The University of Memphis football team just completed its sixth straight losing season (3-9). But was it a bad season? In simple terms, yes. Any losing season is a bad season, particularly the way this one ended. Let’s consider the campaign a little deeper, with a few points of consideration for a long offseason.
• First, the numbers (I’ll stick with per-game averages). The Tigers were outscored 24.6 points to 19.5 (compared with 30.2 to 24.4 in 2012). The Tigers gained an average of 311.5 yards and surrendered 370.7 (last year the respective figures were 318.3 and 383.6). The defense improved, if only marginally, while the offense regressed. Hard to measure overall progress from these stats. And there’s just no hiding what happened the last two weeks against Temple and Connecticut, bottom feeders in the American Athletic Conference. In giving up a combined 1,072 yards to the Owls and Huskies, the Memphis defense fell from a ranking of 16th in the country to 40th.
• Few positions in sports are measured by the performance of others like that of offensive linemen. If a running back is able to regularly break into the defensive backfield, offensive linemen are doing their jobs well. If a quarterback is able to camp in the pocket for four or five seconds, offensive linemen are doing their jobs well.
There were not a lot of lengthy runs from Tiger tailbacks this season, and quarterback Paxton Lynch did more running than he or his head coach planned last August. Chewing on these observations, the Tiger offensive linemen did not do their jobs all that well in 2013. Two of them being seniors (Antonio Foster and Chris Scheutz), the line will take new shape in 2014. It really has to. And holdovers like Taylor Fallin and Nykiren Wellington must improve or turn their duties over to others. Boiled right down, football is a simple game. The team that consistently gets a push at the line of scrimmage wins. That team was rarely the Memphis Tigers this fall.
• Is Paxton Lynch The Guy? The redshirt freshman threw a pretty ball when he was able to load up and fire downfield (all too rarely). And he was far more nimble a runner than most 6’7” signal-callers. He was durable, never missing a start and absorbing plenty of contact. I would have liked to see measurable improvement from Lynch over the 12-game season, and I’m not sure we did. He surpassed 200 yards in passing only twice all season (matching Jacob Karam’s total of a year ago). For the season, Lynch completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 2,056 yards, with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
As a redshirt freshman in 2001, Danny Wimprine completed 52 percent of his passes for 1,329 yards, with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. (The Tigers finished 5-6.) The next three seasons, Wimprine passed for more yardage — in each season — than any previous Memphis quarterback. That’s your bar, Paxton.
• The Tigers played their toughest schedule in some time, and without an SEC opponent. Duke, Louisville, and UCF each won at least 10 games. The three beat Memphis by a total of four touchdowns. Which makes ugly losses to Temple and SMU all the more painful. The Tigers were three or four plays — and several penalties, let’s remember — from a five- or six-win season. But they also lost to Temple by 20 points. And UConn by 35. Make of this jumble what you will.
• The Tigers have not had a first-team all-conference player since Jamon Hughes was honored by Conference USA after the 2010 season. That will surely change later this week, with punter Tom Hornsey — a finalist for the Ray Guy Award — due a salute from the American. Had Bobby McCain stayed healthy, he may have joined Hornsey. And it will be interesting to see what kind of support defensive end Martin Ifedi receives. The junior pass rusher had 8.5 sacks in the Tigers’ first seven games, but only three more over the last five.
• Looking at attendance figures (tickets sold), the Tigers averaged 28,537 for their seven home games this season, compared with 24,371 last year (and 20,078 in 2011, Larry Porter’s last year as head coach). That’s significant and measurable growth, though still less than half the capacity at cavernous Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The season’s largest crowd attended the opener (44,237) while the smallest turned out for the SMU game on October 19th (16,241). Keep this in mind: Since the Liberty Bowl became their home in 1965, the Tigers have averaged 40,000 fans (two-thirds capacity) exactly three times: 1976, 2003, 2004. I don’t know what the solution is for this program’s long-term health, but I know a stadium with (at least) 20,000 empty seats is not part of it.
It was a bad season, and I hand down such judgment entirely based on the beatings Memphis took in its last two games. Having seen the Tigers compete so fiercely against the American’s top two teams (UCF and Louisville), who saw the drubbings against Temple and UConn coming? Had the Tigers not suffered fourth-quarter heartbreak against the Knights, and had they cut their penalties (15 for 145 yards) in half and beaten Middle Tennessee, we’re reviewing a 5-7 season, a victory shy of bowl eligibility. That same record could have been achieved, though, by beating Temple and UConn.
