The 2012-13 Memphis Tigers won 31 games they were supposed to win. Cream-puff conference and soft nonconference schedule. (Though we should ask the New Mexico Lobos how soft Harvard is.)
The Tigers, when faced with stiff competition, lost all five times.
There are analysts, near and far, who will tell you today that Memphis just completed the most predictable season in the 83-year history of the program. They would be wrong.
One fact is as predictable as the flow of the Mississippi River, but it goes for every Tiger season: The coach is a failure without a run in the NCAA tournament. (And a two-point win over a “first four” survivor doesn’t count as a run.) However positive his pitch, Josh Pastner will have to coach his team to the second or third week of the NCAAs before he’ll be universally accepted by the program’s legion of passionate followers. This fact is predictable, tiring, and won’t be discussed further in this column.
What was surprising about the 2012-13 Tiger season? Let’s examine things from the perspective of the seven players who finished the season in Pastner’s rotation.
Joe Jackson is a mercurial, me-first point guard who will lose as many games as he wins.
Tiger fans were shaking their heads last November 23rd, when Jackson seemed to quit during the Tigers’ loss to Minnesota in the Bahamas. After playing seven uninspired minutes in the first half, Jackson watched from the bench the entire second half. It was no place to be for a veteran point guard, one who had earned MVP honors at the Conference USA tournament as both a freshman and sophomore.
It was the last truly “bad Joe” we’d see all season. Jackson reeled off 16 consecutive games with at least 10 points, including 23 against mighty Louisville and 20 at Tennessee. In scoring 26 at East Carolina on January 30th, Jackson joined the 1,000-point club just 20 games into his junior season. In the regular-season finale, he came one rebound shy of the program’s fourth triple-double. (Heart? Jackson led the Tigers with seven rebounds in their NCAA tournament loss to Michigan State.) His numbers for the season were hardly off the charts: 13.6 points and 4.8 assists per game. But this was Jackson’s team, and for his efforts in leading the Tigers’ 19-0 farewell tour of the league, he was named C-USA’s Player of the Year.
NBA-bound Adonis Thomas will carry this club before hearing his name called as a lottery pick in June’s draft.
Surprises aren’t always pleasing. Has there been a more disappointing Tiger to earn all-conference accolades? (Thomas was named to C-USA’s third team, in itself a disappointment.) Entering his sophomore campaign, Thomas intended to show fans (and importantly, pro scouts) what he wasn’t able to show them during a freshman season compromised by injury. Reasonable expectations would be for the former McDonald’s All-America to average 16 points and six rebounds. He averaged 11.7 and 4.5. Worse were the random disappearing acts. On four occasions, Thomas played at least 20 minutes and grabbed nary a rebound. If you were ranking “go-to” players for the 2012-13 Tigers, Thomas — not so long ago considered a future lottery pick — would be no higher than fourth.
D.J. Stephens is a sweet role player and the star of Memphis Madness. But perhaps worth a redshirt season as a senior.
You surely know his story by now. From “zero star” recruit (according to Pastner) to C-USA’s Defensive Player of the Year, a rim-kissing highlight reel who blocked shots into popcorn vendors and decided how he would deliver a dunk in mid-flight. Stephens saw his playing time increase from 8.3 minutes as a junior to 23.6 this season. He led C-USA with 95 blocked shots and personified the commodity Pastner holds dearest: energy. Perhaps the greatest surprise of all coming out of this Tiger season is the fact D.J. Stephens is on the NBA radar. Should he make The Association, few will have traveled further to do so.
The team’s only all-conference player is junior center Tarik Black.
The pride of Ridgeway High was the only Memphis player to make C-USA’s preseason all-conference team. At season’s end, four Tigers made at least the third team, and none of them were named Tarik Black. Showing leadership since he arrived as a freshman, Black was named a captain (along with Jackson and Chris Crawford) at the start of the season. He then walked out of a practice and found himself suspended for the team’s sixth game of the season. Coming off the bench for freshman Shaq Goodwin, Black never found a groove, his scoring average dropping from 10.7 as a junior to 8.1 and his rebounds from 4.9 to 4.8 (though in five fewer minutes per game). The most likeable Tiger this side of Stephens, a motivated Black could prove invaluable next winter.
Geron Johnson is trouble walking, a time bomb.
Kicked off three teams before he arrived in Memphis, Johnson seemed to defy “the Pastner way”: all positive, all the time. As things turned out, Johnson became the proverbial “glue guy” for these Tigers, the team’s defensive stopper (ask Saint Mary’s Matt Dellavedova) and a player ready and willing to bury shots with a game in the balance. On the road against Tennessee, SMU, and Southern Miss, Johnson drained clutch three-pointers when the Memphis lead had all but disappeared. And let’s remember he spearheaded the only Tiger run last Saturday against Michigan State with a pair of treys late in the first half. If Stephens represents “the great story” of this season, Johnson isn’t far behind as a very good one.
Shaq Goodwin will bring size and strength that pushes this team into the realm of elite.
He started 33 games as a freshman (and the Tigers won 29 of them). He pulled down 12 rebounds in his sixth college game and scored 20 points in his seventh. So why does it feel like we didn’t see the entire Shaq package? His 7.4 points per game were seventh on the team. His 4.4 rebounds were fifth (and fewer than Johnson’s 4.6). Goodwin scored 10 points in but two of the Tigers’ last 15 games and was a nonfactor in the two NCAA tournament contests (zero points and three rebounds, combined). Much is expected of McDonald’s All-Americans. Goodwin may deliver yet, but he fell short as a freshman.
Chris Crawford is solid in several areas, but will never be a difference-maker.
Most athletes yearn for a game — one game — in which they can say they were The Man. For three games in three days in Tulsa earlier this month, Crawford — C-USA’s Sixth Man of the Year — was, indeed, The Man. The Tigers don’t win their third consecutive (and final) C-USA tournament without Crawford averaging 25.7 points and burying 19 three-pointers in wins over Tulane, Tulsa, and Southern Miss. He scored 11 points in the two overtimes against the Golden Eagles to prevent a loss that would have killed the team’s seeding for the NCAAs. In fact, Crawford’s was the most electrifying performance from any of the program’s seven C-USA tournament championships. Had that same Crawford shown up in the NCAA tournament (total of 11 points and one trey), this season recap may have appeared later.
By my count, there are 256 basketball teams that play in cream-puff conferences (it’s time we acknowledge the Atlantic 10 as a power conference). Exactly two of them won 30 games. Alas, Gonzaga has begun its offseason as well. Can a 31-5 team be considered a disappointment? That’s for you to decide. But predictable? No way.