"We had to get the crowd back tonight," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after a form-holding drubbing of the UT-Martin Skyhawks. "That was on us. Dive six rows into the bleachers, whatever needs to be done. Like in the movie Gladiator: win the crowd."
A relatively light crowd (15,398) witnessed the return to FedExForum of a Tiger team no longer in the nation's Top 25 and, for this night at least, minus Tarik Black, the junior center suspended for a transgression in practice earlier this week. On the heels of the 28-point win over a weak sister of the Ohio Valley Conference, Pastner made it clear once more how he feels about a bad vibe.
"Life is so short for anyone to be negative," he said to the media throng in part responsible, he felt, for the bad vibe. "I don't get it. Positive energy is contagious. Negative energy is like cancer. What I can't have is that negative energy impacting our players."
Whether it was positive or negative energy fueling them, the Tigers who did play tonight did so with a vitality they left behind for three games last weekend in the Bahamas. Adonis Thomas scored the game's first field goal on a jump-hook just inside the free-throw line. Chris Crawford drained four three-pointers — one shy of his career high — before halftime. Thomas slammed home a lob from Joe Jackson with one hand. The Tigers even pulled off a lob-pass-trey buzzer beater before halftime, with Stan Simpson — who started tonight in place of Black — lobbing the ball on an inbounds play to D.J. Stephens, who tapped it to Crawford for the long-distance shot. Memphis entered the break with a 17-point lead, 20 minutes of training to follow — positive energy — on the way to its fourth win of the season.
Freshman Shaq Goodwin filled the void left by Black with his first college double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds). When asked about the feat, Goodwin said, "I didn't even know I had one. I was just in the right place at the right time." When asked about filling Black's shoes, he said, "It wasn't really on my mind. I just wanted to play my game, get my teammates involved."
Junior guard Joe Jackson admitted Black's absence was felt. "We missed him," he said. "We need him out there, getting boards, blocking shots, scoring." Jackson shook his head when asked if there was any chance Black would not return. Having experienced his own off-court issues, Jackson acted like this was merely a temporary distraction. "I've been through things worse than this in college. This is just a week for us to get back to work. We can't feed into the negativity. We've got the talent; it's just about consistency." Jackson scored 13 points against the Skyhawks and dished out eight assists. After a dynamic blocked shot at the defensive end in the first half, Jackson shouted with passion, his face contorted with emotion. The kind of look quite absent during the player's dry spells (like the first two games on Paradise Island).
Playing in his first game at FedExForum, Geron Johnson scored 13 points in 19 minutes, hitting six of 10 shots from the field.
"I was glad of our energy," said Pastner. "I'm a realist as much as I am an optimist. I wouldn't trade our [media] coverage or the intensity of our fan base for anything. I don't take that for granted. We've got a tough game next Wednesday [against Ohio]. We've got to continue to get better. We'll continue the mini-boot camp we started, and go from there."
And the future for Tarik Black? "We will have a resolution tomorrow," said Pastner. "I can assure you that. I gave him time to think about it. He's got to decide. I'd like him to be back."
LAST WEEK: 4-2
Saturday's matchup in Tulsa is Conference USA's version of Alabama-Florida. This will be the third meeting between the Knights and Golden Hurricane since C-USA first held a football championship in 2005 (a Tulsa win over UCF). Tulsa is 1-2 in the championship game (losing to UCF in 2007 and East Carolina in 2008) while the Knights are 2-1 (in addition to the 2007 title, UCF beat SMU in 2010).
In addition to hosting the game (Tulsa beat UCF, 23-21, on November 17th), the Golden Hurricane will be playing for conference pride, as UCF heads to the Big East for 2013. Tulsa ranks third in total offense among C-USA teams (462.2 yards per game), while UCF's offense features tailback Latavius Murray (league-leading 107.1 yards rushing per game). Not surprisingly, the game will showcase the top two defenses in C-USA. (The third-ranked defense in the league? Memphis.)
