Let’s go ahead and get this over with: Tonight’s Tiger victory was ’Spoon-fed.
On an evening when Wesley Witherspoon and Preston Laird were honored as departing seniors, Memphis avenged a January loss to UCF by eviscerating the Knights in front of 17,784 raucous fans at FedExForum. (Even with a late tip-off on Tuesday night, it was the second-largest crowd of the season.) The win improves the Tigers’ record to 22-8 and clinches at least a tie for the Conference USA regular-season championship (the program’s first since 2009). Memphis (12-3 in C-USA) can win the league outright with a victory at Tulsa Saturday.
For the fourth time this season, the Tigers held an opponent under 20 points in the first half, taking a 33-18 lead as time expired on a three-pointer from the top of the arc by, you guessed it, Wesley Witherspoon. (It was the only three-pointer made in a combined 13 attempts for the two teams before halftime.)
After the break, things got silly. The Tigers went on a 30-11 run over a ten-minute stretch to take a 76-38 lead with more than five minutes left to play. What was supposed to be a nail-biter between a pair of 20-win teams turned into a freestyle exhibition, the kind a home crowd might expect in mid-November, not so much in late February.
Will Barton led the Tigers with 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season, but his first since January 14th. The sophomore candidate for C-USA Player of the Year added four assists and four blocked shots in 31 minutes of action.
Joe Jackson dished out a career-high 10 assists and played a career-high 37 minutes, in part because Antonio Barton sat out the second half with an ankle sprain. (Barton’s status for Saturday’s game is undetermined.) Tarik Black — leading C-USA in field-goal percentage — hit seven of his eight shots and finished with 14 points in 19 minutes. After the game, Black described the recipe for tonight’s blowout.
“It was all about defense,” said Black. “It led to some fast-break buckets, and that’s what it takes to win games.” As for his ever-growing impact with the ball in his hands, Black acknowledged the twin elements to his team peaking offensively. “I’m playing off of instinct now. If I feel like I can score it, I’ll do it. If not, I’ll pass it back out and wait for another opportunity. If you don’t have an inside game, the outside game can’t show, because the defense can guard the perimeter and not worry about the inside. With a team like ours, when you can attack with both inside and outside, it’s really an impossible task to stop.”
Relishing his senior spotlight, Witherspoon scored 15 points — his second-highest total of the season and most since the opening game in November — and added seven rebounds and four steals. “That’s my guy,” said Black. “I love him to death. We won’t have any bad memories about tonight. He’ll go home happy and hang out with his family.”
With the game in hand and just under four minutes to play, Laird entered to the crowd’s delight. The Germantown High School alum hit a free throw and short jumper for his first points since his sophomore season. “I’m just as happy for him,” said Black. “He doesn’t get as much playing time, but he’s just as good a teammate. We’re going to study tomorrow; he’s going to help me out on a test. That’s teamwork.”
Sophomore guard Chris Crawford added 11 points, five rebounds, and five assists to the stat box. He was all smiles after the party atmosphere of what amounts to a revenge win, but pointed to the importance of what remains for his team with postseason play looming. “The last time we played them, they hurt us, and stormed the court,” said Crawford. “We had to come out hard tonight. It’s like a dream come true, playing in front of 17,000 or 18,000 fans. It’s a great feeling when your team is in rhythm like that. Saturday [at Tulsa], it’s an early game [tip-off at 11 a.m.], and we haven’t been real good in early games. We gotta get some rest and come out with a lot of energy like we did tonight.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve been healthy and been able to play this way. This was an emotional game for me. — Wesley Witherspoon (November 15, 2011)
Say this for Wesley Witherspoon: he didn’t take the easy way out. Few Tiger fans would have raised an eyebrow had Witherspoon chosen to follow coach John Calipari out of town after his freshman season (2008-09). The Atlanta native had been named Conference USA’s Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 4.0 points and 13.7 minutes off the bench for a Tiger team that went 33-4 behind stars Tyreke Evans, Antonio Anderson, and Robert Dozier. The award surprised many, even some in the Tiger locker room, as teammate Roburt Sallie had averaged 5.8 points and 15.3 minutes as a reserve. But the honor seemed to forecast a higher standard for Witherspoon. Was he prepared for the next step under a rookie head coach?
Witherspoon started 20 games as a sophomore and averaged 12.5 points and 4.6 rebounds, good enough to earn third-team All-CUSA honors. But he began to show signs of being that infamous “tweener,” a player not quite suited for guard duty, but also lacking the size, strength, or skill set to fit naturally at either forward position. (You’ll see few players 6’9” get their shot blocked more often than did Witherspoon.)
