March was in the air tonight at FedExForum. The NCAA tournament may be six weeks away, but the Tigers and Thundering Herd played a game that seemed to carry more weight than mere positioning in the Conference USA standings. And if you asked the 17,377 fans in attendance what made the contest different, many would point to the awakening of a Memphis senior who has often been seen as sleep-walking through his final college campaign.
Wesley Witherspoon filled the stat sheet unlike he has since the Tigers’ opening game on November 15th: 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and a blocked shot in 25 minutes of playing time. Just as welcome to his team’s cause, Witherspoon drew two offensive fouls. “He’s an energy guy,” said teammate Will Barton after the game. “When his energy’s high, that’s when he’s at his best. We’ve got to keep it that way. We need him.”
Having started the season 13-4, Marshall entered tonight’s game on a three-game losing streak. An upset of the Tigers would keep them in the hunt for the C-USA regular-season championship, and perhaps establish the Herd as legitimate rivals to the longtime conference pace-setters.
Early three-pointers by DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts helped Marshall to a 21-17 lead, but neither team was able to gain separation before halftime. (There were nine lead changes over the game’s first 20 minutes.) Will Barton scored 13 points over the game’s first 10 minutes and helped the Tigers shoot 50 percent for the first half (equal to Marshall’s rate).
Leading 41-40 at the break, the Herd went on an 8-2 run to open the second half, a period that saw no fewer than 32 fouls called. But after hitting four of six three-pointers in the first half, Marshall’s shooters went cold, misfiring on nine of 11 long-range attempts in the second half.
Limited to 12 minutes in the first half (with two fouls), Memphis center Tarik Black took command on the offensive end in the second half when he scored 13 of his season-high 19 points (he was eight of 11 from the field). He scored on a drive through the lane with 1:16 to play, drew a foul, and converted the free throw to give the Tigers a 75-71 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“I’m nervous before every game,” said Black. “But once they toss it up, you play on adrenaline. Coach Damon Stoudamire says you play the first five minutes on pure adrenaline, then you see who’s the better team. The game settled down and we just played.”
Black acknowledged the role Witherspoon played in earning a win over a formidable foe. “To have a guy who’s 6’9”, with a wingspan like his, play [small forward] or [power forward], that shows our versatility. All of us should be hustle players, diving on the floor, getting the loose balls, gaining possession. It doesn’t matter who does it, but I applaud Wesley tonight for doing it. That’s what helps you win games in conference. It’s all about 50-50 balls.”
Foul trouble caught up with the visitors as Dennis Tinnon (4 points) and Robert Goff (5) each fouled out with more than three minutes to play. Kane played much of the second half with four fouls and finished with 15 points. Shaquille Johnson led Marshall on the scoreboard with 21.
It was a real competitive game,” added Barton, who scored a career-high 29 points and grabbed eight rebounds. “Marshall’s one of the best teams in the league. They think we’re the top dogs and they want to be the top dogs. We had to bring it right back, and that’s what we did.”
The win for Memphis (now 15-6 overall) sets up a clash with Southern Miss next Wednesday in Hattiesburg between the two teams tied atop the C-USA standings (each with a 6-1 league record).
The Justin Fuente era will kick off on September 1st when UT-Martin visits the Liberty Bowl. Here's the complete schedule (home games in bold):
September 1: UT-Martin
September 8: at Arkansas State
September 15: Middle Tennessee
September 22: at Duke
October 6: Rice
October 13: at East Carolina
October 20: UCF
October 27: at SMU
November 3: at Marshall
November 10: Tulane
November 17: at UAB
November 24: Southern Miss
For the first 32 minutes of playing time, tonight’s Memphis-Rice game at FedExForum was without a spark. Late January, a rainy Wednesday night, with, well, Rice in town. No spark.
Then Jacksons collided.
With the Tigers leading by 22 points and 7:31 to play in the game, Memphis guard Joe Jackson took a breakaway pass from Chris Crawford and raced toward what appeared to be a crowd-raising slam dunk. Instead, Rice guard Tamir Jackson closed from behind and slammed his Tiger namesake to the floor. (The 6-foot Joe Jackson has to get seriously elevated to dunk the ball; his fall was a long one. Landed on his left shoulder, which was still sore after the game.)