The Memphis Tigers will land on the schedule of American foes next fall as a winnable game, no matter the opponent. It’s hard to feel emboldened by any traces of progress this fall.
Senior guard Chris Crawford could well become the Memphis program's 49th member of the 1,000-point club Saturday when the Tigers host Northwestern State. The pride of Sheffield High School needs 13 points to join teammate Joe Jackson (and 23 other native Memphians) north of four figures on the school's scoring chart.
Crawford and Jackson will make a rare pair, indeed, as four-year teammates in the 1,000-point club. Only three other pairs of teammates played four years together as Tigers while surpassing 1,000 career points:
• Doom Haynes (1,479 points) and Bobby Parks (1,266) from 1980-81 thru 1983-84
• Andre Turner (1,442) and Baskerville Holmes (1,112) from 1982-83 thru 1985-86
• Robert Dozier (1,381) and Antonio Anderson (1,277) from 2005-06 thru 2008-09
Dwight Boyd and Vincent Askew played three seasons together (1984-85 thru 1986-87) and each scored 1,000 points, but Askew was off to the NBA for the 1987-88 season.
Chris Douglas-Roberts scored 1,545 points with the Tigers and joined the program the same year Dozier and Anderson did (2005). But CDR entered the NBA draft after his junior season (2007-08).
The most famous pair of teammates in Memphis Tiger history — Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson — are each members of the 1,000-point club, of course, but freshmen were not eligible when the Melrose duo enrolled in 1969. Considering they were teammates on the freshman team for the 1969-70 season, they make this list on a technicality.
I actually have 15 thoughts this week, as Senior Day approaches. Here’s hoping a healthy crowd shows up to salute these players as they suit up for the final time when Temple visits the Liberty Bowl. (Get there early, as kickoff will be at 11 a.m. Saturday.)
Holding to format, I’ll present this class of Tigers in three categories.
• I’m reluctant to ever use the expression “role player” during football season. Tell a young man getting the spit knocked out of him in mid-August training camp that he’ll be playing a “role” for his team . . . and take a step back. Football’s a brutal sport. The sacrifices we see on Saturday afternoon are a tiny slice of the toll taken over the course of the year (which includes spring camp). Defensive lineman Roderick Howard (a graduate of Kingsbury High School), offensive lineman Andrew Niblock, and wide receiver Jamere Valentine never topped the Tiger depth chart, but each devoted himself to coach Justin Fuente’s cause. Work done outside the spotlight can be hard to measure. In some respects, Senior Day is meant for players like this.
• In basketball terms, these eight players have been in the Tiger “rotation” at one point or another, some for lengthy stretches. Anthony Brown has been a regular starter at linebacker since joining the Memphis program for the 2012 season. Defensive lineman Johnnie Farms entered the season as an all-conference candidate, only to serve a lengthy suspension for a violation of team rules. (Farms had 9.5 tackles-for-loss as a junior.) Antonio Foster has started at both guard and center over his two seasons as a Tiger and was a member of the team’s leadership council. Tailback Brandon Hayes (White Station High School) leads the U of M in rushing yards (789) and could become the first Tiger to gain 1,000 on the ground since Curtis Steele in 2009. Quarterback Jacob Karam made headlines this year for playing the piano at St. Jude, but he was precisely the leader the 2012 Tigers needed. He passed for 1,895 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, tossing only three interceptions in leading the Tigers to four wins, the program’s most in four years. Tight end Jesse Milleson caught one of the biggest passes of this season, a fourth-quarter touchdown connection with Paxton Lynch at Louisville that brought the Tigers within seven points of the heavily favored Cardinals. Jai Steib saw his workload drop when Hayes took over at running back, but he gained 427 yards as a junior and scored six touchdowns.Anthony Watson has been a regular starter at strong safety for the Tigers, strengthening a defensive backfield that just a couple of years ago was the weakest component of the team.