Mentioned in preseason all-conference talk for 2010-11, Witherspoon endured a junior season he’d rather forget. Knee soreness cost him 10 games and a suspension two more (he allegedly mocked a coach over the team-bus intercom system). When on the floor — he played 23 games and averaged 22.9 minutes — Witherspoon was productive, if inconsistent. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.3 rebounds but did not repeat as an all-conference honoree.
Then came opening night of Witherspoon’s senior season, November 15th against Belmont: 22 points, 8 for 8 from the field (3 for 3 from behind the arc) in 28 minutes. Witherspoon was visibly relieved in a jubilant postgame locker room, acknowledging the frustration of his junior season. (His remarks can be considered chatty for a young man who often replied to questions by opening with, “I’m a basketball player.”) The Tigers were loaded with a quintet of talented sophomores. How high might they rise if a senior swingman became the ’Spoon that stirred the drink?
Over the next 17 games, Witherspoon failed to reach double figures in the scoring column. In hockey terms, he was essentially a healthy scratch in the Tigers’ two games before Christmas, playing a total of eight minutes against Lipscomb and Georgetown. He endured a nine-game stretch in which he played less than 20 minutes seven times.
Roller coasters climb their highest, though, after a long drop. Witherspoon’s playing time got a booster with the injury that sidelined freshman Adonis Thomas in mid-January. And the senior played a huge role in big wins over Marshall and Xavier (scoring 12 points in both), games the Tigers had to secure to keep hopes of an NCAA tournament berth alive. Since Thomas was forced to the bench, Memphis has gone 10-3. With 927 career points, Witherspoon will likely come up just short of the 1,000-point club (he’s averaging 6.3 this season). But you get the sense that, if this team is to (A) reach the NCAAs and (B) advance to the second weekend, Witherspoon will have to make an impact, be it in the scoring column or elsewhere.
Along with fellow seniors Preston Laird and Charles Carmouche, Wesley Witherspoon will walk to center court before Tuesday night’s game with UCF at FedExForum. (Better yet, he’ll receive his degree this May.) Needless to say, “Spoon” will get a warm send-off from Memphis fans that have grown familiar with his ups, downs, and in-betweens over the last four seasons. He’s earned the salute. He finished what he started.
The Tigers passed a major road test this afternoon in Huntington, West Virginia, earning their 21st win of the season to retain their lead in the Conference USA standings with two games to play before the league tournament (March 7-10). After scoring a career-high 29 points against the Thundering Herd in a win at FedExForum on January 28th, Tiger sophomore Will Barton led the way again with 24. He converted a pair of three-point plays in the game's final six minutes to lock up the victory.
Returning to the scene of a 15-point loss last season, Memphis took the lead early, led by four first-half dunks from Tarik Black. Marshall closed to within a point (39-38) until Chris Crawford drained a three-pointer from the left wing as time expired in the first half. The U of M then scored the first 10 points of the second half to take a 52-38 lead and Marshall was unable to get closer than seven points the rest of the way.
Black hit all eight of his shots from the field and finished with 16 points for the Tigers. Joe Jackson hit 13 of 15 free throws and finished with 21 points. The Tigers' player of the game, though, may well have been sophomore guard Chris Crawford. The pride of Sheffield High School hit six of nine shots from the field for 16 points, dished out eight assists, grabbed seven rebounds, and picked up three steals.
Memphis shot a blistering 60 percent for the game and held Marshall to 40 percent. Herd star DeAndre Kane missed 14 of 19 field goal attempts and seven of 11 from the free-throw line. Kane and Jackson were in the middle of a confrontation midway through the second half after Kane took Jackson down on a layup attempt by the Memphis point guard. Tiger coach Josh Pastner entered the fracas, as he did in a similar stare-down with Rice on January 25th. No players (or coaches) were ejected. Kane was charged with an intentional foul.
With the win, Memphis improves to 11-3 in C-USA play. Southern Miss and Tulsa — each 9-4 — play in separate games tonight. The Tigers host one of their league rivals that beat them — the UCF Knights — next Tuesday at FedExForum (tip-off at 8 pm).
MILESTONE NOTE: Will Barton now needs 37 points to become the 47th Tiger to reach 1,000. He would become the first Memphis sophomore to join the club since Darius Washington in 2006.
If you need names on the back of the jerseys to identify basketball players in late February, you have the wrong guys on the floor. Fuming over Saturday’s upset loss to UTEP at FedExForum, Tiger coach Josh Pastner made some culture adjustments before tonight’s tilt with East Carolina, including a new approach to fashion.
“Saturday was a bad day at a bad time,” said Pastner after his team had handled the Pirates. “I was waking up in cold sweat. I had to snap out of it. I was furious. I felt our approach wasn’t right before the [UTEP] game. But it happens. I eliminated the locker room. I eliminated anything they wear with ‘Memphis’ on it. Nothing. It’s a privilege and honor to wear that [jersey]. It’s not a right. Based on tonight — I think they had a really great attitude — I will let them back in the locker room. But no more names on the back of the jersey, and if it’s up to me, I don’t think I’ll have names on the jerseys for my career here, as long as I’m the coach at Memphis. It’s got to be about the name on the front.”
