounds over the next week before hosting Robert Morris on December 29th. Charlotte follows with a visit to FedExForum on New Year's Eve.
As the 2011-12 Tigers take shape, maybe depth isn’t the story after all. Two days after a dispiriting loss to 4th-ranked Louisville on national television, Memphis used essentially seven players to hold off sharp-shooting Lipscomb. Senior Wesley Witherspoon played only three minutes (all in the first half) and junior Stan Simpson never got off the bench. With the team’s rebounding struggles, the benching of two forwards may be among coach Josh Pastner’s most distinct messages this season.
“I have a soft spot for our team,” said Pastner after the game. “I like to give a lot of guys minutes. One of my character defects is probably that I care too much. I care about the guys. But I’m also a pretty black-and-white guy. Either it’s against the law or it’s not. And it’s like that with the rotation. I’d rather go with a small rotation if that’s [what’s successful]. And if you’re not in that rotation, you better be ready when your number’s called. You’ve got to get in there and produce. This allows me to have a black-and-white rotation.”
A primary reason the short rotation worked tonight was the combined efforts of sophomore Will Barton (39 minutes of playing time) and freshman Adonis Thomas (36). With 16 points and 9 rebounds, Barton just missed his fifth double-double of the season. Thomas led all scorers with 18 points and also grabbed 9 off the glass.
The Bisons stayed in the game behind the sharp shooting of Deonte Alexander and Jordan Burgason, who each hit four three-pointers. When Martin Smith drained a trey from the left corner with 4:40 to play, Lipscomb closed within three points (73-70). But Chris Crawford banked in a floater from inside the lane and Will Barton connected for three from the left corner himself to extend the lead to eight points with 1:25 on the clock. Crawford finished with 11 points, one of six Tigers to reach double figures in scoring.
Earlier today, Will Barton was named Conference USA’s Player of the Week for the second consecutive week, but he could only shake his head when asked if his team had made progress against the Bisons. “We’ve got to play better defense,” he said. “On the perimeter, inside, everywhere. We’re not talking, going through the motions. I’m very disappointed.”
As for the short rotation, Barton said, “That’s Coach’s decision. I have nothing to do with that. What he says goes.”
Playing just his second game for his hometown team, Ferrakohn Hall came off the bench to score seven points and grab three rebounds in 16 minutes. Starting center Tarik Black scored a season-high 13 points but only pulled down three rebounds. The inability to control the glass continues to vex Pastner, so much so that he asked a media contingent for suggestions after the game.
“We’re good offensively, we’re efficient,” he said. “The biggest thing to come back and bite you is second-chance points. We gave up 13 offensive rebounds, and they scored 21 second-chance points. The one stat we’re behind all our opponents is second-chance points. Tarik and Ferrakohn have to rebound more. And we have to gang rebound when we go small. It’s not effort, because our guys know what to do. It’s just doing it, utilizing their athleticism.”
The Tigers (6-4) next get a rare chance to avenge a nonconference loss when they travel to Georgetown to face the Hoyas Thursday night. Having lost to Georgetown (in overtime) last month at the Maui Classic, Memphis will seek — again — a signature win over a power-conference opponent. Could anger over the earlier loss serve to motivate in the nation’s capital?
“On some level, anger can help,” said Black. “But not too much, or you’ll go out there and play sporadic. If you’re playing off emotion, it’s not necessarily a good thing. You have to play smart, stay out of foul trouble, and don’t make silly mistakes.”
Measured on its own, this afternoon's game at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville might qualify as a "good loss" for the Tigers. A road game on national television against the 4th-ranked team in the country. A game tied with 6:30 left to play.
In context of a season spiraling in the wrong direction, though, the loss to Louisville is another missed chance for the U of M to gain a significant victory before conference play opens in January. The Tigers have now lost two in a row and haven't beaten a ranked team since a win over Gonzaga on February 7, 2009. They'll host Lipscomb Monday night then travel to Georgetown (a team that beat them in the Maui Classic last month) on Thursday.