Tulsa is coming off a loss to SMU, while UCF has won seven of eight (the only loss being at Tulsa).
I like home games in December.
Tulsa 24, UCF 20
It must be an interesting view from Tom Bowen’s desk. Not quite six months after entering his new office, the University of Memphis athletic director is surely checking his notes on his department’s two primary revenue generators.
The flagship men’s basketball team — long the backbone of Tiger athletics — seems to be tottering on the edge of a cliff, overrated, underperforming, and in the same rut toward mediocrity it found itself in a year ago at this time. Meanwhile, over the last three weeks of its season, the football team (in a 6-39 death spiral a month ago) looked like a version of the early-Seventies Nebraska Cornhuskers, blowing away its last three opponents and scoring six touchdowns last Saturday against arch-rival Southern Miss only because it didn’t need to score seven.
Next, surely, the Mississippi River will be seen flowing north. Wet ribs will carry the day and the Jungle Room will be closed for good at Graceland.
The basketball team came perilously close to losing three games in three days — to three unranked teams — at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. By storming back to beat Northern Iowa(!) Saturday, Josh Pastner’s squad avoided a return to Memphis with the program’s first losing record since an opening loss to the 2003-04 season. Worse, though, Pastner’s veteran team looked shy in the “want to” department, playing the kind of perimeter defense expected of second-tier programs. When a single shooter is able to drain five three-pointers — and this happened in both losses last weekend — it leaves a scar on a team’s defensive reputation. The Tigers will be fighting this reputation, starting Thursday night at FedExForum.
And the football team? In scoring 125 points over its three-game sweep of Tulane, UAB, and Southern Miss, the Tigers not only salvaged a distinctive positive vibe for the 2012 season (even with a 4-8 record), but provided a bold statement on their competitive worth entering the Big East next year. Quarterback Jacob Karam looked poised in a well-protected pocket. Brandon Hayes topped 100 yards rushing in each of the last two games. Martin Ifedi led a reborn pass rush that dropped Golden Eagle quarterbacks four times in the season finale. All three players will return for the 2013 season.
More than likely, the extremes we’ve seen in each program this month will become just that in memory: extremes. Joe Jackson is a better basketball player than the one we saw in two losses on Paradise Island. A team that suits up the number of athletes at Pastner’s disposal can be inspired to play better defense, can be infused with more “want to.” There’s simply too much bench time awaiting those players who, well, don’t want to.
And the football team has climbing to do. There will be no Tulane, UAB, or Southern Miss on next year’s schedule. Though there will be UT-Martin and Middle Tennessee, programs that handled Justin Fuente’s bunch before their late-season revival. There is renewable value, though, in finishing a season the way the 2012 Tigers did. When adversity hits next fall — a two-game losing streak? four? — will Karam or Ifedi dig a hole and hide? Not after spending nine months savoring a kind of winning streak quite foreign in these parts.
There’s a juicy coincidence to the basketball’s team return to FEF this week. The Tigers will tip off against UT-Martin, the very school that beat the football team in Fuente’s debut almost three months ago to the day. The way Pastner’s team approaches the game — between the ears — will say as much about what Tiger fans can expect for what remains a long season ahead. The basketball players would be wise to heed the words spoken last week by Fuente, the football coach aiming desperately to establish a new baseline for his program’s strength: “We’re not in a position to judge anyone in our program right now. We have to make sure that we focus on ourselves and our preparation.”
A Memphis basketball team inspired by a Memphis football team, Mr. Bowen. Imagine that.
Progress can be a subjective unit of measurement. Until, that is, a 1-8 football team proceeds to score 125 points over its last three games for its first three-game winning streak in four years. (The last time Memphis finished a season with three consecutive wins: 2005.)
Wideout Marcus Rucker was one of 16 Tiger seniors saluted before today’s season finale against longtime rival Southern Miss. He may remember his two catches for 13 yards in the drubbing of the Golden Eagles. He’ll certainly remember leading the U of M band atop a stepladder during the postgame celebration, then being carried off the field by teammates (along with several of his classmates).
