The Tigers completed their busiest stretch of the season — five games in 11 days — with a thorough dismantling of the Fighting Leathernecks at FedExForum. Memphis scored the game's first nine points and had the game in hand by halftime with a 41-14 lead. (Western Illinois took 30 shots over the game's first 20 minutes and made four.)
Sparked by sophomore Nick King's first career double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds), the Tigers earned their fourth straight win and improved to 7-4. They'll open conference play when Houston comes to town for a New Year's Eve matinee.
"We needed game experience," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner when asked about the frequency of games this month. "I wish we could have done like the NBA does and have eight preseason games. We had some tough early games, where we were trying to figure things out. I'm trying to figure the guys out, and they were trying to figure each other out. We dropped a couple of games due to that. It's such a new team, with such inexperience. We have a better feel of who our team is, our identity. And what we need to continue to work on."
Junior forward Shaq Goodwin did not play, having been suspended a game for what Pastner called a violation of team rules. (Pastner described the violation as "extremely minor.") It was the first game Goodwin has not entered in his college career. Senior Calvin Godfrey came off the bench to absorb some of Goodwin's playing time and contributed 12 points and nine rebounds in 16 minutes.
"That's what [Godfrey] does," said King. "In practice, he's always a leader on the plus-minus chart. We're battling for rebounds, talking, because we have a connection. Hats off to Calvin because he had a great game. He stepped up when his name was called."
The Tigers bottled up the Leathernecks' top scorer, holding Garret Covington (17.8 ppg) to a single field goal on 11 attempts and four points. Western Illinois made only four of 19 three-point attempts, the seventh time in seven Tiger wins the U of M has held its opponent under 30 percent from long range.
Trahson Burrell was one of five Tigers with at least 10 points (10), his fifth straight game in double figures, and also pulled down nine rebounds. Austin Nichols scored 12 and Pookie Powell had 10. The Tigers had more assists (17) than turnovers (12) for just the third time this season.
The U of M has now played 11 games without a scoring margin less than 10 points, the first such stretch to open a season since 1985-86. (That Tiger team won all 11 games.) Burrell feels his team will be ready when tighter games unfold. "We haven't played an official road game yet," he said. "We've played on some neutral sites. But that will be our first real test, on the road."
"This is the best stretch we've played," said Pastner. "I think we're getting better. I'm excited to see where we are, the way we've progressed. Now, as we get into conference play, we've got to keep getting better."