The first half was particularly ugly, with both teams shooting a paltry 29 percent. The Tigers missed all seven of their three-point attempts before halftime (Louisville was one for 10 in the same category) and the Cardinals took a 42-32 lead at the break thanks largely to 12 offensive rebounds.
Memphis came out strong to open the second half, though, going on a 23-13 run and tying the game at 55 on a Tarik Black put-back with 11:30 to play. When Joe Jackson converted a three-point play on the Tigers' next possession, Memphis took a 58-55 lead.
But with 10:09 to go, Black picked up his fourth foul of the game. Neither Stan Simpson nor Ferrakohn Hall — who made his Tiger debut — could contain Louisville center Gorgui Dieng (14 points, 14 rebounds). Led by Rakeem Buckles (12 points) and Russ Smith (24), the Cardinals went on an 8-0 run to pull away 78-70, then traded baskets with the Tigers over the game's final five minutes. Louisville had seven players score at least 10 points and are now 10-0 for the first time in Rick Pitino's 11 years as head coach.
Will Barton continued his stellar play with 28 points and 16 rebounds, his fourth double-double in the Tigers' nine games. Fellow sophomores Joe Jackson (22) and Chris Crawford (12) were the other Tigers in double figures on the scoreboard. Freshman Adonis Thomas got his first college start but hit only four of 10 shots for 9 points. Senior Wesley Witherspoon was again a nonfactor with nary a field goal in 12 minutes of playing time. Filling in for Black, Hall and Simpson combined to grab two rebounds in 17 minutes of action.
Memphis is now 5-4, its most impressive win coming on the road at Miami on December 6th. The Hurricanes are currently 6-4.
The Memphis Tigers and Louisville Cardinals have played each other on the basketball court 85 times. (The only other program Memphis has faced as many as 70 times is Southern Miss, with 86 games in the books.) These teams played each other every season from 1967-68 to 1990-91, then 11 more — as Conference USA members — from 1994-95 to 2004-05. Which makes it a sin that six full seasons have passed without a Tiger-Cardinal blood match. That ends this Saturday when the Tigers take the floor at Louisville as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Shootout. If you have holiday shopping to do, get in your car at 3:00 Saturday afternoon. Traffic will be light.
Tigers-Cardinals may not be an “ancient” rivalry, but it’s a hardwood feud that knows few equal in legacy. (The teams first played on January 6, 1949, a 72-53 Cardinal win at Memorial Gym.) I spent my high school winters playing basketball in frigid Vermont, and there were three rivalries that captured the attention of my roundball buddies: Syracuse/Georgetown, North Carolina/Duke, and Louisville/Memphis State. Cable television was limited and ESPN hadn’t begun airing five and six games a day. But the exploits of Keith Lee and Milt Wagner mattered to teenagers who turned very little of their attention south of the Mason-Dixon Line. (For the record, the Tigers won seven of 11 games between 1983-84 and 1986-87 while I was suiting up for the Northfield Marauders. The Cardinals own an overall lead in the series, 51-34.)
These are teams that played each other three times in a season 13 times, which means few Metro Conference tournaments were held without the marquee matchup of Memphis-Louisville. The Tigers beat the Cardinals for the Metro tourney title in 1982 and ’87, and Louisville beat Memphis for the title in 1986 and ’88. Dana Kirk vs. Denny Crum. Elliot Perry vs. Pervis Ellison. John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino.
And how about Anthony Rice vs. Francisco Garcia? The 2005 C-USA tournament championship at FedExForum remains the best college basketball game I’ve seen live at an arena. During one 60-second stretch late in the first half, the teams traded the lead on four consecutive possessions, each field goal a three-pointer. Riveting.