“I’m just thankful for the moment,” said one of those classmates, linebacker Akeem Davis, after the game. “I just want to cherish it. It’s the culmination of a lot of things, a great defense, a great group of coaches. It’s been a long road. I can honestly say that I left everything that I had out there.”
Davis forced a Southern Miss fumble late in the second quarter, leading to the third Tiger touchdown of the period and a 21-3 Memphis lead. Jai Steib’s second score of the game was merely a 13-yard jaunt on a day when the Tiger rushing attack accumulated 275 yards, a high for the season.
The Golden Eagles capitalized on a roughing-the-punter penalty and scored a touchdown four seconds before halftime. The tightened score was mere illusion, though, as the U of M added three more touchdowns in the third quarter to send Southern Miss into winter having lost all 12 games of its 2012 season.
Brandon Hayes scored two of those post-halftime touchdowns — one of them from nine yards, the other from 11 — on his way to 115 yards, his second straight game with more than 100 on the ground. In between came a 38-yard pass-and-run from quarterback Jacob Karam to Alan Cross. Karam finished the game with 162 yards on 12 completions, two touchdown passes and 42 yards rushing (on merely four carries). The Tigers’ junior quarterback finished the season with only three interceptions in 274 attempts.
When asked if he saw this kind of improvement coming, Karam smiled, nodded, and emphasized when the corner was turned. “It wasn’t just this season,” he said. “The improvement since I got here in January [after transferring from Texas Tech], including spring, has been amazing. It’s a collective mindset. Knowing what we need to do.”
More perspective on a season’s astounding turnaround? Junior Tom Hornsey became the first Memphis punter to accumulate 10,000 yards for his career. But he didn’t punt for the first time until the fourth quarter, when the Tigers were leading by 25.
“I’m pleased for our seniors,” said coach Justin Fuente, who finishes his first season in Memphis with a 4-8 record (4-4 in Conference USA play). “Couldn’t be happier for them. The way we finished the season validates the hard work we’ve put them through. This springboards us into our offseason program, which starts tomorrow.”
Fuente emphasized the importance of his team being able to run the ball, to control the line of scrimmage against what proved to be an inferior team. The Memphis defense allowed only 95 yards on the ground and picked up four quarterback sacks.
“It’s good to see the fruits of everybody’s labor,” said Fuente. “Don’t get me wrong. We have a long way to go. I’m glad for the kids to get some rewards. As coaches and adults, we know we’re doing the right thing and doing it the right way. I think the kids thought we were . . . and hopefully now, they’ll know we are.”
When asked what he’ll remember about his first team, Fuente didn’t hesitate. “Their resilience is the biggest thing,” he said. “Think back to UT-Martin [on September 1st] and all that went wrong that night. Then seeing us continue to get better as the season moved along. I wanted us to be better at the end of the year. I knew we were inexperienced. But if we could stay relatively healthy, we could get better.
“There is no easy fix to a football team,” Fuente emphasized. “That’s not the way it goes. It’s a lot of hard work, grinding away. But there are rewards at the end.”
Fuente was asked who this team’s MVP might be. Once again, he didn’t hesitate. “I don’t know how we’ll ever replace Akeem Davis. He was the emotional leader of this team. He’s a special, special young man.”
The U of M salvaged a win in its final game at the Battle 4 Atlantis this afternoon and, in doing so, avoided the program's first three-game losing streak in seven years. Junior guard Chris Crawford emerged from an early-season funk with his first career double-double: 18 points and a career-high 12 rebounds. Crawford started the game at point guard for the Tigers, with Joe Jackson shifted to shooting guard by coach Josh Pastner.
