Last October, as part of our annual “Hoop City” issue, I presented ten questions for the 2013-14 Memphis Tigers. The answers would, in theory, determine how the season would be remembered. With February upon us — the NCAA tournament less than seven weeks away — let’s revisit three of those questions and see how close we are to the answers.
• Can a lighter Shaq Goodwin be a stronger player?
Two words: And how. The Tigers’ quartet of senior guards seems to be the opening talking point after every game. But it would take a remarkable two months of basketball from one of those guards for Shaq Goodwin to not be this team’s MVP.
As a freshman starter — playing at 270 pounds — Goodwin averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 20.7 minutes per game, hardly the numbers expected from a McDonald’s All-American recruited to be the post presence Memphis sorely lacked over Josh Pastner’s first three seasons as head coach. But as a sophomore — playing closer to 240 pounds — Goodwin leads the Tigers in rebounding (6.7 per game) and is second to Joe Jackson in scoring (12.5). Against Houston on January 23rd, Goodwin scored 12 points in the first five minutes. With a pair of thundering dunks, Goodwin basically scared the Cougars straight before the FedExForum crowd had shaken the unseasonable chill outside the arena. It would be Goodwin’s fourth game this season with at least 20 points and his 13th in double figures, matching his total for such games as a freshman.
“It’s all about focus,” says Goodwin. “Not bringing anything not to do with basketball on the court.” And about those guards: “We’re an inside-out team, so when we establish our presence in the post, it opens up the floor for our shooters.” Let’s consider Shaq Goodwin’s presence established.
• Just how strong is the Tiger backcourt?
This has become a thorny subject in the FedExForum media room (thornier after Tiger losses). If you want to quicken the pulse of the relentlessly positive Tiger coach, suggest he’s relying too heavily on the quartet of Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson (all starters), and Michael Dixon (off the bench). “When our four guards play poorly collectively, we’re gonna struggle,” said Pastner after the loss to Cincinnati on January 4th. “When they play well collectively, we’re a team that’s tough to beat. That’s a fine line.”
In that loss to the Bearcats, the foursome missed 15 of 17 three-point attempts, as ugly a collective shooting display as FedExForum has seen in some time. In the loss to UConn, the best guard on the floor was clearly the Huskies’ Shabazz Napier (17 points, 10 assists). But the quartet has delivered in big wins over Oklahoma State, Louisville, and Houston (combining for ten three-pointers in the win over the Cougars). Each of the guards has scored at least 13 points in a game and dished out at least five assists. Johnson is second on the team with 5.3 rebounds per game. With Goodwin in foul trouble last week at UCF, the guards accounted for 51 of the team's 69 points. It may not be the best backcourt in the country, but Memphis leads the AAC in assists (17.5 per game) and steals (9.7). Pastner’s right: This team will play as deeply into March as its senior guards allow.
• Are the Tigers a tougher team than they were last season?
Following the 21-point loss at Oklahoma State last November, chopping blocks were being dusted off all over Memphis. With Pastner’s name on them. Less than two weeks later, the Tigers beat those same Cowboys to win the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. After the dud against Cincinnati to open the new year, the Tigers’ strength relative to the rest of the American Athletic Conference was called into question. Five days later, they traveled to Louisville and beat the reigning national champions.
This team has its weaknesses, many of them exposed last Saturday at SMU. Outside shooting is inconsistent, at best. (Keep your eye on free-throws, too. Games are won and lost in March at the foul line and this team has slung some uncontested bricks.) Defensive breakdowns near the basket are too frequent. The rotation is thin, freshmen Nick King and Kuran Iverson not getting the minutes many expected. But let’s not question the team’s toughness. They’ll take a knock-down, as they did most recently in Dallas. But they tend to rise.