Senior guard Chris Crawford pushed the basketball across midcourt, four gray-clad teammates sprinting ahead in transition after an Austin Peay turnover. Crawford delivered the ball to fellow senior Geron Johnson in the right corner. Johnson could have let fly a three-point attempt but instead swung the ball to yet another senior guard, Joe Jackson, on the wing. Jackson could have taken a long-distance shot, but chose to drive into the lane, where his shot bounced off the heel of the rim. But there to flush the rebound was freshman forward Austin Nichols. His dunk gave the Tigers an 81-50 lead and stirred a small (for Tiger basketball) crowd of 15,785.
Each of those fans hopes the play — and the Tigers' season-opener in general — is an indication of the abundance of options Memphis coach Josh Pastner has to call upon this season. The options will be needed, starting next Tuesday when the 13th-ranked Tigers travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to face the 8th-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys.
Much has already been said and written about the Tigers' rare quartet of senior guards, each expected to make an impression on a season of (once again) high expectations. For starters, tonight was quite a show:
• Jackson: 16 points, and 7 assists in 29 minutes.
• Johnson: 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists in 26 minutes.
• Crawford: 11 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals in 23 minutes.
• And making his Memphis debut, Michael Dixon: 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 steals in 24 minutes.
The guard-heavy lineup led a press that wore the visiting Governors down (22 turnovers) and created the kind of quick-strike opportunity the resulted in easy baskets like the Nichols follow-up dunk. Memphis led by 22 (51-29) at halftime and coasted over the game's final 20 minutes.
In addition to Dixon and Nichols (6 points and 5 rebounds), two more freshmen made their college debuts tonight. Nick King came off the bench and scored 13 points in 15 minutes, while center Dominic Woodson converted a pair of baskets and grabbed three rebounds in 15 minutes. (Freshman forward Kuran Iverson served his one-game suspension for a summer-league violation of NCAA rules and will make his debut at Oklahoma State.)
Johnson was ho-hum about his first career double-double, saying "It's good. I'm blessed. Hopefully I'll get more. I'm glad I got 10 rebounds, but it's about time." He was more emphatic about his collection of teammates, and that goes beyond the senior "fab four."
"We're a unit," said Johnson. "It just so happens we have four senior guards. Hopefully we'll get better. Seniors and freshmen, we all have a lot to learn."
Reluctant to sing their own praises, Johnson and Dixon were eager to applaud his teammate's impact tonight in their first game together. "Michael brings leadership and intensity," said Johnson. "He's a versatile guard who knows the game. Did you see him out there? He was getting to the basket like [Derrick] Rose, and he's 5'11"."
And when asked about Johnson, Dixon was just as effusive. "He's all over the floor," said the Missouri transfer. "He brings so much energy to our team, deflecting passes, getting rebounds, cutting guys off. He's one of the best I've ever seen at being on the defensive end, then getting to full speed on offense."
Sophomore Shaq Goodwin (10 points, but only two rebounds and five turnovers) gave the Tigers six players in double-figures in the scoring column. Overall Memphis outrebounded the Governors 50-27. There won't be that kind of edge next Tuesday.
But for tonight, a fast-paced win to open a long season with great expectations. "It was as fun as it looked," said Johnson. He smiled when he said it. Briefly.