The Tigers trailed early and needed a 10-0 run before halftime to close a 14-point deficit to four (26-22). A Crawford layup gave Memphis the lead, 33-32, with 11 minutes to play. Three-point plays by Adonis Thomas and Jackson extended the Tiger lead to seven points inside the game's final two minutes and the Panthers were unable to get closer before the final buzzer. Jackson scored 15 points for the game.
Junior transfer Geron Johnson saw his most significant playing time since returning from a three-game suspension to open the season. Johnson missed all six of his field-goal attempts, but grabbed four rebounds, dished out five assists, and helped put the clamps defensively on Panther sharpshooter Deon Mitchell. Mitchell was the only UNI player to score in double figures (18 points).
For the second straight year, Memphis (3-2) will return from a tropical tournament bounced from the Top 20 and facing a steep climb to an attractive seed in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers next take the floor Thursday night at FedExForum when UT-Martin comes to town. That game will be followed by six straight home games in December, including a tilt with second-ranked Louisville on December 15th.
A former White Station Spartan took over today's game on Paradise Island, leading his team to a win in the Battle 4 Atlantis losers' bracket. Trouble is, that player is a Minnesota Golden Gopher.
Andre Hollins — a teammate of the Tigers' Joe Jackson in high school — hit 12 of 16 field-goal attempts (including all five from beyond the three-point line) and scored 41 points in leading Minnesota to the win over a Memphis team that suddenly finds itself in crisis mode.
Memphis center Tarik Black picked up two early fouls and spent the majority of the game on Josh Pastner's bench (not far from Jackson, who played only seven minutes after a dreadful performance yesterday in a loss to VCU). Shaq Goodwin made the first start of his college career, but also had four fouls limit his stat line (12 points, 7 rebounds).
Tiger senior D.J. Stephens came off the bench and scored a career-high 15 points, including a three-pointer that gave Memphis the lead, 68-67, with six minutes to play. But Stephens missed a pair of key free throws, as did Chris Crawford, who went to the line twice inside the game's final seven minutes with a chance to tie the score. Andre Hollins didn't miss when it counted, though, connecting on four straight foul shots to extend the Gopher lead to 79-72 with 48 seconds to go.
Memphis will play the loser of today's Stanford-Northern Iowa game in tomorrow's version of "loser swim home." Only one of the eight teams in this tournament will leave the island 0-3. If that team is the Tigers (now 2-2), Memphis will have a losing record for the first time since dropping the opening game of the 2003-04 season to Wake Forest.
Josh Pastner may need to rethink these island getaways around Thanksgiving. For the second straight year, his Tigers laced them up for a tropical tournament . . . and got slapped with a loss to open play. A year ago, it was Michigan by 12 in Maui. This evening, it was VCU by 13 in Nassau, Bahamas. The quarterfinal defeat leaves Memphis (2-1) in the losers' bracket of the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they'll play Minnesota on Friday.
The Tigers didn't score over the game's first three minutes and never so much as tied the game once falling behind. Ten turnovers over the game's first 11 minutes helped stake the Rams to a 22-13 lead and by halftime the Tigers trailed, 42-28.
The Tigers rode a 17-8 stretch over the first seven minutes of the second half to close the VCU lead to five. Despite losing Joe Jackson to foul trouble shortly after halftime, Memphis was able to match the Rams' pace and keep the game tight. Jump hooks from Shaq Goodwin and Tarik Black sandwiched a VCU free throw with under five minutes to play to make the score 63-61. But the Rams answered with a 12-0 run, keyed by consecutive three pointers from Rob Brandenberg (who drained all five of his trey attempts for the game).
Adonis Thomas led the Tigers with 19 points, with Black adding 12 and Chris Crawford 10. Treveon Graham led VCU with 26 points, followed by Brandenberg with 15.
VCU, now 3-1, will face Duke in tomorrow's semifinals.