Perhaps more significant to the team’s prospects for the balance of the regular season, Pastner returned sophomore Joe Jackson to the starting lineup for the first time since the loss at Georgetown on December 22nd. Jackson replaced Chris Crawford, a player Pastner felt needed a “little kick in the butt” after poor body language during the UTEP loss. Jackson played 32 minutes (his most since December 19th), scored 13 points and dished out seven assists.
ECU actually led the game, 26-25, with 6:21 to play in the first half. Pirate guard Miguel Paul hit all three of his three-point attempts and scored 17 points over the game’s first 20 minutes. A late push by the Tigers, who shot 56 percent in the first half, gave Memphis a 37-32 lead at the break. A 16-7 run over the first nine minutes of the second half opened up a 14-point lead for the Tigers in front of the smallest crowd this season at FedExForum (15, 744). Will Barton led the home team with 25 points despite leaving the game briefly in the second half with a leg cramp.
Barton acknowledged a boost from Jackson’s play. “He’s one of the best in the country, when he’s just playing basketball and not thinking,” said Barton. “He’s a big-time talent, he’s just a naturally quiet guy. I like catching lobs from Joe . . . he wants to do so well. I trust him to get the ball to me so I can finish.”
The Tigers held Paul to three points in the second half and the Pirate team to 22-percent shooting over the last 20 minutes. The Memphis defense forced a season-high 26 turnovers, with six blocked shots and 15 steals (five of them from Wesley Witherspoon).
The victory gives the Memphis program a 12th consecutive 20-win season, with three tests remaining before the Conference USA tournament. Sophomore center Tarik Black — 9 points and 9 rebounds tonight — touched on the importance of taking some momentum to Marshall for Saturday’s game. “When we lose, we always feel uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s time for us to balance the scales again. It balances us mentally. Marshall’s always a tough place to play. We plan on getting up there, playing hard, and erasing what happened last year [a blowout loss to the Thundering Herd].”
If you were at FedExForum on February 4th, it's the play you remember. If you weren't there — and missed it on TV — it's the Tiger highlight you'll be seeing as the college basketball season winds down. D.J. Stephens' convincing slam against Xavier has been nominated for Intersport's "Dunk of the Year." It's one of six nominees this week, and you can vote for D.J. at facebook.com/dunksoftheyear. The top two dunks (as voted by fans) will advance to a final eight for the season (after four weeks of preliminary voting). The winner will be announced on ESPN2 on March 26th.
This was more than a stumble. Mark today’s Tiger loss down as an all-out face-plant in front of 16,427 friendly fans at FedExForum. Grade: F.
“I was disappointed with our approach,” said coach Josh Pastner after his team’s first loss in five games. “We got up 9-0, and we should have been up more. We didn’t take advantage. We had opportunities to make some runs and we didn’t get the job done. When you lose, the coach deserves most of the criticism and blame. I’ve been telling the guys, for us to mature as a team, we have to be able to handle success [the Tigers had won 13 of their last 15 games]. We are not out of the woods. Nobody played well today, except Tarik Black.”
Entering today’s game, UTEP had not won a road game in Conference USA play (0-5). The Miners hadn’t played in a week, since beating Tulane in overtime at El Paso. (Remember, Memphis beat Tulane in New Orleans by 18 points three days ago.) The visitors didn’t score in the first seven minutes of this afternoon’s game and trailed 19-6 with 7:36 to play before halftime. Behind a 16-9 run to finish the game, though, UTEP leaves Memphis with a third straight win.
“We let one slip,” said Black. “We have to bounce back. You can’t really worry about how damaging [this loss] might be. You’ve got to keep moving forward. We have to put teams away once we get up early, and we didn’t do that today. The reason why? I can’t tell you.”
Black scored a career-high 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season. But while the sophomore center hit 10 of 13 shots from the field, his teammates were merely 8 for 35 (23 percent).
Memphis led by five points with 6:40 to play and never trailed until Miner forward Cedrick Lang hit a pair of free throws for a 57-55 UTEP lead with 1:19 to play. Jacques Streeter hit two more free throws and Memphis native Gabriel McCulley hit one of two to give the Miners a 60-55 lead with 23 seconds to play.
Will Barton hit a three-pointer from the top of the arc to close the gap to 60-58 with 17.8 seconds left. When Joe Jackson tipped the in-bounds pass off a Miner player with 13 seconds to go, Memphis called timeout to set up a play to tie or win. Pastner called for a screen from Chris Crawford and a curl to the basket for Will Barton, but Barton instead shook his defender and attempted a three-pointer as time expired. The shot was just enough off target to send Barton to the floor in agony. The Tigers’ leading scorer this season, he finished the game with nine points, having missed six of nine shots from the field.