That game will forever be remembered, of course, for the three free throws Darius Washington had after time had expired with the Tigers down two points. Had Washington made all three, the Tigers would have earned an unlikely — undeserved, really — NCAA tournament berth. He made the first, winked at coach John Calipari, and then missed the next two. Washington had to be helped from the floor by Calipari and teammates after collapsing in defeat.
More tears would surely have fallen that afternoon six years ago if Tiger fans knew it would be this long before the only rivalry that really matters to the Memphis program was resumed. Memphis has played SMU ten times since last facing Louisville. UCF and UTEP have been annual foes since the 2005-06 season. The Tigers faced Gonzaga, for Pete’s sake, six straight seasons . . . without Louisville on the schedule. This is a town that loves its ’rasslin’ and relishes a good “bad guy.” Replacing Louisville on the Tiger schedule with Gonzaga is like removing the Mongolian Stomper from a wrestling card in favor of Cyndi Lauper.
Sports are at their best when longtime rivals clash. Ali-Frazier. Nicklaus-Player. Bird-Magic. There’s a reason you can’t avoid Yankees-Red Sox during the summer if you own a television. These are the games that cause divorces, end friendships, stir the foulest language from the depths of a fan’s cheering soul. They’re games in which money, rankings, and star power don’t matter. Only the final score and bragging rights.
Says Tiger coach Josh Pastner, “Since I got this job two years ago, our fans have talked to me on numerous occasions about the Memphis-Louisville rivalry, and how much they want to renew the series. This is a great rivalry not only for the schools and their fans, but it’s also one of college basketball’s top rivalries.”
We’re in the final days of a six-year drought; the longest Tiger (or Cardinal) fans should have to suffer. So get your sleep, take your vitamins, and hide anything red in your living room (including, yes, all images of Santa Claus). Memphis and Louisville are playing this Saturday. Nothing else matters.
Sometimes a host can be too gracious. After introducing the most popular Murray State alum in Memphis — new U of M football coach Justin Fuente — the Tigers fell just short in a frenetic comeback over the game’s final two minutes to a Racer team now 10-0 on the still-young season. Down 69-60 with 2:16 to play, Memphis forced four turnovers and closed the deficit to a single point (73-72) on a layup by sophomore guard Joe Jackson.
The Tigers were forced to foul Racer guard Isaiah Canaan with 7.9 seconds left after he broke through the press and dribbled unopposed toward the basket. Canaan hit both free throws and Tiger guard Chris Crawford’s three-point attempt rattled the rim before falling away, ending the U of M’s three-game winning streak and surely dropping the Tigers outside the nation’s Top 25 for the first time this season. (Memphis is ranked 21st in the latest AP poll.)
Sophomore swingman Will Barton had another stellar game for the Tigers, leading the team with 27 points (his fifth 20-point outing in six games). But he recognized his team’s shortcomings on this night, and wasn’t pointing fingers after the game.
“We came out flat,” said Barton. “And we can’t afford to do that. They’re undefeated for a reason. We can’t turn the ball over like that [Memphis had 15 turnovers]. That was my fault. My team is looking at me to be a leader, so that’s on me.”
Barton cited the Tigers’ defensive attack as a strength that must be utilized, and not just in times of desperation. “We can put pressure on like that in the halfcourt. But we have to come out like that. No matter who we’re playing. We’ve got to stay focused.”
Tiger coach Josh Pastner summarized three strategic points he had highlighted entering the game. First, his team needed to defend the three-point shot by Murray State (the Racers hit 9 of 20). Second, the Racers needed to be kept away from the free-throw line (they hit 21 of 29 from the charity stripe). Third, the Tigers had to control the visitors’ role players (while Canaan — averaging 20.3 points — was held to 15, Donte Poole hit six of eight three-pointers and led four Racers in double figures with 20 points).
Jackson added 20 points for Memphis, but Crawford, Wesley Witherspoon, and Adonis Thomas combined to make only three of 22 shots from the field. And a team that loves to push the pace saw itself outscored 23-11 on fast-break points.