As the two Jacksons quickly rose and confronted each other under the basket — Joe acknowledged that Tamir was apologizing — three Memphis players and one excited head coach stormed onto the floor to prevent a brawl. The end result: a flagrant-two foul for Tamir Jackson (which came with an automatic ejection) and ejections of Tarik Black, Will Barton, and Trey Draper for leaving the Memphis bench.
“We’ve talked about this before,” said coach Josh Pastner after the game. “We’ve worked on it before. You can’t leave the bench.” Pastner himself ran to the scene, he explained, to break up any potential fight. (He was visibly pointing at Tamir Jackson as the players began separating.) “It’s a normal reaction. I was concerned about Joe. That was a hard foul, and he was airborne. We’re down two starters as it is, with Charles [Carmouche] and Adonis [Thomas].”
Officals after the game confirmed that all three ejected Tiger players will be eligible to play in the team’s next game (Saturday night against Marshall at FedExForum).
Joe Jackson received a technical foul for his reaction to the foul, but was not ejected. He scored seven points and dished out four assists in 27 minutes on the floor, his most action since the Georgetown game over a month ago. “It was a real hard foul,” Jackson admitted after the game. “But we’ve got each others’ back.”
On paper, the game was to be a showdown between a pair of Conference USA Player of the Year candidates. Rice’s Arsalan Kazemi was held to four points and eight rebounds (he’s nursing a sore knee). And the Tigers’ Will Barton scored but nine points and grabbed eight rebounds before his ejection.
Sophomore guard Chris Crawford led Memphis with 15 points, his third game with at least 12 this month. Antonio Barton scored 11 and Tarik Black scored 10 (hitting all five of his field goal attempts) despite being limited to 17 minutes due to foul trouble and the ejection. The Tigers pulled down 16 offensive rebounds and shot 43 percent for the game.
With Marshall’s loss to UAB tonight, the Tigers are now tied atop C-USA with Southern Miss (each team now 5-1 in league play).
“I feel we’re getting better,” said Pastner. “It doesn’t guarantee you any wins, but it guarantees you can sleep at night knowing you’re getting better as a team. We’re getting better in every area. We’ve got to make sure we do it every time we get on the floor.”
The composition of a basketball team is easy to measure. Who’s on the roster? How big are the players? How experienced? Who’s injured?
The style of a team may evolve over the course of a season, but it’s also measurable to some degree. Does the team play intense defense? Does it like to push the pace offensively? Do players move well without the ball?
But what about a basketball team’s personality? In no other sport do the players present themselves so visibly to their audience. No helmets or hats. No facemasks. Only five players competing at any given time. Despite wearing shorts that would hide a Great Dane, basketball players are relatively naked when doing what they do best. And their personalities are exposed in ways that would shame a baseball player and get a football player penalized for excessive something or other.
So what have we learned about the personality of the 2011-12 Memphis Tigers? It would be easy to lean on the old cliché: A team assumes the personality of its coach. Are the Tiger players a reflection of Josh Pastner? Relentlessly positive, ebullient in the face of criticism, deferential in crediting others. (Pastner has yet to face a team that was not “well-coached.”) For these Tigers, is the glass indeed always three-quarters full?
One of the advantages of occupying a courtside seat on press row is reading the players’ facial expressions and hearing a verbal exchange now and then (player-to-player or player-to-coach). Every game is a 40-minute dance of personalities, a waltz of reactions and spontaneous outbursts — positive and negative — that give the sport of basketball much of the color that brings us back every winter. Having read various Tiger expressions for more than two months now, defining this team’s personality is no easier than it would have been the night the players were introduced at Memphis Madness.
Last Saturday at FedExForum, junior forward Ferrakohn Hall was quite visibly upset at his diminished playing time as he sat on the Tiger bench for extended stretches. (Hall played only 11 minutes, his third straight game with fewer than 20 on the floor.) When asked about Hall’s body language after the game, Pastner pulled no punches: “He wasn’t getting the job done, wasn’t producing. We don’t have time to enable or baby.”
Entering the season, sophomore Joe Jackson was expected to be part of a starring trio (along with Will Barton and Adonis Thomas). Jackson now finds himself in a reserve role (behind starting point guard Antonio Barton) and fighting negative energy with every headshake, grimace, or return to the bench. “It happens in the NBA, it happens in high school, it happens in college,” said Pastner after Saturday’s win over SMU. “If you’re a high-level guy, it kills you [to be on the bench]. To be great, you have to have some toughness and some ego. The great ones have that. You have to have a burning desire and want to play every minute.”