• If you had to pick a “core four” from the 2013 senior class, it could well be this group, each of whom played four years as Tigers (two of them under former coach Larry Porter). They’ve endured the program hitting rock bottom (3-21 under Porter) and have been integral to the transition under Fuente. Free safety Lonnie Ballentine (Southwind High School) started eight games as a sophomore and has been a regular starter the last two seasons under Fuente. He received honorable-mention all-conference recognition from Conference USA after the 2012 season and has 97 solo tackles for his career. Simply put, Tom Hornsey is the greatest punter the Memphis program has seen. The Aussie deserves hazard pay for the sheer number of kicks he’s been assigned (95 in the 2011 season alone). He has surpassed 12,000 yards for his career (no other Tiger reached 10,000), dropped 95 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, and has had but one of his 286 punts blocked. If there’s justice, he’ll receive the Ray Guy Award at season’s end. Linebacker Corey Jones (Mitchell High School) started four games as a freshman in 2010 and has seen action in 44 games as a Tiger. Offensive lineman Chris Schuetz has started at least seven games each of the last three seasons, playing center as a sophomore before moving to guard as a junior and back to center this season.
You build a program on the backs of your seniors. Hats off to the weight of growth these 15 Tigers carried.
• Has Lady Luck finally winked the Tigers’ way? In the win over UT-Martin two weeks ago, two field-goal attempts by the Skyhawks’ kicker deflected off the same (left) upright. Then last Saturday at USF, a 56-yard attempt by Tiger freshman Jake Elliott kissed the crossbar before securing Memphis another three points just before halftime. These are events worth noting for a program not accustomed to breaks going its way. (See the last three minutes of the UCF game.)
The Tigers converted only two of ten third-down opportunities against the Bulls. Their quarterback did more damage as a runner (51 yards) than as a passer (59). They scored exactly one offensive touchdown. And yet, Memphis won the game . . . and by 13 points. Credit to a stout defense (particularly AAC Defensive Player of the Week Bobby McCain, he of three interceptions). But let’s measure good fortune when we can. Luck and talent have partnered for a lot of success stories on the gridiron.
• Tiger senior Tom Hornsey has now punted for almost seven miles over his four years in blue and gray. The Aussie pigskin punisher surpassed 12,000 yards in the win at USF. (No other Memphis kicker has reached 10,000.) Such a figure, of course, is an ugly statement on how dreadful the Tiger offense has been over the last four seasons. But imagine what Memphis football would have looked like the last four years without Hornsey. (Yes, folks, it could be worse.) During the USF game, we saw the prototypical Hornsey punt in the third quarter, the Tigers clinging to a 6-3 lead. Sixty yards the ball traveled . . . before being downed at the USF one. Back in August, Tiger coach Justin Fuente summarized Hornsey’s impact with words that would inspire anyone ever charged with saving fourth down: “Tom Hornsey is as versatile a punter as anyone I’ve been around. He’s a real football player.” Give this man the Ray Guy Award.
• The best football game I’ve seen live — in the stadium — was the Memphis-Louisville tilt on November 4, 2004, at the Liberty Bowl. This was the height of a Tiger offense built around tailback DeAngelo Williams (200 rushing yards that night) and quarterback Danny Wimprine (361 yards passing and four touchdowns). The teams combined for 1,202 yards (Memphis with 603), 63 first downs (30 for the Tigers), and nine lead changes (the last to the Cardinals, who won the game, 56-49). It was an epic offensive display by two teams off the radar (at the time) of any national title consideration.
This Saturday’s game in Louisville won’t be anything like that game. Sadly, it may be the last time we see the Tigers and Cardinals clash on the gridiron for some time. (Louisville moves to the ACC in 2014.) The football series between these schools is nothing like the legendary basketball rivalry, but nonetheless, they’ve played 42 times (the Cardinals own a 23-19 edge). The Tigers have lost the last three meetings and seven of the last eight (Memphis won at Louisville in 2003). It’s a nothing-to-lose contest for the U of M as the 21st-ranked Cardinals hold out hopes for an American title and the automatic BCS berth that comes with it. There have been bigger upsets, right?
• The Tiger penalties have to stop. Since the Oakland Raiders franchise was born (in 1960), no pro team has led its league (first the AFL, since 1970 the NFL) in penalties more than the “Silver-and-Black” made famous by outlaw owner Al Davis. While no other team has led the NFL as many as 10 times over the last 53 years, the Raiders have paced pro football in penalties no fewer than 15 times. Somehow, this is a lauded part of the franchise’s image for ferocity. If you wear Oakland Raiders colors, breaking the law is cool, and that translates to committing penalties on the field.
