Will two weeks in January define a basketball season for the Memphis Tigers? Maybe or maybe not, but the U of M program has begun a four-game regular-season stretch unlike it has seen in more than 20 years. Two of the last three national champions (Connecticut and Louisville). The program’s two most intense historic rivals (Louisville and Cincinnati). With tradition-rich Temple — on the road — thrown in for good measure. By the time the Tigers host LeMoyne-Owen on January 18th, they could be 13-3 and ranked among the top 15 teams in the country. Or they could be 10-6 and facing a climb just to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The fun resumes this Thursday night at Freedom Hall in Louisville. (Has it really been nine years since Memphis beat the Cardinals?)
With a season’s tipping point upon us, a few observations from the Tigers’ first 13 games:
• “We put a lot of eggs in their basket.” After the Cincinnati loss last Saturday, Tiger coach Josh Pastner emphasized — again and again — that this team will go as far as its core of senior guards takes it. It’s a painfully obvious view: select any four-man unit from a college team’s eight-man rotation and its collective performance will impact games. But when the four are all guards, handling the ball on virtually every possession? This is easy math.
In the season-changing upset of Oklahoma State on December 1st, the fab four — Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson, and Michael Dixon — combined to score 45 points. They made 17 of 36 field-goal attempts, including five three pointers. Last Saturday against the Bearcats, the foursome combined to score 37 points, but was woefully inefficient, hitting 14 of 49 shots from the field and missing 15 of 17 three-point attempts. It’s a group that seems to thrive on collective success, but one that also seems prone to collective shooting slumps.
• The bigs still matter. The four guards played well in the narrow loss to Florida on December 17th, combining for 52 points and six three-pointers. But starting forwards Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols were held to a combined three field goals and eight rebounds. (This was the night senior transfer David Pellom emerged as a difference-maker with 12 points in 16 minutes off the bench.) Last Saturday, Goodwin made only two field goals in 35 minutes and pulled down six rebounds (just under his average of 6.8 per game). Nichols looked a step slow in the first half (one field goal in four attempts and a single rebound) and didn’t get off the bench in the second.
With the Tiger big men all but nullified, Cincinnati was able to stretch its defense to the perimeter, contributing to the miserable Memphis shooting. Pellom again filled some of the void inside, hitting four of five shots, but Goodwin and Nichols will have to get closer to their combined averages of 20.8 points and 12.9 rebounds for the Tigers to threaten the top teams in the American Athletic Conference.
• The star freshmen . . . are still freshmen. As for early-career teasers, Nichols and Nick King have provided highlights that have had Tiger fans salivating. A starter since opening night, Nichols scored 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds in the win over LSU. King had the lone positive performance in the loss at Oklahoma State — just his second college game — with 23 points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes (alas, most of those minutes after the outcome had been decided).
But King hasn’t played as many as 15 minutes since the Northwestern State game on December 7th. Nichols is catching up to the speed of the college game. And Kuran Iverson has averaged only 9.4 minutes of playing time in the nine games he’s entered. It will be interesting to see how Pastner and his staff keep these future stars engaged, particularly through the tougher stretches of the schedule. A year from now, we won’t be discussing four senior guards. The primary topic will be the team’s young but veteran leaders: Austin Nichols, Nick King, and Kuran Iverson.
• Depth on paper is one thing. Pastner utilized but six players in the second half against Cincinnati: the four seniors, Goodwin and Pellom. A suggestion back in November that Memphis would battle the Bearcats with Nichols, King, Iverson, Damien Wilson, and Dominic Woodson all in a sitting position would have raised some eyebrows in these parts.
I asked Jackson about the squeezed rotation Saturday, and he was succinct in measuring the significance. “You earn playing time through practice,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.” Can the likes of Iverson, Wilson, and Woodson gain enough trust from the coaching staff — in practice — to take the floor at Louisville or Temple? The emergence of one or two of this team’s supporting cast could make the difference in a significant win.
Eighteen regular-season games remain for the Memphis Tigers. You gotta figure 12 or 13 wins would secure a dance ticket. But with five of those games against the American’s current big three (Louisville, UConn, and Cincinnati), there’s not a lot of margin to accommodate performances like last Saturday’s at FedExForum. It’s time to tighten the laces.