Jackson was limited to 14 minutes against the Mustangs and missed four of his five shots. (He found time to make a brilliant pass to Stan Simpson that led to a dunk midway through the first half.) After the game, he had cleared out of the locker room well before the media was allowed in. The glass ain’t half-full for Joe Jackson these days.
Will Barton plays with emotion bursting from his ears (most of it positive this season as his play has taken a form much closer to the hype that followed him to Memphis). Antonio Barton has a smile that almost looks timid. It’s one he can’t suppress when making that peephole with his hand after draining a three-pointer or hitting his brother for an alley-oop jam. Then there’s Wesley Witherspoon. Petulant maybe? This is a player who will sail a shot three feet over the rim, then moments later hit a trey and blow a kiss to the crowd . . . on the road. There are times I’m not sure Witherspoon even knows the glass is there.
“We’re student-athletes,” acknowledged Tarik Black after the SMU win. “We’re students first, but we’re also athletes. This is what we do. It’s our passion, it’s in our hearts.”
Maybe Black hit on the one word that might summarize this Tiger team, and the one word Memphis fans always hope is part of their team’s personality, win or lose: passion. Pump your fists when things go well. Grind your teeth, maybe bow your heads when things break against you. Either way, play the game with passion. After all, we can see it on your faces.
“That’s a tough style to play. It’s like going to the dentist without novocaine.” Tiger coach Josh Pastner was grinning as he described his team’s 13th win of the season Saturday afternoon, but the expression seemed more one of relief than joy. “Coming off a tough loss [Wednesday at UCF] we really didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. But I thought over the last 13 minutes we did a good job defensively.”
Following a 16-minute delay because of a malfunction in the FedExForum lighting system, the Tigers traded punches — and stumbles — with the Mustangs over the game’s first 30 minutes. SMU took a 10-4 lead early before Memphis seemed to gain control on a Stan Simpson dunk for a 23-19 lead with 7:31 left in the first half. But despite nine rebounds (six of them on the offensive end) from Tarik Black in the first 20 minutes, Memphis led only 30-28 at halftime.
The Tigers didn’t score over the first four minutes of the second half and fell behind (32-30) with 15:59 to play. Having regained the lead with 11:30 to go, the Tigers went on a 15-2 run to seize control, spurred in part by Black diving to the floor to gain possession (via timeout) for the home team.
Sophomore Will Barton’s playing status was in question right up to tip-off, as the swingman was nursing a bruised toe suffered in the UCF loss three days earlier. He started, though, and scored a game-high 24 points, including three dunks, one of them on a lob from his brother, Antonio, who stood on the left wing as he released the pass.
“That feels so good,” said Antonio. “It created some momentum. So much energy. It’s part of the connection that [Will and I] have.” Antonio Barton was one of four Tigers — along with his brother, Black, and Chris Crawford — to play at least 34 minutes against the Mustangs as Pastner essentially rotated his bench for one position on the floor. Antonio, for one, welcomed the extra playing time. “Me being the point guard, it’s my job to bring energy, whether I’m on the floor or on the bench. We have a great strength coach [Frank Matrisciano], so fatigue is never a factor.”
Black continues to make an impact on both ends of the floor. His block of an SMU shot led to the Barton-to-Barton alley-oop. He finished the game with 11 points and a career-high 13 rebounds for his first double-double of the season (and just the second of his two-year career).
Said Black after the game, “It was important for us to get out there, with all our potential, and show people who might think we’re not as good as they thought we were . . . to show how good a team we are. We tried to think the three out of the game.”
SMU entered the game averaging 8.1 three pointers per game, but made only five of 27 against the Tigers. Their leading scorer, Robert Nyakundi, was held to 10 points and missed nine of 11 shots from three-point range. Overall, SMU shot 33 percent from the field. Memphis improved to 11-0 on the season when holding its opponent under 40 percent.
The Tigers can now consider themselves somewhat recovered from the last-minute loss at UCF, though the sting of that defeat may be motivating this team for a while. “I’m still not over it now,” said Black. “I’d like this to have been our eighth straight win. I took the loss personally, because I feel like it had a lot to do with me, that I didn’t perform as well as I should. But it’s all about how mentally strong you are. You’re gonna hate a loss. But we talk about it, and we stay together. You don’t necessarily put it aside, but you don’t let it linger. It’s time to bounce back.”
If not a trip to the dentist, the victory was hardly pretty. The Tigers made only two of 16 three-point attempts and committed 12 turnovers with only 13 assists.