The Memphis Tigers are not the Oakland Raiders. They escaped last Saturday’s game against FCS foe UT-Martin with the help of two field-goal attempts off an upright and despite twelve penalties that cost the U of M 123 yards and a player (almost two). After eight games, the 2-6 Tigers “lead” (trail, really) all of FBS with more than 80 yards per game in penalties. And these infractions are costing the team wins. In the two-point loss at Middle Tennessee in September, Memphis surrendered 145 yards in penalties (called by the same crew that worked the UT-Martin game). In the 10-point loss at Houston, the Tigers were penalized for 86 yards (four lost fumbles didn’t help). And in the five-point loss to SMU last month, the Tigers were penalized for 110 yards. I’ll venture to say one of those games goes the Tigers’ way if the penalties had been cut in half.
It’s sloppy. And it’s an ugly reflection on a team being built on discipline by a still-new coaching regime. The penalties have to stop. Make the opponent beat you.
• With every passing week, my favorite individual story of the season is that of Brandon Hayes. The senior tailback from White Station High School leads Memphis with 625 rushing yards and six touchdowns, two years after running for 556 yards — for the season — with Scottsdale Community College. Remember, Hayes walked on at Memphis as a freshman in 2010, only to lose that season to a broken foot. He returned to Memphis when Justin Fuente was hired before the 2012 season, and played without a scholarship until late October of his junior season. He led the Tigers with 576 rushing yards last year, surpassing 100 in each of the Tigers’ last two wins of the campaign.
Hayes has topped 100 yards in each of the Tigers’ two wins this season, meaning you can count on seeing a few carries by number-38 this Saturday at USF. Said Fuente at Monday’s press luncheon: “Brandon’s going to be our guy.” Hayes has a reasonable shot at a 1,000-yard season, which would place him in the top-15 in Tiger history. Better yet, he’s a nominee for the Burlsworth Trophy, given annually to the most outstanding college football player who began is career as a walk-on.
• The Tigers have three realistic chances at winning their first American Athletic Conference game, the first this Saturday against USF in Tampa. The programs last met in the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl, the Tigers’ last taste of postseason play. (The Bulls won what amounted to a home game, 41-14.) USF is dead last in the American in total offense (256.0 yards per game) and scoring (15.4 points). They’ve scored but 12 touchdowns in their eight games (third-lowest total in the country). But among common opponents, USF beat a Cincinnati team that handled the Tigers. Their other win came at UConn (13-10) five weeks ago. It’s not the Bulls’ offense that concerns Fuente, not based on his remarks Monday: “It’s going to be a rough game, the way they play defensively and the way we’re capable of playing defensively.” Sounds like one of those 16-13, who-plays-less-poorly kind of games. Keep the penalties down, boys.
The “secret scrimmages” and exhibition games are over. In modern vernacular, the Memphis Tigers tip off the 2013-14 basketball season this Thursday night, for real.
A few thoughts as we enter year five of the Josh Pastner Era:
• The Tigers’ four senior guards — Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson, and Michael Dixon — will form a rotation-within-the-rotation unlike any other in college basketball. Each has enjoyed a 30-win season, and each faces a final year that will brand their careers as college athletes. How these four similar-but-different playmakers establish their roles — within the larger rotation and among themselves — will largely determine the ceiling for this year’s team. It’s hard to envision a moment this season — in a competitive game — when the Tigers do not have a senior guard on the floor.
In the exhibition win over CBU last Friday, Jackson and Dixon started, with Crawford (Conference USA’s 2013 Sixth Man of the Year) and Johnson coming off the bench. They each played between 15 minutes (Crawford) and 20 (Dixon), figures sure to leap when the likes of Oklahoma State or Florida are the opponent. Crawford took only three shots (missing all three) and Jackson was only two for six from the floor. But Dixon hit an early three-pointer and led the team with 18 points (hitting seven of ten shots from the field). And Johnson — again the best athlete the Tigers will suit up — hit four of eight (including a trey) and dished out four assists. It’s a potentially lethal “fab four” at Josh Pastner’s disposal. Collectively, they’ll be the faces we remember years from now in reflecting on the 2013-14 season.
• If I were to rank the first impression I had of the four freshmen vying for rotation slots, it would go something like this:
1) Austin Nichols — Dexterity, grace, and length. Midway through the first half, Nichols received a pass just outside the key, maybe seven feet from the rim. Without taking a dribble, the 6’8” forward used one stride to get to the rim and lay the ball in off the glass. It was a simple, elegant basketball play by a big man . . . in his very first college game. Memphis has grown accustomed to brute force in the low post, from Chris Massie to Joey Dorsey to Will Coleman (and some degree, Tarik Black). Nichols brings an offensive repertoire that diversifies the Tiger attack.