LAST WEEK: 4-2
Marshall at East Carolina
Southern Miss at Memphis
Tulane at Houston
Rice at UTEP
Tulsa at SMU
UAB at UCF
• I’m sold on Jacob Karam. The junior quarterback won’t make anyone forget Russ Vollmer or Danny Wimprine, but he’s developed steadily as a first-year starter, generally avoiding game-changing mistakes, and spearheaded the astonishing offensive explosion last Saturday at UAB. Karam completed his first ten pass attempts against the Blazers and had three touchdown passes before halftime.
Even in his finest hour, though, Karam was merely brilliantly efficient. Memphis managed to score 46 points with only 160 yards passing. (And thirteen of those came on a toss from wideout Keiwone Malone.) The Tigers had more yardage through the air (166) in a 41-7 loss at East Carolina. Karam has fit coach Justin Fuente’s battle plan for 2012 — minimize errors — to a tee. Being a known variable, and with a season of full-time play under his belt, Karam should provide stability at the game’s most important position when the U of M starts Big East play next year. Imagine that: stability at the quarterback position for the Memphis Tigers.
• I mentioned last week that UAB is one of two Conference USA teams I’ll miss from the Tigers’ schedule when they move to the Big East. The other is Southern Miss, for my money the most consistently strong C-USA program since the league was formed before the 1996 season. (The 0-11 Golden Eagles have suffered the most dramatic collapse in the country this season, having won the C-USA championship game over an undefeated Houston team last December.)
Memphis and Southern Miss have met in the Black-and-Blue Game 62 times, and every season since 1952 except for one (1980). The Golden Eagles own a 40-21-1 advantage in the series and have won the last three meetings by margins of 20, 22, and 37 points. Life will go on for the Tigers in the Big East. Hopefully, football season will gain interest both locally and beyond the Mid-South. But something will be distinctly missing without Southern Miss on the schedule.
• It’s not my job to fill seats at the Liberty Bowl, but if ever a class of Tiger football players deserved a big crowd for Senior Day, it’s this one: Chris Bertucci, Akeem Davis, Jordan Devey, Zach Gholson, Paulo Henriques, Ricky Holloway, Mitch Huelsing, Kenyata Johnson, Tarondal Phillips, Jimmy Robinson, Marcus Rucker, Jeremy Singler, Cannon Smith, Robert Steeples, DeAndre Thompson, Austin Weaver.
If you think the last four football seasons have been tough on Tiger fans, imagine being the young men suiting up their entire college careers under the weight of sagging expectations and dwindling support. The beauty of Saturday’s game, of course, is that these seniors have the chance to end their careers on a three-game winning streak, and against the program’s oldest rival. A special salute should be given the five seniors who actually saw playing time each of the last four years: Davis, Henriques, Holloway, Huelsing, and Rucker. Let it be said a program’s recovery began with them.
Two nights after losing by 26 points at second-ranked Louisville, the Samford Bulldogs found themselves down only three (54-51) with 4:18 to play in tonight's game against the 17th-ranked Memphis Tigers at FedExForum. Playing methodically on offense and relying on a 2-3 zone defensively, the Bulldogs reduced a 12-point deficit to three over an 11-minute stretch that had 16,275 U of M fans wondering if the all-but-impossible might happen: a basketball loss on the same day as a football win.
Sophomore Adonis Thomas made sure the impossible remained only the hypothetical. He blocked a shot by Samford forward Tim Williams at one end, then followed with a jump-hook at the other to extend the Tiger lead to five, a margin the Bulldogs would not reduce the rest of the game. (The freshman Williams led all scorers tonight with 21 points.)
"I was disappointed in our lack of . . . everything," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner following the final buzzer. "We were slow offensively and defensively. It doesn't matter if a team plays zone or not. We are not going to be methodical. We have to be better. I promise you, we have not peaked, but there's no excuse. We have to mature as a team. They dictated tempo."
The smaller Samford squad somehow outrebounded Memphis, 25-24. The only Tiger players with more than two rebounds were Ferrakohn Hall (5) and D.J. Stephens (7 in 17 minutes on the floor). While Thomas led Memphis with 16 points, he failed to grab a rebound in 39 minutes of playing time.