A pair of home games are next for Memphis, with Rice in town next Wednesday. The Owls are 11-8 entering their game Saturday against Tulsa and feature one of Conference USA’s top players in forward Arsalan Kazemi.
What might have been the Tigers' gutsiest win of the season evaporated over the game's final frantic seconds tonight in Orlando and became the most crushing loss of the campaign. Having erased a 13-point deficit in the second half at UCF — playing in an arena where the Knights had won all 10 games they've played this season — the Tigers had victory in the hands of Antonio Barton when he was fouled and sent to the free-throw line with Memphis leading 67-65 and 22 seconds left to play.
The last-minute hero of a Tiger win in Orlando last season, Barton missed the front end of a one-and-one, allowing the Knights a chance to tie or win the game in regulation. UCF guard A.J. Rompza badly misfired from near the three-point stripe, but teammate Keith Clanton got around Tiger defender Wesley Witherspoon for a rebound. Clanton muscled the ball up and in to tie the game and drew a foul as Witherspoon fell to the floor. His free throw with four seconds left provided the winning point as the Tigers were unable to get the ball across midcourt for a desperation shot.
For a team precariously close to the fabled NCAA tournament bubble, the loss may prove to be devastating. It was the Tigers' first contest since learning freshman star Adonis Thomas may miss the rest of the season as he recovers from ankle surgery. Memphis falls to 12-6 for the season as its six-game winning streak comes to an end. The Tigers are now 3-1 in Conference USA play, tied with UCF but behind Marshall (4-0).
Sophomore guard Joe Jackson appeared to be the hero when he drained a three-pointer from the top of the arc as the shot-clock expired with 42 seconds left in the game. Will Barton led the Tigers with 24 points. Chris Crawford added 12 and Tarik Black 10. UCF shot 45 percent for the game, the first time since the Memphis winning streak began that a team has shot better than 40 percent.
Clanton and Marcus Jordan each scored 20 points for the victorious Knights. The win is the first for UCF in 11 meetings with Memphis.
The Tigers return to FedExForum for a noon tip-off against SMU this Saturday.
After a pair of narrow wins to open Conference USA play, the Tigers had no trouble at all tonight in Houston, earning their sixth straight victory with a blowout over the Cougars. The 34-point margin of victory is the largest for Memphis this season.
Houston entered the game as C-USA's top-scoring team, averaging 76.6 points per game. But for the sixth straight contest, Memphis held its opponent to less than 40 percent from the field (the Cougars shot 34 percent). With UCF's loss earlier today to Marshall, the Tigers are now tied with the Thundering Herd atop the conference, each with a record of 3-0.
Four Tiger sophomores shared the spotlight at Hofheinz Pavilion. With 14 points and 10 rebounds, Will Barton achieved his ninth double-double of the season (the most for a Tiger since Joey Dorsey had 10 in 2007-08). Coming off a five-block performance against Southern Miss last Wednesday, Tarik Black blocked five more shots and scored 10 points tonight. Chris Crawford hit five three-pointers, tying a career high, on his way to 19 points (a new career high). And Joe Jackson came off the bench for his finest game in more than a month (16 points and five assists).
The Tigers played the game without freshman forward Adonis Thomas, who injured an ankle during practice on Friday. His status for the Tigers' next game — Wednesday at UCF — is unclear.
Memphis improved to 12-5 overall with the win.
When Angelo Johnson released the last shot of tonight’s game at FedExForum — behind the three-point line, his Southern Miss Golden Eagles down two points — the collective protest of 16,246 fans was as loud as an earlier roar that followed a thunderous Will Barton dunk. Having made two of his four earlier shots from long range, Johnson was the right guy for a buzzer-beating trey to send those fans home quietly.
He missed the shot. The ball deflected high off the rim with just over a second to play, then was tipped out of bounds as time expired. As Johnson fell to the floor in defeat, a relieved Memphis team lined up for its fifth consecutive victorious postgame handshake.
“I thought [the shot] was good,” said Tiger coach Josh Pastner. “I slammed the scorer’s table twice, once in madness, the other happiness. He had an open look because we had a breakdown on a defensive switch. Probably because the crowd was so loud, and they couldn’t hear the switch. I actually apologized to Coach [Larry] Eustachy after the game for the way I acted.”