2) Nick King — Having watched ESPN’s new documentary Bernie and Ernie last week, I had another King — Hall of Famer Bernard — on my mind as the pride of East High School managed a double-double (12 points and 10 rebounds) in 22 minutes against CBU. King hit five of seven field-goal attempts (including a pair after offensive rebounds) and picked up three steals, playing the kind of active role Tiger fans remember from Will Barton two years ago. (Or Tennessee fans of a certain generation might remember from a certain Bernie.) King will have to guard forwards much of this season and, especially once conference play begins, will be challenged to find some of the shots that seemed to come easily last Friday night. But his minutes will add up, and Tiger fans are going to like him.
3) Dominic Woodson — The Tigers lost three of their top four rebounders from last season (Black, Adonis Thomas, and D.J. Stephens). Senior forward David Pellom will be sidelined five weeks after having knee surgery last week. So who will absorb the rebounding responsibility? The 6’10” Woodson only pulled down two boards in 18 minutes against CBU, but if he shows the touch on offense he displayed against the Buccaneers — seven of seven from the field — this giant (he’s listed at 310 pounds) will do his share of stomping on the hardwood for Pastner. You can’t help but wonder if Woodson benefited more than any other Tiger from the smaller opposition. Let’s see what kind of impact he makes on November 19th at Oklahoma State.
4) Kuran Iverson — Raw. An overused description for a basketball player making a transition in level, but it’s the word I had in the back of my mind all 16 minutes Iverson played last Friday night. Pastner just about split his suit with excitement when Iverson dunked an offensive rebound in the second half. At 6’10”, Iverson has the chance to fill much of that rebounding and defensive void left by Stephens. But he has an erratic offensive game (he missed seven of ten field-goal attempts) and will give weight to many of the players who guard him this season (he’s listed at 209). What a luxury, though, if a top-30 recruit is merely the fourth-best freshman on the Memphis roster.
After winning his first game at FedExForum, Dixon offered a calm, cool take on the campaign ahead. “I’m kind of like a freshman,” he said, “just getting out there and seeing all the fans, the passion this city has. We’ve got a lot to work on but, as a team, collectively, I think we played pretty good. This is our home floor, and we have to defend it.”
When asked about his role in that “fab four” backcourt, Dixon said the band is ready to play . . . for real. “We’re ready to go out there and take on somebody when it counts,” he said. “I have a serious leadership role [here]. I like to talk and communicate, have my teammates’ back. Get everybody in the right spots. We have a lot of guys with experience, and that’s going to help this team.”
• How do we define a “playmaker” on the football field? It’s a vague description, really. (How do we define a “play”?) Generally, playmakers can be categorized as the famous line about pornography goes: “I know it when I see it.” Marcus Rucker led the Tigers with 41 receptions in 2010, while Tannar Rehrer was the top wideout a year later with 70 catches. Who was the playmaker? Rucker got into the end zone eight times (to Rehrer’s four) and Rucker piled up 704 yards (12th in Memphis history) while Rehrer’s 70 receptions only gained 593 yards. Rucker was a playmaker. (Less so as a senior last season, when he caught 47 passes for 525 yards and only three touchdowns.)
The 2013 Tigers desperately need a playmaker. (For these purposes, we’re qualifying playmakers as those who catch passes. Brandon Hayes has been solid on the ground for Memphis, and his 31-yard TD jaunt last week against Cincinnati was certainly a “play.”) Joe Craig leads Memphis with 26 receptions, but averages barely 10 yards a catch (272 yards). Mose Frazier has shown the ability to catch the ball downfield (he averages 17.4 yards per catch), but has only caught 14 balls and scored a single touchdown. Depending on how you measure, the Tigers dropped between six and ten passes in their loss to Cincinnati, killing “plays” and leading to a miserable two-for-twelve conversion rate on third down. You know the best place to find playmakers? In the winning locker room.
• I don’t like the Tigers’ new chrome helmets. I’ve tried to let them grow on me, but I liked them less in the Cincinnati game than I did in the opener against Duke. And I have three primary gripes:
1) The Tigers have a cool logo. That tiger leaping through a bold “M” is a brand instantly recognizable, here and abroad. (As nice as the Grizzlies’ logo is, it doesn’t incorporate the one letter that most says “Memphis.”) Unless you’re standing on the sidelines at the Liberty Bowl, a logo is impossible to see on those chrome domes. The sheer brightness of their reflection prevents your eye from absorbing a logo, much less blue tiger stripes as they wore against the Bearcats. (Try black for those stripes if the helmets are used again.)