“We had two good practices,” said Pastner. “After my pregame talk, I brought Chris over to the side and said, you’ve got to get the team going. But he didn’t have the same body language he normally does. We prepared the same way; the guys practiced well. Basketball’s a game of energy, and they had better energy than we did.”
Pastner acknowledged the energy burst over the game’s final two minutes, but saw a qualifier for the improvement. “That happens in any sport when a team plays in desperation,” he said. “Obviously, if we played like that for 40 minutes, we’d win every game and win the national championship.
“Chris Crawford had a great look at the end, so there’s some peace of mind in that,” added Pastner. “His shot went in and out.”
Memphis now has five days to prepare for a road game at 5th-ranked Louisville next Saturday afternoon. The contest will mark the renewal after six years of the program’s most intense rivalry. Energy will be at a premium, to say the least.
Former TCU co-offensive coordinator Justin Fuente (along with his wife, Jenny, and two young daughters) was introduced today as the 23rd head football coach at the University of Memphis. Fuente succeeds Larry Porter, who was dismissed last month after two seasons and a 3-21 record.
Among Fuente’s attributes that impressed U of M president Shirley Raines the most was his role as playcaller for the high-octane offense that has helped the Horned Frogs gain national prominence over the last four seasons. Fuente is leaving the only program to appear in the final top 10 for both major polls from 2008 to 2010. TCU is currently 10-2 and ranked 15th in the country. The Horned Frogs will play in the Poinsettia Bowl, but Fuente will not coach in the game.
A native of Tulsa, Fuente is 35 years old (a year older than Tiger basketball coach Josh Pastner) and has signed a five-year contract that will pay him $900,000 in 2012. He joined TCU’s staff in 2007 as running backs coach and was promoted to co-offensive coordinator before the 2009 season. He was tasked primarily with coaching quarterbacks, including Andy Dalton, now a star rookie with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals.
Some highlights from his press conference at the Hardaway Hall of Fame:
Fuente: “I know [athletic director] R.C. [Johnson] is going to step down in a few months. I look forward to working with him and the new athletic director, and making the transition seamless.”
“I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long, long time. This is the place I want to be for as long as you’ll have me. I’m so honored today to be your football coach, and a member of your community. I’m honored to wear blue and be a Tiger.”
“We’re gonna run this like a family. Families are honest, families work hard, and families get results. This is going to be Memphis’ team. The city of Memphis. If you live in this city, I want this to be your team. That is one of the great things about athletics. It brings people from all walks of life together: young, old, rich, poor, north side, south side. Racial barriers are broken down by athletics, because nobody cares. Everyone just wants something to cheer.”
“I’m going to put my heart and soul into this program. I’m going to make sure our kids act right. I believe this community is hungry, hungry, hungry for success. This job is 24 hours a day, and seven days a week. I can’t wait to get started.”
“We’re going to play fast, fast, fast offensive football, and we’re going to recruit fast, fast, fast defensive players. We’re going to be well-coached and we’re going to be disciplined.”
What are the biggest challenges in building this program?
“We’ve got several. We’ve got to engage this community. I want people to feel invested in the program. Because they will support you. On the field, I haven’t been around, so I don’t know where we are. I’m looking forward to finding out. We’re a little short on guys, so we have to build that up. We have to hit the ground running with recruiting.”
How open do you plan to be with the media?
“We’ll have a much more liberal policy than what I understand they’ve had in the past. I’m not going to lay out the exact guidelines right now. Our players will be more accessible. Our coaches will be more accessible.”
What’s your message to the current team, coming off a 2-10 season?
“Part of that is between the team and me, and I’ll keep it there. I played for several different coaches, and that’s an odd feeling: playing for a different coach than the one who recruited you. I’m just going to tell them a little about myself. I’ll lay out some guidelines.”
What made this job a fit for you?