The narrow win gives the Tigers a record of 11-5, 2-0 in Conference USA play. For Southern Miss, the loss ended an 11-game winning streak, the program’s longest in 24 years. Memphis has now beaten the Golden Eagles 18 straight times dating back to 2004.
The win was ugly. The Tigers hit only 19 field goals. The Eagles missed 37 of the 57 shots they took from the field, the fifth straight game — no coincidence — the Tigers have held their opponent under 40 percent. Southern Miss’ leading scorer — one-time Memphis signee Darnell Dodson — didn’t score a single point in 18 minutes of play. For the Tigers, only the Barton brothers reached double-figures in the scoring column (Antonio with 13, Will with 11). Their 60 points were the Tigers' fewest in a win this season.
“We won the game for two reasons,” said Pastner. “We made free throws [18 of 24] and we got stops. That’s a good basketball club. Anyone who says differently doesn’t know basketball. We were fortunate to get the win. We were stagnant offensively and made eight turnovers in the second half. Can’t do that. They had 10 points off turnovers and 14 second-chance points. But hey, we won the game.”
Tarik Black and Chris Crawford each hit a pair of free throws in the final minute to provide the winning margin. Crawford was intentionally fouled on a bizarre play with 31 seconds left after the Eagles’ Jonathan Mills had tied the game with a pair of free throws.
“We owe this win to Tiger Nation,” said Pastner. “I heard Coach Eustachy tell them not to foul. But I think — because the crowd was so loud — the player didn’t hear ‘don’t’.”
Memphis went on a 12-4 run to opened the second half and take a 41-29 lead, only to see Southern Miss rally behind the long-distance shooting of Johnson and LaShay Page (4 of 10 from three-point range). A three-pointer by Johnson gave the visitors a 52-51 lead with just under five minutes to play, but Antonio Barton answered with his second trey of the game to regain the lead for the Tigers. The game was later tied at 54, 56, and 58, but Memphis didn’t trail again.
Tiger center Tarik Black was a defensive force with five blocked shots to go with 10 rebounds and nine points. He smiled after the game at the mention of his two clutch free throws. “That late, you can’t think about anything,” he said. “You’ve got to go to the line, trust your form, and trust your shot.”
“These were two good teams,” added Black, “and we’re in conference play now. We’re fighting, and they came in here to give us a fight. It’s just conference play. We’re just trying to keep our streak going. They had theirs, and it was longer than ours. We’re happy about this and we’ll celebrate tonight, but tomorrow we’ll start getting ready for the next one.”
The Tigers' next two games will be on the road, at Houston this Saturday and next Wednesday at UCF. They’ll return to FedExForum on January 21st to face SMU.
Hall of Fame coach Gene Bartow had his rooting interest challenged whenever Memphis played UAB. It's fitting, then, that the two programs he coached played such a tightly fought affair four days after his passing. After more than 15 lead changes, the Tigers pulled away over the game's final three minutes, but secured the game only after a blocked shot and steal — on two separate plays — with less than two seconds on the clock.
Clinging to a three point lead after Wesley Witherspoon missed two free throws with 16 seconds left, UAB's Jordan Swing had his attempt from beyond the arc blocked by both Witherspoon and Chris Crawford. After Witherspoon turned the ball over on an in-bounds play, the Blazers had one last chance — with .4 of a second showing — but couldn't get off a final shot.
The win extends the Tigers' winning streak to a season-high four games and improves their record to 10-5 (1-0 in Conference USA play). Will Barton led Memphis with 16 points and 10 rebounds — his eighth double-double of the season — while freshman Adonis Thomas added 15 points.
Tiger big men Tarik Black and Ferrakohn Hall each got into foul trouble, largely from having to guard C-USA preseason Player of the Year Cameron Moore. Moore finished with a game-high 20 points but mishandled the ball inside the final minute of play with the contest still in doubt. The senior Witherspoon assumed the role of defending Moore after Hall fouled out with nine minutes to play.
Swing hit five three-pointers for UAB and scored 19 points.
Tonight's game represented the third-annual Bartow Classic, an event that raises funds and awareness in the fight against cancer, the disease that claimed Bartow's life last Tuesday.
The Tigers return to FedExForum to host Southern Miss next Wednesday. Tip-off is at 6 p.m.
No overtime necessary tonight. Not even one. Six weeks after needing 50 minutes to beat Tennessee (in the Maui Invitational), Memphis took the lead eight minutes into the game at FedExForum and never looked back. With 19 points from Antonio Barton and 18 from Tarik Black, the Tigers extended their winning streak to three games entering Conference USA play and ended a Volunteer streak at four games.