2) There’s a sameness to the chrome look. We can thank Phil Knight and Nike for this trend in college football, but silver and gold are not (and will never be) the primary colors for this sport. I know the team when I see a crimson helmet, have a pretty good guess when I see a bare white helmet, and can sure as hell see a certain orange T on a non-chrome helmet. Here’s hoping this love affair with a chrome sparkle is temporary.
3) Memphis just isn’t a chrome town. “Shiny” is not an adjective often used in describing the Bluff City or its people. It certainly doesn’t apply to its teams. There’s a reason “grit” and “grind” took hold of this community two years ago. The still-struggling Tiger football program may shine under Justin Fuente in the near future. Let’s not pretend it is now.
• For a team sporting a 1-6 record, every game is a big game. And when UT-Martin visits the Liberty Bowl this Saturday afternoon, it’s a must-win for the Tigers. The U of M has been “competitive” all season long . . . with a single win to show for it. With an FCS program across the field this weekend, there’s no room for the “competitive” angle. The Skyhawks (6-3 on the season) are literally undermanned as FCS programs are limited to 63 scholarship players (compared with 85 for FBS teams). Having won last season in the Liberty Bowl — 20-17 in Justin Fuente’s debut as head coach — UT-Martin will take the field believing it can win its biggest game of the season. This is a team that blew out its last two opponents (38-14 over Austin Peay and 45-17 over Murray State), averages 423.7 yards of offense per game and 26.6 points. Beat the Skyhawks and Memphis has something to build upon entering the final third of the season. Lose a second straight game to an FCS program and the balance of the season will feel like recovery mode at best. It’s a must-win for the home team.
• There were more than 40,000 empty seats at the Liberty Bowl last Saturday. With 16,241 tickets sold for the Tigers’ game against SMU, the football team drew 2,000 fewer fans than did the basketball team — for a glorified practice — the night before. (Granted, those basketball fans entered FedExForum for Memphis Madness with free tickets.) Just when you’d like to think second-year coach Justin Fuente has started a real movement, one that will hook a community supposedly desperate for good local football, along come the Mustangs for an 11 a.m. kickoff. And with the dawn of college basketball season to provide an ugly contrast.
The Liberty Bowl is too big for the Tiger program (broken-record alert). Saturday was gray and gloomy — before kickoff — and the game started before most Memphians had digested breakfast. But this was the city’s flagship college program hosting a conference foe in mid-October. If such a contest can’t fill the Liberty Bowl to half its capacity, the statement for the future of Tiger football isn’t loud and proud, but meek and weak. Recruits do their homework. That pocket-collapsing pass-rusher from the Sunshine State? He can do the math on 16,000 fans in a 60,000-seat stadium. And Memphis just got crossed off his list of possible visits.
I’ll say this: Those fans sitting in the Liberty Bowl at halftime last Saturday are my favorite sports fans in Memphis. (There weren’t 16,000 left in the second half.) Their team down by four touchdowns (with a blustery wind making a cool day colder), those football fans in blue define “diehard” for me. They deserve better than the Tigers showed in the first half Saturday. When Fuente apologized before opening his postgame remarks, he was apologizing to them. There aren’t all that many, but those fans are the faces of the Memphis football program.
• With the Tigers down 31-3 at halftime, chatter in the press box centered on senior backup quarterback Jacob Karam. Might Fuente put Karam in the game to provide a spark to open the second half? It’s the nature of football: the backup-QB “spark.” Had Fuente replaced his entire offensive line for a series, a message would certainly have been delivered . . . but a spark created?
Paxton Lynch is Fuente’s guy. Resist this as the losses mount and you’re only complicating the frustration of cheering a team with multiple gaps yet to fill. Fuente gave the job to Lynch the second week of training camp in August, all but telling any followers of his program that one quarterback is head and shoulders better than the others on the roster (in Lynch’s case, literally). And when the keys are handed to a superior signal-caller, that includes driving along bumpy stretches of the road. The first time Lynch is removed in the name of a proverbial “spark,” he’ll be checking the sideline every time a play or drive goes sour. And that kind of anxiety compromises a quarterback’s ability to lead.
Jacob Karam is a prince of a human being, and a good backup quarterback. Period.
