"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."