“The challenge is getting our focus back, and maintaining it,” said Barton. “We got a little too complacent. We gotta get back to what works. This is one of the most demoralizing losses, because of how well we were playing. We let up a lot of ground with this loss.”
The Miners entered the game with an RPI of 189, almost triple the highest number of any previous opponent to have beaten Memphis (UCF). They hit four of six three-pointers in the second half and were led by Michael Perez with 15 points. UTEP can consider the win a measure of payback for the loss they absorbed to Memphis in the C-USA championship game last March in El Paso, a defeat that kept the Miners out of the NCAA tournament.
As for the Tigers, they find themselves precariously close to the same position they were in last March, in which a C-USA tourney championship was required for a ticket to the big dance. Now 19-8, they host East Carolina next Wednesday, then finish regular-season play with three real tests (at Marshall, UCF, and at Tulsa).
“Coming into today’s game, we were in a great position for the NCAA tournament,” said Pastner. “But we took some steps deeper into the woods. Until we get closer to the light, we’re not in. Our margin for error now is slim to none. We stubbed our toe.”
A stubbed toe and a face-plant. The madness awaits.
The U of M baseball team opens its season Friday against Southern Illinois at FedExPark (5 p.m.). The Tigers aim to build upon last season’s 30-27 record, but in a league with Top-25 competition like Rice, UCF, and Southern Miss. (Conference USA is a stronger baseball league than basketball.) Coach Daron Schoenrock enters his eighth season with hopes of leading his team back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. I sat down with “Coach Rock” earlier this month to get a sense of where the program’s heading.
On the 2012 pitching staff:
“We have two experienced weekend starters returning: Dan Langfield and Clayton Gant [both juniors]. Dan is projected to be a high pick in the draft this year, so we’ll probably lose him [after the season]. Lots of scouts coming through to see him. Clayton had Tommy John surgery at Tennessee, left, and came here. He’s fully recovered. It’s taken almost two years to get his velocity back. Chase Joiner [a senior] has also recovered from Tommy John. He’ll be a big factor for us, whether it’s in the bullpen or a midweek starter. Sam Moll is a lefty who could be a midweek starter.”
On the mental component to a pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery:
“You go through the whole strengthening program, where you’re not throwing at all. Then you go through a phase where you progress to long-toss. Then you go to the mound. The last stage is actually attacking hitters in the box. The elevation of the competitive moment has you extend more . . . and that’s the biggest hurdle mentally. When you’re not thinking about your arm but thinking about making a certain pitch at this moment.”
How do you find left-handed pitchers? It’s hard enough for big-league scouts.
“In the last three or four years, there have been more, because of youth baseball and how many teams are traveling. You’re able to find more lefties. They’re playing year-round, so there’s more time to evaluate. We signed seven recruits last fall and three of them are left-handed pitchers. College baseball is a battle of pitching depth.”
Beyond pitching, what are the strengths of this years’ team?
“To overcome any lack of depth [in pitching], you have to be really solid defensively. You may have to run out a pitcher who’s just a strike thrower, who will put a lot of balls in play. Defensively, we have to be able to handle that kind of pitcher. Our senior captain, Jacob Wilson, is our returning third-baseman. He’s played here every day since his freshman season, and he made only three errors last season. [Sophomore] Ethan Gross will play shortstop. We’re really efficient on the left side of the infield.
“And we have all of our firepower returning offensively. Our RBI guys. We lost Chad Zurcher and Drew Martinez to the draft, so we’ll have to find [top-of-the-order] hitters.
On his longevity as Tiger baseball coach:
“We haven’t broken through and done amazing things in one big-splash year. It’s been steady. We’ve reached the point where we have some stability with our roster. When I took the job, I brought a different recruiting plan. For example, you never want to lose your entire weekend rotation in one year. When I took the job, all three starters from the year before signed pro contracts. Now we’re losing one or two. So you have some continuity. And you never want to lose your whole infield.”
On adjusting when players capture the attention of pro scouts:
“The key is communication with the individual player. I’ve never been a guy that stresses holding juniors back. If they’ve gone through three years and they’re attractive to pro scouts, that’s the only time they’re going to get paid [a signing bonus]. A junior for us who gets drafted may get a $70,000 signing bonus, then he’ll never be able to negotiate his salary again until he reaches the big leagues. Now, if he comes back as a senior and ends up getting drafted in the 20th round, he’ll get $1,000.
“I try and get them as ready — physically and mentally — as I can. It comes down to a player having to trust his ability [if he stays]. You become an advisor, a parent in some ways. We’ll have some seniors get attention, not so much as major-league prospects, but to fill out minor-league rosters. Then it’s a matter of how well you play in the minor leagues. And they leave here with a degree.”