• At the season’s midway point, the Tigers find themselves with the same record (1-5) they held halfway through the 2012 season. Any signs of progress? Not much in terms of scoring, as the team is averaging 20.2 points per game compared with 18.3 after six games last year. (And remember 14 points last Saturday were courtesy of linebacker Ryan Coleman.) But the Memphis defense is allowing considerably fewer points (22.5 per game, compared with 31.7 in ’12) and yards (331.0, compared with 423.3). And while the offense isn’t reaching the end zone more frequently, it is moving the football, averaging 359.7 yards per game, compared with 288.2 after six games last season.
• Beyond wins and losses, it’s hard to quantify the rebuilding progress of a college football program. However you view the second year of Justin Fuente’s master project, more people are viewing it with you. Tickets sold for the Tigers’ first three home games of 2012 looked like this: 39,076 . . . 27,113 . . . 17,831 (total of 84,020). And this year’s numbers: 44,237 . . . 36,279 . . . 30,274 (total of 110,790). Using the clearest gauge we have for community interest, Tiger football is up 31 percent from this point a year ago.
Better yet, there’s the “feel” of progress. Every game Memphis has played has been competitive, save their blowout victory over Arkansas State. Freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch seems like the football equivalent of a Triple-A prospect at AutoZone Park: glimpses of raw talent, with the best yet to come. The Tiger defense (third in the American) has shown strength from the line to the secondary. The program is still closing a gap, to be sure, but there’s reason to believe victories are on the way. After the loss to UCF last Saturday, Fuente was asked how he would handle such a crushing loss, and he responded with what amounts to a summary of his program’s growth: “When we got here, there were no crushing losses. They were just getting crushed.”
• Before every season, we examine a schedule and mark what we consider “winnable” games. Then, of course, the season starts and what we saw on paper is chewed up and regurgitated by actual football teams, actual players. A month into the season, four American opponents the Tigers have yet to play have combined for a record of 2-17. Memphis will host SMU (1-4) and Temple (0-5); they’ll travel to USF (1-4) and UConn (0-4). Throw in UT-Martin, and today’s paper tells us a strong second half of the season could yield as many as six Tiger wins . . . and bowl eligibility. The midweek game against Cincinnati (at the Liberty Bowl on Wednesday, October 30th) could prove to be a season tipping point. Much to follow in the coming weeks.
• Memphis and Houston should be bitter rivals. Tigers vs. Cougars (cat fight!). Grizzlies vs. Rockets (NBA fight!). FedEx vs. NASA (flight fight!). Need more? In 1997, the NFL’s Oilers left the Astrodome for the Liberty Bowl (insert snicker). Yet despite 17 years in Conference USA together — and now a partnership in the American — Memphis and Houston don’t seem to rile one another all that much. The Cougars lead the series 12-9 (7-5 since the schools joined C-USA in 1996) and have won the last three meetings, putting up more than 50 points in 2009 (at Houston ) and 2010 (at Memphis). This is a game every Memphis fan should have circled in red(!) on their schedules.
Saturday could get ugly. Coach Tony Levine’s staff has had two weeks to prepare for the Tigers. One of the last two undefeated teams in the American (along with Louisville), the Cougars have averaged 43.5 points per game and lead the league in total offense (534.0 yards per game). After their last game, quarterback John O’Korn and cornerback William Jackson were honored with the American’s offensive and defensive player of the week, respectively. The game will surely tilt on Houston’s running attack. If the Cougars approach their average of 226.5 yards per game, the Tigers will come home for SMU with a 1-4 record. If the Memphis defense can keep things closer to the 81.3 yards its last three opponents have averaged on the ground, we might see another game decided in the fourth quarter.
• Let’s stop measuring the strength of the Memphis program relative to its neighbors in the SEC. (Remember, the Tigers have gone 2-25 against NFL Lite since beating Tennessee in that “program-changing” upset . . . 17 years ago.) If we’re trying to establish where Memphis might go, how prominent the Tigers might become on the college football landscape, we need to look at this week’s opponent at the Liberty Bowl. George O’Leary’s UCF Knights are the gold standard. Said Memphis coach Justin Fuente at his Monday press conference, “They’re fundamentally sound and they play hard, smart and tough. You very rarely see them hurt themselves or see them make silly mistakes.”
O’Leary took over the program in 2004, only its ninth in Division I. And UCF stunk up the place (0-11) for exactly one season. In 2005 — playing in Conference USA for the first time, which helps — UCF went 8-5 and played in its first bowl game (a loss to Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl). The Knights have since had three 10-win seasons, played in the C-USA championship game four times (winning twice), and played in four more bowl games (they’re 1-1 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl). This year they’ve already beaten Penn State and made South Carolina sweat considerably. With Louisville leaving the American next season, UCF will be the face of this new football conference. The Tigers’ annual meeting with this team is a new and valuable litmus test for a program seeking relevance.