Tiger swingman Will Barton came off the bench for the first time this season, a mild punishment for having been late to a team function. He still played 31 minutes and scored 10 points (though he missed nine of 13 shots from the field).
Having stolen the show in Maui with 32 points and 20 rebounds, UT forward Jeronne Maymon was held in check tonight (9 points, 9 rebounds), as Black stayed out of foul trouble (36 minutes) and junior Ferrakohn Hall was able to start and play 19 minutes. (Hall was not eligible for the prior game against the Vols.) Sophomore guard Trae Golden was the only Tennessee player in double-figures in the scoring column with 22 points.
Sophomore Chris Crawford filled the stat box for Memphis with five points, six rebounds, a game-high five assists, and a game-high four steals.
Antonio Barton acknowledged the charged atmosphere right from tip-off. “It was all the guys being locked in, and coming together for a common goal,” he said after the game. “I came out with intensity, a defensive edge. Everything else will take care of itself. Tennessee has always been a rival, so you gotta bring it all, and leave it on the court. We came out for warm-ups tonight and everyone was hyped.”
There was a brief skirmish midway through the second half after Tiger guard Joe Jackson was knocked to the floor under the basket by Vol guard Wes Washpun. No punches were thrown — thanks in part to an animated Tiger coach Josh Pastner sprinting onto the floor to play peacemaker — and the game resumed after technical fouls were issued to Washpun and Will Barton.
For all the energy in the atmosphere — the crowd of 18,334 is the largest at FedExForum this season — the game was far from elegant. The teams combined to make only 10 of 37 shots from three-point range. They combined for 28 assists and 31 turnovers. This was not the #1 Tigers and the #2 Vols so many remember from February 2008. But it was a decisive win for Memphis, something that has grown all too rare this winter.
“We might have won the rebounding battle,” said Black. “But we still made some mistakes. We have a lot to get better at. We showed that we can battle tonight, though. That we can bang. I think that’s what people have been waiting for.”
Black’s 18 points are a season high and his seven rebounds are his second-most in 14 games. He had five slam dunks, three of them on lobs from teammates. “My expectations for this team are limitless, because we have so much potential,” added Black. “We just have to fulfill it. We stick together, like brothers. We wanted to show we can play hard as a team.”
“I’m very proud of the guys,” said Pastner. “It was a grind-out game. We won a lot of 50-50 balls, and that was the difference for us. I think Tennessee is better than their record [now 7-7]. We’re hoping they win a lot of games in the SEC, because it will help their RPI [ranking].”
Pastner noted the effort of sophomore guard Joe Jackson, who came off the bench after sitting out the Charlotte game last Saturday for personal matters. “Joe was really, really good, and set a great tone defensively. Everyone contributed.” Jackson finished with seven points and four assists in 15 minutes of playing time.
The Tigers (9-5) travel to Birmingham to open C-USA play Saturday night. They’ll return to FedExForum on January 11th to face Southern Miss.
• The crowd observed a moment of silence before the game in honor of former Tiger coach Gene Bartow, who died Tuesday in Birmingham at the age of 81.
• A pair of former Memphis All-Americans were introduced in separate presentations at center court. Football star DeAngelo Williams, who just finished his sixth season with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, was Conference USA’s Male Athlete of the Year for the 2005-06 academic year. Baseball star Chad Zurcher, now a farmhand with the New York Mets, won the same award for 2010-11.
For the second straight year, the Memphis Tiger family has lost one of its legends. Almost exactly nine months after the passing of Larry Finch, Hall of Fame coach Gene Bartow died late Tuesday at his home in Birmingham. The 81-year-old Bartow had been battling stomach cancer.
Bartow coached what was then called Memphis State to the 1973 NCAA championship game where the Tigers fell to UCLA in what remains the most significant game in the program's history. Bartow was the bespectacled commander of a team that rose with the development of Finch and fellow Memphian Ronnie Robinson. Today, banners for all three hang from the rafters at FedExForum. Bartow was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, the same year he was diagnosed with cancer.
After coaching four seasons in Memphis and one at Illinois (1974-75), Bartow was chosen to succeed the legendary John Wooden at UCLA. He led the Bruins to the 1976 Final Four, but then departed to start the basketball program at UAB, where he coached from 1978 to 1996. The basketball arena where the Blazers play was renamed in Bartow's honor in 1997. (UAB hosts Memphis this Saturday at the annual Bartow Classic, an event that raises money for the Coach Gene Bartow Fund for Cancer Research.)