On the evolution of the Tiger program:
“I had no idea [FedExPark] would happen as soon as it did. A lot of people advised me against taking the job because Memphis had never really done anything to elevate the facilities. I felt like if we improved the product on the field and did the right things off the field, something good would happen. We went to the NCAA regionals in 2007. Then it was a two-year project to get this facility done. We had to play in Millington one season, and that was tough. Now that we’ve been here, the stability of the program is at an all-time high.”
On the possibilities of Memphis reaching the College World Series in Omaha:
“There’s a school like Memphis that reaches Omaha every year, just like Butler in basketball. You get into the field of 64 and then get hot for two weeks. Fresno State won a national championship a few years ago and at one point they were 14-17.”
On adding Tennessee to the schedule for the first time since 1995 (the Tigers play in Knoxville on April 4th then host the Vols on May 9th):
“It’s huge for the Memphis Tiger fan base. I worked really hard to get this done. I had tried on our end continuously. The logistics of baseball travel make it a challenge. We bus. We’re playing them on our way to Marshall, then they’re playing us on their way to Ole Miss. That only happens every other year. I’ve known [UT coach] Dave Serrano a long time. I don’t want to go on the road a lot if we don’t get something in return. Being able to do a home-and-home thing, it makes sense. I like to keep games like this on the schedule for the challenge, the quality of competition.”
On big-league managers he admires:
“I guess I’m more like Bobby Cox. Every day is the same routine. Make the players feel like they understand, and they’re comfortable with what’s going on. Not too many highs, not too many lows. If I have to figure out a way to get you excited 56 times, I may not have the right player. It’s more about establishing continuity through routine.
“And since moving to Memphis — it’s such a Cardinal-based town — I’ve come to admire Tony LaRussa, too. I don’t get in players’ faces a lot. I challenge them in other ways. I like to keep the dream of the big-league experience alive in the locker room. That creates a different kind of work ethic, outside what we’ve prescribed.”
On handling players who don’t realize the dream of pro baseball:
“You want to never look back and think, if I would have done this or that . . . . I coach them like they’re all going to play in the big leagues. In that process, we’re going to impact them in other ways: you are going to class, you are going to make your study-hall hours. We’ve had the highest team GPA in Conference USA two years in a row now. We’re here to reach the pinnacle of this game. Let us, as coaches, handle all the ‘Plan B’ things. They’ll take care of themselves by how we operate on a daily basis.”
The Tigers avoided what could have been an ugly stumble tonight in New Orleans. Trying to extend their mastery over the Green Wave to 20 straight games, the Tigers found themselves trailing, 33-32, at halftime. Tulane's freshman star Ricky Tarrant scored 15 points over the game's first 20 minutes and helped his teammates shoot 52 percent from the field before the break.
Down 45-43 with 15:10 to play in the game, Memphis went on a 14-7 run to take the lead for good. After missing five of seven shots in the first half, sophomore Will Barton hit all five of his shots in the second half and finished with 20 points and nine rebounds to lead the Tigers. Tarik Black added 18 points, while Chris Crawford (11), Joe Jackson (10), and Wesley Witherspoon (10) made it five Tigers in double figures.
The win is the fourth straight for Memphis and improves the Tigers' record to 19-7. Now 9-2 in Conference USA play, they're assured of at least retaining a tie for the league lead with Southern Miss. Tulane falls to 15-10 (3-8).
The Tigers return home for a tilt with UTEP on Saturday. Tip-off at FedExForum is scheduled for noon.
With a Big East vibe filling FedExForum for the first time since Wednesday’s culture-changing announcement, the Tigers played as though they needed to prove there is indeed a gap between Memphis basketball at its best and Conference USA. Facing a league rival that had won four of its last five games — including an upset of first-place Southern Miss three nights ago — Memphis hit six three-pointers in the game’s first 10 minutes, led 29-11 with eight minutes to play before halftime, and relegated the league’s preseason Player of the Year to bench duty in the second half.
The Tigers hit a total of 14 three-pointers for the game (two shy of the program record), with Chris Crawford leading the way (4) followed by Antonio Barton (3), Will Barton, Wesley Witherspoon, and D.J. Stephens (2 each), and Joe Jackson (1). Overall, the Tigers shot 53 percent from the floor and held UAB to 34 percent. Blazer star Cameron Moore made only one of six shots and played only two minutes in the second half.
Tiger coach Josh Pastner insisted his team needs improvement, but couldn’t identify a specific area tonight. (UAB grabbed exactly one offensive rebound.) “I’m proud of being plus-13 on the glass,” he said. “Tonight we shot the ball well, but they weren’t forced. We got our shots off of what we run in practice. Drive, kick, and make the extra pass. We had 18 assists on 26 made field goals. We’ve had some carry-over, and games like this give you confirmation.”