"They stopped us from getting into transition," said Thomas. "For us, it's about getting stops defensively. When we get stops and rebound the ball, we're able to get into transition. They shot 50-percent [46.2 percent) for the game. I can't have one of these nights, but they made a lot of shots. Guys were out of position; we weren't locked in."
On four occasions, with Samford having closed the lead under 10 points, Antonio Barton drained a three-pointer to provide the Tigers a cushion they were expecting entering the game. The junior guard finished with 14 points in 30 minutes off the bench. "We thought they would come in and lay down," said Barton. "We can't play like that. We gotta do better on the defensive end. Teams are going to zone, thinking we don't have enough shooters. We can't play down to our opponents."
As for taking one lead-padding shot after another, Barton welcomes the ball in his hands. "I love having the ball for a big shot," he said. "We have a lot of guys on this team who can make a big shot, but when it comes down to it, I like the ball in my hands for that shot."
Joe Jackson hit seven of eight from the foul line and scored 13 points for Memphis.
The lone benefit to the slow pace Pastner rejects so openly? Memphis only had six turnovers for the game (and forced 16). "I only want to run set plays after made free throws or timeouts," he emphasized. "We have to dictate the pace, and that's on our guards."
Now 2-0, the Tigers head to the Bahamas for three games, starting on Thanksgiving day against VCU (tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.).
For the first time since November 2008, the University of Memphis football team has a winning streak. A week after beating Tulane, 37-23, at the Liberty Bowl, the Tiger offense erupted for its most points since November 24, 2007, easily handling a Blazer team that entered the game on its own two-game winning streak. The win in Birmingham essentially gives the Tigers the Battle for the Bones trophy (an enormous rack of bronze ribs) for perpetuity, as UAB will not follow Memphis to the Big East conference next season. (The Blazers still own a 10-5 edge in the series dating back to the teams' first meeting in 1997.)
Memphis quarterback Jacob Karam completed his first 10 passes, including touchdown strikes to Keiwone Malone (30 yards), Alan Cross (25 yards), and Jesse Milleson (two yards) to help the Tigers storm to a 28-3 halftime lead. Karam finished the game 14 of 16 for 147 yards, connecting with seven different Tiger receivers. He was supported by tailback Brandon Hayes, who carried the ball 19 times for 127 yards and three more touchdowns (the longest a 46-yard jaunt early in the fourth quarter).
Combined with last week's output, the Tigers have scored their most points in back-to-back games (83) since putting up 90 in a pair early in the 2005 campaign. The victory secured the program's most wins (3) since the Tigers went 6-7 under coach Tommy West in 2008.
Memphis returns home next Saturday for the season finale against Southern Miss (0-10 entering its game tonight against UTEP). A win over the Golden Eagles would give the Tigers a 3-3 record at the Liberty Bowl and even their Conference USA mark this season at 4-4.
LAST WEEK: 4-1
Memphis at UAB
East Carolina at Tulane
Houston at Marshall
SMU at Rice
UTEP at Southern Miss
UCF at Tulsa
• I hope the Tigers have started a new tradition with the post-victory love fest between team and band we witnessed Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl. Junior defensive lineman Johnnie Farms climbed the stepladder to lead the Sound of the South in playing the U of M fight song while every last one of his teammates gathered in the southeast corner of the Liberty Bowl to celebrate the taste of victory. (The same gathering took place on the rainy night of October 6th, when quarterback Jacob Karam conducted things from atop the ladder after the Tigers beat Rice.)
Over the top for a team in the midst of its fifth straight losing season? Maybe. But precisely what this football program needs: good cheer. Consider your very favorite dessert. That key lime pie at the coffee shop? Now, imagine going six months without a slice. Make it a year. Then . . . imagine the first bite after ending the fast. That’s where the Tiger football program finds itself. Let the football factories across the country act like a win is no big thing, merely a release of pressure before the next week’s game. For the Memphis Tigers, every win is worth celebrating. No more so than for the players and their marching band.