“There are a lot of great things about Memphis football. Location. There are great athletes in this city. We play in a league where we can be competitive. We have facilities. There are some tangible things that excite me, and some intangibles.”
What makes you feel like you have the unique gifts to handle this job?
“It just happened. I can recruit. I’m organized. I’ve been part of a great program. I’ve seen how it was done [at TCU]. X’s and O’s, I have a background in all that.”
How did the hiring process unfold over the last 48 hours?
“I had actually put all my stuff from my interview in a file, and wrote my thank-you notes . . . which are probably in the mail to you right now. I even went to practice [at TCU] yesterday. I got a phone call and, after practice, sprinted to the car and jumped on a plane. It’s been a lot of fun.
How will you ensure the community is backing you?
“I’m going to get out and beat pots and pans in the street if I have to. My staff is going to be involved in it. It’s important for them professionally. We’re going to display our kids, put them out there. You get into coaching to teach. Being around young people is a thrill.”
Will you schedule SEC teams to generate excitement and draw recruits?
“Scheduling is very important, and the timing of your scheduling is very important. You have to understand where you are. Down the road, I’m open to playing those types of games. I’m not afraid of anyone. You’ve got to schedule smart, and the right way.”
What are some of the points on your blueprint for success?
“It starts with relationships. With your boss, your staff, your players. Our assistant coaches have to be close to our players. The blueprint comes down to the way you practice, the way your offseason is run, how organized you are with recruiting, the way you handle business . . . official and unofficial. You have to do it the right way. It’s not easy. Sometimes it’s the long way.”
The next Memphis Tiger football coach is expected to be announced at a press conference Thursday (noon, at the Hardaway Athletic Hall of Fame). Local sources are reporting Justin Fuente will be named the successor to Larry Porter, dismissed last month after two years in charge of the program. The 35-year-old Fuente has been the offensive coordinator at TCU, a program that climbed into the nation's top 10 in recent years despite not belonging to a BCS conference.
College basketball teams that advance deeply into the NCAA tournament tend to do so behind an alpha male. However deep a squad may be, there tends to be one who emerges as The Guy.
With a second consecutive double-double (27 points and 14 rebounds) tonight in south Florida, sophomore swingman Will Barton may be emerging as The Guy for the 21st-ranked Tigers. With teammates lagging in the first half — Joe Jackson and Wesley Witherspoon were held scoreless — Barton scored 14 of the Tigers' first 21 points and helped the U of M to a 27-26 halftime lead. (After hitting 15 three-pointers against Austin Peay last Saturday, the Tigers missed all seven of their long-distance attempts in the first half tonight.)
The game remained tight over the first 10 minutes of the second half before Memphis pulled away with a 29-13 run to earn its fifth win of the season. Chris Crawford and Tarik Black each added nine points for the Tigers. Witherspoon did not score, missing all six of his attempts from the field. The senior has not reached double figures since scoring 22 in the U of M's opening game of the season. Memphis finished one of 12 from beyond the arc, but held the Hurricanes to 36-percent shooting for the game.
Now 5-2, the Tigers will return to FedExForum for their next game, Sunday against Murray State.
“We’re a pretty simple team,” said Josh Pastner after tonight’s win pushed his Tigers’ record to 4-2 on the young season. “We need to defend, rebound, and run.”
For the U of M, this was a game to focus on the basics against an 0-8 Austin Peay team that is nonetheless expected to be at or near the top of the Ohio Valley Conference. Add a near-record 15 three-pointers made by the Tigers and the basics come easier. Memphis held the Governors to 33-percent shooting, had a rare win in the rebounding category (42-37), and scored 24 points on the fast break.
“We had 23 assists on 32 made field goals,” added the coach. “We really shared the ball well. And yes, we made three-point shots, but the reason we made those shots is that we were in rhythm. We moved the ball; we were unselfish. We may have been too unselfish on some of our 19 turnovers.”