When asked if the Big East news helped boost his team’s play, Pastner said the league move seems like it’s “an eternity away,” and that his focus remains solely on the next game at hand and winning, yes, the Conference USA championship.
Will Barton and Crawford tied for the scoring lead with 16 points. Barton also led Memphis with nine rebounds. He acknowledged that shooting like 17,308 fans saw tonight is contagious. “Running, smiling, slapping high fives . . . when we have that type of energy, we’re hard to beat,” he said. “Everyone’s sharing the ball, no one cares who’s scoring the most. We’re getting under guys on defense, rebounding. When someone’s hot, it makes me want to keep getting him the ball, and when your opportunity comes, you feel more confident. Hey, I can hit ’em, too.”
In addition to his shooting, Crawford dished out four assists (without a turnover) and picked up five steals, a new career high. He also relished the shooting contagion. “When we see one person make one, we all feel like we need to,” he said. “It always rubs off. We love each other, and feed off each other.”
Jackson and Witherspoon each contributed nine points in 22 minutes off the bench. The pair seems to have embraced roles as super-subs. (They combined for a total of five points in the win at UAB on January 7th.)
In the midst of a five-game “don’t stumble” stretch of their season, the Tigers (18-7) travel to Tulane to face the Green Wave next Wednesday. They remain tied atop C-USA with Southern Miss, each team 8-2 in league play.
A shot this morning of 46th and Broadway in Manhattan.
Anfernee Hardaway played his last game as a Memphis Tiger on March 18, 1993 (a loss to Western Kentucky in the opening round of the NCAA tournament). Among the eight Tiger greats to have had their numbers retired, Hardaway is the last to have worn that number in game action. (Forest Arnold had his number retired in 1995, but starred for Memphis from 1952 to 1956.) Which means almost 19 seasons have now passed since a Tiger star received the ultimate honor from the university he represented on the hardwood.
The drought is too long. Going back to 1952, when Arnold played his first game, the longest previous drought between honored players was 13 years, from 1957 (when Win Wilfong played his last game) to 1970 (when Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson played their first). The Sixties weren’t exactly a golden era for Tiger hoops. Between one NCAA tournament appearance and three NIT trips, Memphis won only one postseason game in the decade (at the 1963 NIT). But since 1993? The Tigers have appeared in nine NCAA tournaments, winning 16 games (in addition to 14 wins in the NIT over the period). Far too much success for there to be no player representing the era in the rafters at FedExForum.
I’ve got the guy. But first, a look at three candidates who could make a claim for the honor:
• Rodney Carney, #10 (2002-06) — Carney thrilled Tiger fans from two extremes, as a high-flying dunker and a three-point marksman (his 287 treys are a U of M record). He finished his career with 1,901 points, behind only Keith Lee and Elliot Perry. Carney was a second-team All-America in 2006. Among the top five scorers in Memphis history, Carney is the only player not to have his number retired.
• Chris Douglas-Roberts, #14 (2005-08) — A first-team All-America in 2008, CDR is ninth on the Tiger career-scoring chart (1,545 points) despite playing only three seasons with Memphis. He was part of 11 NCAA tournament wins.
• Robert Dozier, #2 (2005-09) — Dozier played in 148 games as a Tiger, third-most in the program’s history. He was part of an NCAA-record 137 wins (until the governing body stripped Memphis of 38 from the 2007-08 season as punishment for the Derrick Rose affair). He ranks sixth among Tigers in rebounds (961) and 14th in points (1,381).
Any of these three stars would be worthy of a banner, but my vote goes to number 5 in your program, Antonio Anderson.
Like Dozier, Anderson played over that glorious four-year stretch (2005-09) in which Memphis never won fewer than 33 games and never lost more than four. He played in a program-record 150 games (starting 133 of them). What separates Anderson from the other candidates is ironically the all-around play that made him blend so seamlessly with his teammates on the floor. Anderson is the only Tiger in history with 1,000 career points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists. On January 3, 2009, he joined Hardaway as the only Tigers to achieve a triple-double (12 points, 10 rebounds, and 13 assists in a win over Lamar).
And Anderson was clutch. His free throws inside the final minute beat Texas A & M in the 2007 Sweet 16. He hit a game-winning shot as time expired at UAB in 2008 to help Memphis stay atop the national rankings. And it was Anderson — not CDR, Rose, or Dozier — who earned MVP honors at the 2008 Conference USA tournament. As a senior, Anderson earned a rare honor for a guard: C-USA’s Defensive Player of the Year.
The U of M needs to reclaim the 2005-09 era, having been forced to remove the 2008 Final Four banner by the NCAA. The best — and classiest — way to accomplish this would be to raise Antonio Anderson’s #5 to the rafters for good.