• Here’s a stat to love: Memphis has converted 19 fourth-down plays this season, easily tops in Conference USA (Tulsa is second with 14). The Tigers remain a run-first offense (44 carries compared with 20 passes against Tulane), but to call the Tiger offense timid would be unfair. Two scoring drives last Saturday were sustained by converting fourth-down plays, one of them a 19-yard pass completion on fourth-and-one. (The number of Memphis fourth-down conversions in 2011? Four.)
Then you have the end-around pass wideout Keiwone Malone threw (Tulane was penalized for roughing the passer) and the touchdown toss from tailback Brandon Hayes to Reggie Travis. Justin Fuente arrived here with credentials as a play-caller for a powerful TCU offense. You get the sense that, once Fuente has the right players secured, the Tiger offense will move the needle on the thrill-o-meter. And a fun offense sells tickets.
• There are two C-USA foes I will distinctly miss when the Tigers move to the Big East next season. And one of them is UAB. The annual Battle for the Bones — an enormous, too-heavy rack of bronze barbecue ribs — has been a worthwhile (if new) tradition. (Remember Will Hudgens lifting that trophy above his head after the Tigers’ win in 2007? Probably the most athletic feat the young man performed on a college football field.)
The Blazers have a 10-4 lead in the series and have won the Battle three straight years (with two of their victories coming at the Liberty Bowl). They enter Saturday’s game with a 3-7 record, but with two straight wins, over Southern Miss and Marshall. Sophomore tailback Darrin Reaves carried the ball 32 times for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns last weekend in the win over the Thundering Herd. And freshman quarterback Austin Brown is fourth in C-USA with an average of 228.3 yards passing per game. UAB’s defense gives up an average of 35.5 points per game, a tad more than the Memphis D (33.0). As we learned (again) Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, pay attention to turnovers. The Tigers have a turnover margin of -1 while the Blazers are -7 for the season.
You can forgive public-address announcer Chuck Roberts for his enthusiastic emphasis of “Memphis, Tennessee” as he introduced the Tigers’ starting lineup tonight at FedExForum. For the first time in a quarter century, you see, the U of M opened a basketball season with five Memphis natives on the court. Aside from the first ten sometimes-scattered minutes of the game, it was indeed an all-Memphis night, with the Tigers coasting to their ninth straight opening-night win.
“We’re role models,” said sophomore forward Adonis Thomas, one of those fab-Memphis-five. “So to see five Memphis guys start the game, it shows kids what can happen if they work hard. We all worked hard in high school to get here. It was a special moment. We’re like family, like brothers. If we get where we want to get, it will look even better for the city and our families.” For the record, Thomas was joined at tip-off by senior Ferrakohn Hall, and juniors Tarik Black, Chris Crawford, and Joe Jackson.
The Tigers missed seven of their first 10 attempts from the field and found themselves trailing the Ospreys, 20-19, midway through the first half. But Antonio Barton — a proud native of Baltimore — drained a three-pointer at the 10:00 mark to give the Tigers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Another Barton trey two minutes later helped spark a 28-5 run to end the half.
Six minutes into the second half, the Tiger lead grew to 32 and the game became more a matter of focus and energy level for the home team. North Florida actually outscored the U of M over the final 20 minutes, 41-34.
“In the first part of the game, we gave up some threes, and that’s gonna happen,” said Tiger coach Josh Pastner after the game. “But we played hard, we played with energy. The last six or seven minutes, we didn’t have that same kind of energy. We have to get better at finishing games.”
Pastner explained that Hall suffered a bout of food poisoning early this morning, and Thomas suffered a mild injury in the pregame shoot-around. Beyond that, it was a night for a veteran team to settle into its season. One of those veterans, Black, led the team with 18 points and seven rebounds.