In 34 seasons as a college coach, Bartow won 647 games. He later joined the front office of the Memphis Grizzlies and FedExForum.
More often than not, a college basketball season is about revelations. The team we think we know on Thanksgiving is seldom the team we see on the court after New Year’s Day. And developments between New Year’s and St. Patrick’s Day can transform a team from also-ran status to national champions (see UConn, 2011 edition). The 2011-12 Memphis Tigers are hardly the team most fans and prognosticators expected to see when the team was introduced during Memphis Madness in November. Here’s a look at three misperceptions, and the new reality we must accept . . . at least for now.
• Misperception #1: The Tigers’ depth will be their greatest strength.
When the season opened on November 15th, junior forward Drew Barham was weighing an option to redshirt this season. Having played a complementary role — seven minutes a game — as a sophomore, Barham chose to redshirt because of the sheer number of players in front of him on coach Josh Pastner’s depth chart. Adding newcomers Adonis Thomas, Stan Simpson, and Ferrakohn Hall to the mix, Pastner appeared to have 11 players (not including Barham) to juggle over a game’s 200 player minutes.
By December 17th, when the Tigers traveled to Louisville, Pastner was playing a seven-man rotation. Due to suspension, injury, or old-fashioned ineffectiveness, Charles Carmouche, Wesley Witherspoon, Simpson, and D.J. Stephens had fallen off the menu when it came to prepping for the Cardinals. In both the loss to Louisville and a loss at Georgetown five days later, the Tigers looked undermanned in both talent and number. When (or if) the Tigers regain a couple of impact players for their bench will play a big factor in the steep climb toward an NCAA tournament bid.
• Misperception #2: The Tigers will share star power.
Who would be The Man for this year’s team? Point guard Joe Jackson, the hero of last year’s Conference USA tournament? Tarik Black, the big man who led the team in rebounding last year as a freshman? What about freshman sensation Adonis Thomas? Would Witherspoon bounce back as a senior and take command? It seemed like this could be the rare team that passed the game ball from one player to the next, depending on the day of the week.
Nope. This is Will Barton’s team. The lone preseason all-conference pick for Memphis, Barton has played to form and beyond. Through 13 games, he’s averaging 19.8 points and 9.2 rebounds, figures unmatched for a season in Memphis since Omar Sneed in 1997-98. Barton already has five games with 20 points and 10 rebounds, the most since Chris Massie had seven such performances in 2003. (The last Tiger to do this 10 times was Sneed in 1997-98.) Jackson has been as mercurial as he was as a freshman, missing the Charlotte game on New Year’s Eve for, as Pastner put it, a “personal matter.” Black is averaging 8.5 points and merely 3.9 rebounds, which makes you wonder about the weight he shed last offseason. Thomas is bound for stardom, but is not yet the consistent threat the Tigers need him to be. Bottom line: The 2011-12 Tigers will go as far as Will Barton takes them.
• Misperception #3: The Tigers’ athleticism would allow them to hang their hat on defense.
Pastner emphasized ball-control and rebounding during the preseason, but always predicated his talking points on the Tigers playing lock-down defense. He had the stallions in the barn. It was only a matter of intensity, that “want-to” intangible.
Through 13 games, the Tigers rank 11th among the 12 C-USA teams in scoring defense, allowing 70.9 points per game (they’re second in offense with 77.8 points scored). Remarkably, Memphis is second in the league (behind Tulane) in field-goal percentage defense, its opponents shooting just 38.2 percent. Trouble is, the Tigers are giving up a lot of shots (812, or 98 more than the Green Wave, a team that has played one more game than Memphis). The Tigers are dead last in C-USA in opponents’ rebounds (37.4). With Black, Simpson, and Hall on the roster, this is the ugliest number the Tigers carry entering the new year. Hall has averaged 5.4 boards in the five games he’s played, the only player other than Will Barton to average as many as four. Look for Hall’s minutes to climb from his current average of 22 unless Black and Simpson start cleaning the glass.
With Tennessee visiting Wednesday night and C-USA play opening Saturday (at UAB), the Tigers have a chance for a new beginning this week. Perhaps a new year is just what this team needs to further clarify a still-blurry identity.