Big East, here we come.
Wednesday-night games at East Carolina in early February are among the reasons Memphis fans are somewhat gonzo over the news today that the U of M will be joining the Big East conference effective with the 2013-14 academic year. A Monday-night showdown with Villanova would be a nice trade for the affair tonight in Greenville, North Carolina.
The Tigers and Pirates were tied at 10 after six minutes of play and 20-20 with 8:50 to go in the first half. But keyed by three-pointers from Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, Memphis finished the half on a 17-5 run and the contest was never in doubt over the game's final 20 minutes. Despite going five minutes in the second half without a field goal, the Tigers' lead was never reduced below six points.
Crawford led the Tigers with 16 points and Will Barton added 15. But the game ball tonight goes to Wesley Witherspoon. For the third time in four games, the senior played a significant role off the bench, earning a double-double with 12 points and and a season-high 11 rebounds. (It was the third double-double of Witherspoon's career.) Miguel Paul led ECU with 13 points.
The Tigers have entered a five-game phase of their schedule in which they primarily need to avoid the big stumble. (And they stumbled mightily in a loss at East Carolina last March.) Now 17-7 (6-2 in Conference USA play), they return to play at FedExForum Saturday night when UAB comes to town. The Blazers and the next three foes on the schedule (Tulane, UTEP, and ECU again) are all quite beatable. Coach Josh Pastner wants to enter the rematch with Marshall (February 25th) with a 21-7 mark, allowing slight margin for error in the loss column as postseason play approaches.
Memphis should enjoy the two-week "don't stumble" period. There won't be many in the Big East.
The U of M is holding a press conference at noon Wednesday (Hardaway Hall of Fame) in which athletic director R.C. Johnson is expected to announce that Memphis will join the Big East Conference, effective with the 2013-14 academic year. The first six thoughts I have on the news:
• Hallelujah. This had to happen for Tiger basketball (to say nothing of Tiger football) to stay relevant on a national scale. This will be the Century of the Super Conference, and schools will either be in the club or out. The tired, shapeless expression "mid-major" is going the way of the dodo bird. Had Memphis missed the final cut with the Big East, no Conference USA-Mountain West merger could approximate the long-term gain.
• Tigers vs. Cardinals . . . twice! It's a fair presumption that the Big East powers-that-be will find a way to make sure Louisville and Memphis meet on the hardwood twice each winter. Whatever the conference banner happens to be, in these parts that means roundball justice. North Carolina-Duke was never interrupted. Fans in Kansas and Missouri are running to extremes over the divorce of that age-old rivalry (with Mizzou leaving the Big 12 for the SEC). Memphis-Louisville is bigger than conference affiliation. It's a link to history that gains luster with the renewal of hostilities.
• Josh Pastner can still recruit. There's grumbling that the Tiger basketball coach now faces an impossible task: recruiting nationally against the likes of Louisville, Georgetown, UConn, Villanova, and Notre Dame. This suggests that a player like Chris Douglas-Roberts is more likely to cross a few state lines if he can be assured of beating up on the likes of Rice, UAB, and East Carolina. That's not my take. Memphis will be on national television more, in prime time more, in the national conversation, not as a curious outsider, but as a program competing with the "insiders," the big boys. Coaches who recruit well are good salesmen. I'm convinced Josh Pastner will sell his new Big East neighborhood as the stepping-stone to the NBA it's expected to be by prized recruits.
• The Tiger football program needed a Hail Mary . . . and this one was caught in the corner of the end zone as the clock expired. Who knows how the BCS landscape will look when all is settled? (For starters, let's hope the tag itself expires. There is no "series" in college football.) Big East football will never be mistaken for the SEC, the Big Ten, or even the Pac 12. But it's a step closer to legitimacy than Conference USA, a significant stride closer to convincing prep football players they'll be playing on a stage that will attract the eyes of NFL scouts. Will hosting Rutgers or South Florida fill the Liberty Bowl on a fall Saturday? Of course not. (The stadium is too big. Someone read my lips.) But I like the sound of Memphis-Louisville on the gridiron. Even Memphis-Cincinnati. Best of all, I like the idea of looking at the Big East standings and finding the Memphis Tigers, wherever they may be.
• Among the Big East basketball programs that will remain after the defection of Syracuse, Pitt, and West Virginia, 11 have been to the Final Four since 1984. That's a bowl full of hoops history and heroes. And that doesn't even include Notre Dame and DePaul. The Big East remains a great basketball league.
• I love the fact that Memphis can now claim a baseball team in the Pacific Coast League and a university in the Big East. Truly a city that reaches for greatness beyond regional boundaries. Now, about that travel budget . . . .