“This is my third year,” said Black when asked to compare the win to his first two opening nights. “It was actually calmer. I understand exactly what it takes to win the game, and what my role is for this team.”
Black grinned in reflecting on the “Memphis, Tennessee” theme before tip-off. “That’s amazing. We’re all from the city, and we’re just proud. We saw the lineup, but from a team perspective, it really doesn’t matter who starts. We look at everybody as being just as talented. Let’s get out and play.”
Shaq Goodwin made his college debut with eight points, seven rebounds, and three steals in 21 minutes off the bench. According to Pastner, “Shaq energized Tarik” with his diving to the floor and sprinting in transition. Junior point guard Joe Jackson added 14 points and six assists while Barton finished with 11 points and four assists.
The Ospreys were led by Jerron Granberry with 17 points.
The U of M returns to the FEF floor Saturday night when Samford comes to town.
NOTES: • Tiger freshman Damien Wilson played only three minutes but scored his first college points on a breakaway dunk. • Junior transfer Geron Johnson sat out the first of three games as part of a suspension for accepting “educational expenses” before enrolling at the U of M.
November has become a schizophrenic month for Tiger Nation. For the fourth straight year, we could reach Thanksgiving with the U of M basketball team having won as many games as the Tiger football team. (Though it looks less likely after the football team’s win over Tulane last Saturday.) One season winds down with slumped shoulders, frustration, and concerns about how far a team can fall. Another season comes to life with collective swagger, anticipation, and curiosity about how high a team can rise.
John F. Kennedy famously said, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
I’ll spare the jokes about how many fathers could be seen at the Liberty Bowl for recent November games. (There were 18,796 tickets sold for the Tulane game.) But you don’t have to count empty seats to be concerned about the future of a program that has won seven of its last 46 games. Following a losing football team is especially cruel, as a fan base has a week to stew over what went wrong, who’s responsible, and how (and when) the struggles might end. “It’s not easy,” said Tiger coach Justin Fuente at his November 5th press luncheon. “But nothing worth having ever is. In order to build a program, you have to take very small steps and do a lot of hard work.” I’ll spare the jokes about very small steps, especially after the big one that seemed to be taken last Saturday night.
Just as a U of M football season is nearing a merciful end, Josh Pastner’s rim-rattlers tighten their sneakers, flex for the cameras, and hit the hardwood for what remains this community’s most unifying endeavor. Relative to the football suffering, it’s as though school has been let out and the kids are instantly delivered to the swankiest summer camp in the land. A top-20 team. Three McDonald’s All-Americans. And a roster filled with local players fans have known since they were dominating middle-school games.
The overlap of the two seasons can be uncomfortable. My friend and former colleague, the late Dennis Freeland, argued that college basketball season shouldn’t start until December, in part because a football program — good or bad — deserves at least three full months on center stage. Dennis knew, though, the power of money in college hoops. And November tournaments are the cash cow that kick-start winter revenue for athletic departments far and wide. (Hello, Battle 4 Atlantis!)
As recently as 1999, the Tigers opened their basketball season on November 22nd, two days after the football team played its last game. (And that hoops opener was part of a preseason tournament, the Maui Invitational.) Rip Scherer was spared the discomfort Fuente may experience over the next two weeks: trying to keep fans’ attention (two games to play, one at home) while a talented basketball team starts trending on Twitter.
The hope, of course, is for a future November when the Tiger football team is battling for the top spot in the Big East just as a top-10 basketball team is breaking a sweat for defense of the league (or national!) championship. One can imagine local gathering places all but bursting with energy, longtime fans hoarse from cheering overload as the U of M’s flagship teams share positive headlines like a pair of celebrity twins.
For now, let’s keep the faith, football lovers. Just as all good things must come to an end . . . so must undermanned football teams find shelter for winter. As for that top-20 basketball team, it will play as many homes games in December (6) as the football team played all season. Which makes December a month truly worth loving for one Tiger Nation.