The Tigers rained 11 three-pointers on the Governors in the first half alone, freshman Adonis Thomas hitting all four of his attempts from beyond the arc before the break. Memphis shot a cool 62 percent over the first 20 minutes in building a 52-27 lead.
At Pastner’s urging, Memphis maintained its defensive intensity well into the second half and never allowed Austin Peay within 20 points. With Charles Carmouche benched for a second game (an internal disciplinary matter that will also have him sit out the Tigers’ next game on Tuesday), sophomore Chris Crawford again started and spent most of his 23 minutes on the floor at point guard. He hit three of five three-point attempts and picked up seven assists (with four turnovers).
“I’ll do whatever my coach tells me to do,” says Crawford. “But I really like having the ball in my hands, getting my teammates involved.” His passes led to dunks by D.J. Stephens and Thomas on consecutive possessions midway through the second half, plays that ignited a crowd of 16,989 expecting their 22nd-ranked Tigers to impose themselves on an overmatched foe.
“It’s hard to guard us,” said Thomas after the game. “We’ve got a lot of elite players. Guys who can shoot, inside guys. We’ve got to get a winning streak going. Those two losses in Maui really hurt us. We’ve got to pick it up before the conference season starts [in January].”
Thomas finished the game with 17 points, second only to Will Barton, who scored 22 and grabbed 13 rebounds. Joe Jackson added 11 points and Tarik Black came off the bench to score 10 and grab five boards.
Melvin Baker was the only Governor in double figures with 15 points.
“For 40 minutes tonight, we had good energy,” said Pastner. “There was no drop-off. Basketball is a game of energy. You’re dealing with runs and emotions. Players feed off the crowd and vice versa. You can’t explain it, but basketball is strictly a game of energy.”
The Tigers, newly energized, will travel to Miami to face the Hurricanes next Tuesday night.
NOTE: After the game, Pastner announced that Jimmy Williams has been hired to replace departing assistant Luke Walton (who will return to the Los Angeles Lakers with the NBA’s lockout settled). Williams is a veteran assistant with time at Oklahoma State and Nebraska. He will serve through April 30, 2012, at which time the position will be evaluated long-term.
LAST WEEK: 6-1
Southern Miss (10-2) at Houston (12-0); Saturday, 11 a.m., ABC
The Bowl Championship Series killed Cinderella. She was on life support when it comes to college football long before the 1998 season, when the first BCS title game was held. But the BCS killed her. Think about the last time a college football team "came out of nowhere" to win a championship. Right . . . it's never happened. Because fans are spoon-fed a championship game with the two best teams based on criteria beyond a scoreboard.
The undefeated Houston Cougars don't belong in the conversation when it comes to this year's BCS championship. But if we had as many as eight teams in a playoff, I'd argue the Cougars might don a glass slipper. It would at least be fun to watch record-smashing quarterback Case Keenum (4,726 yards this season and 43 touchdowns) take a shot at one of the BCS fat cats. But it won't happen. (Memphis fans will likely get cheated out of watching Keenum's college send-off. Instead of taking the automatic berth in the Liberty Bowl that normally goes to the C-USA champion, Houston — if still undefeated after this Saturday — could well get a slot in one of the four non-championship BCS bowl games.)
All of this presumes, of course, that the Cougars get by Southern Miss. This is a rematch of the 2006 C-USA title game, won by Houston. (Keenum's team lost to East Carolina two years ago.) The contest features the top two offenses in C-USA, the Golden Eagles averaging 469.8 yards per game and the Cougars a silly 613.2. On the defensive side, Southern Miss ranked second in the league (338.4 yards per game) while Houston was fifth (377.7). Each team gave up just over 20 points per game.
I tend to stand by the "good defense beats a good offense" rule of thumb, but only in games that don't feature a team that scored at least 56 points . . . six times. And I just can't go with a team that lost to UAB (as the Eagles did on November 17th).
Houston 34, Southern Miss 24