Down 10 points to Xavier with less than eight minutes to play this afternoon, the Tigers were staring at a second straight loss and a serious razor cut to their chances of earning an NCAA tournament berth come March. Spurred by a FedExForum crowd of 17,097, though, the Tigers finished the game on a 23-9 run to beat a Musketeer team every bit as desperate for a major nonconference win.
“We didn’t get too high with the highs or too low with the lows,” said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after the game. “When we were at Southern Miss Wednesday, they earned the victory by hitting 24 of 27 free throws. This afternoon, we earned the victory by hitting 24 of 28 free throws. Two good teams; either could have won. As we walked off the court, [Xavier guard] Tu Holloway came up to me and said, ‘That was the best defense I’ve played against all year long.’”
The teams played to a virtual standstill in the first half, each team making 13 of 27 field-goal attempts and Xavier taking a 35-34 lead into the break despite not a single point from Holloway, their All-America candidate. Xavier outscored the Tigers 9-0 over the first four minutes of the second half and maintained a lead of around 10 points until the Tigers started their comeback near the 7:30 mark.
Sophomore point guard Joe Jackson played a critical role in the comeback, earning more playing time (30 minutes) than he’d seen since December 19th. He matched his career high with eight assists, picked up three steals, and hit all 12 of his free throws, making four in the game’s final 15 seconds to seal the win.
“Joe’s sticking his nose in there,” said Pastner, “coming up with 50-50 balls. Diving on the floor. That energizes the team. His defense can energize our offense. He’s taking such pride in his defense, and that’s where he’s growing.”
“I put pressure on myself when I’m shooting on my own,” said Jackson in reflecting on his performance from the foul line. “I tell myself if I don’t make it, I’m gonna die. So it doesn’t really feel like pressure when I’m out there. Feels like a regular shot.”
After a poor outing last Wednesday at Southern Miss (4 points, 2 rebounds), sophomore center Tarik Black contributed 13 points and 9 rebounds while battling the Musketeers’ mountainous (7’0”, 275 pounds) center Kenny Frease (10 points, 10 rebounds).
“We had to lock in, do what we had to do,” said Black. “Coach told us in the huddle that we had to find another gear. Otherwise it was going in a direction that didn’t look good. I had a long meeting with Coach [after the Southern Miss loss] and he told me, ‘You gotta let that one go.’ It’s how you bounce back. Shows your character. Are you good or are you bad? He told me to stop thinking about it. Today was a tough matchup for me, but we just had to get the job done.”
For the second time in a big three-game stretch (Marshall/Southern Miss/Xavier), senior Wesley Witherspoon made his presence felt in a big win with 12 points (all in the second half) including two three-pointers that helped key the late comeback. “I’m a basketball player,” said Witherspoon. “I just wanted to come out and play good basketball. We have to bring something off the bench, and the bench played well today.”
One more star for the home team was sophomore guard Antonio Barton. He scored two critical layups in the game’s final three minutes, the first to close the Tiger deficit to two points, the second to give them their first lead of the second half (65-63) with 1:30 to play. (Antonio’s older brother, Will, added 13 points.) The Tigers hit seven of eight free throws over the game's final 35 seconds.
Guarded most of the game by Chris Crawford or Jackson, Holloway was limited to three of 12 shooting and 12 points. Dezmine Wells led the Musketeers with 19 points.
“Since the Christmas break, we’ve shown lots of signs of toughness,” said Pastner. “It’s been action on the court, not talking about it. We’re getting better. We’re not a finished product; still lots of room for growth. But if we’re down 10 in the second half before Christmas, I’m not sure we win.”
Chris Crawford's three-point attempt from atop the arc was slightly left of its target as time expired tonight in Hattiesburg and the Golden Eagles ended an 18-game losing streak against Memphis. Playing in front of a packed Reed Green Coliseum — and in their home whites — the Tigers stormed out to a 16-4 lead but found themselves down 34-33 at halftime. Leading scorer Will Barton was held to two points in the first half, while Crawford scored 10 in the game's first eight minutes.
Southern Miss went on an 8-2 run late in the second half to take a 59-54 lead and held on for the win. The Tigers twice closed the deficit to a single point, but couldn't catch their longtime rivals. Joe Jackson missed a free throw that would have tied the game at 71 and Wesley Witherspoon missed a put-back layup that would have given Memphis the lead with just over 10 seconds to play.
The Golden Eagles improve to 20-3 (11-0 at home) and now own sole possession of first place in Conference USA. The Tigers (15-7) fall to 6-2 in league play, tied with Tulsa for second place.
Crawford hit five of seven treys and scored a career-high 23 points for Memphis. Will Barton added 15 and Joe Jackson 14 off the bench.
Darnell Dodson hit four key free throws in the final minute and led Southern Miss with 23 points. Neil Watson hit all eight of his free throws and scored 17.
Memphis returns to FedExForum to host Xavier on Saturday (tip-off at noon).