• Among several promising sights in the Tigers’ win over Arkansas State two weeks ago, one stood out: the pass rush. Led by junior end Martin Ifedi (2.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss), the Tigers tied a program record with seven sacks, all but grounding the Red Wolves’ passing game. Despite playing only three games, Memphis leads the American Athletic Conference with 13 sacks for the season (the rest of the league has played four games each). Compare this total with 29 in 12 games last season, and you have the kind of trend that could impact a won-lost record. Andre Arnold holds the program’s single-season record for sacks with 13 (in 2000). Ifedi (5.5 through three games) could reach that mark by Halloween.
• Entering the season, Fuente emphasized that this year’s team has the kind of depth that will allow the coaching staff to make choices when it comes to attacking an opponent. There are multiple weapons along the defensive line (five players were in on the seven sacks against ASU) and, after what we saw two weeks ago, there may be a threatening tandem of Tiger tailbacks. Senior Brandon Hayes is the top returning rusher (576 yards in 2012), so his 114 yards — and 6.3 average on 18 carries — was pleasant, but can’t be called a surprise. But freshman Marquis Warford? Who had the diminutive Texan (he stands 5’8”) averaging 15.7 yards on 11 carries in his third college game? No way do these kind of numbers repeat themselves Saturday against UCF. But if the Tigers’ current version of Thunder & Lightning (my buddy Greg Gaston prefers to keep it local and call them “Hustle & Flow”) can find holes through a still-evolving Tiger offensive line, Memphis can control the clock to a degree, and limit the chances Knight quarterback Blake Bortles has to light up the scoreboard.
• Third Down Stinks
Compare the numbers from last year’s Duke game and last Saturday’s, and there’s one stat line that is particularly ugly (and familiar): the Tigers’ conversion rate on third down. In 2012, Memphis converted but one of 11 third-down opportunities at Duke. This year, the figure was two for 13. Related to these numbers, a year ago Memphis made only nine first downs against the Blue Devils. This year: 12. Throw the figures in a bag, shake it and this is what you get: Duke ran 84 plays against Memphis in 2012 and 82 this year. The Tigers ran but 50 plays a year ago and 57 last Saturday. Forget the disparity in overall strength, speed, and talent. If I let your team run 25 plays more than I get to run . . . I lose the game.
Memphis faced too many third-and-longs in its opener, partly the result of its running game averaging 2.7 yards per play. The Blue Devil front seven is a veteran unit, one of the best the Tigers will face this season. So credit to a defense for making third down so uncomfortable. But the U of M will have to improve its third-down conversion rate before the numbers that matter — on the scoreboard — show improvement.
• Fourth Down Ain’t That Bad
There are football fans who will tell you “star punter” is an oxymoron. Very few of those fans (none?) look forward to seeing the guy with the big leg trot on the field after another failure on third down. Here in Memphis, though, we should enjoy the Tom Hornsey Show while we can. For the Tigers are suiting up the best college punter on (at least) two continents.
Following the Tigers’ second drive of the season last Saturday (yep, a three-and-out), Hornsey trotted onto the field, the ball on his team’s 18-yard-line. By the time he finished his work, Duke had possession . . . on its own 3-yard-line. The 79-yard punt was the second-longest in Memphis history (Roland Eveland kicked one 85 yards in 1950). Now remember, a punt’s distance is measured from the line of scrimmage, though the punter stands roughly 15 yards behind the line when the ball is snapped. Last Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, an Australian punter with a leg that would be the envy of any kangaroo essentially punted a football the entire length of the field. Those who saw it will remember it. And Hornsey will help the Tigers win football games this year. Cheer him while you can.
• A Raider Rivalry
The best college football team in Tennessee plays in Nashville these days. The historical power in Knoxville is scratching its way back to respectability. But neither Vanderbilt nor Tennessee is on the Memphis schedule, making it imperative that the Tigers win their game in Murfreesboro this Saturday. Lose to Middle Tennessee — from Conference USA! — and the Tigers will spend the next three months knowing they are the fourth-ranked team in the Volunteer State.
Don’t like the concept of Memphis-Middle being a “rivalry game”? Perhaps it’s worth reconsidering. Since renewing a long-dormant series in 2007, the Blue Raiders have won four of five meetings, including two at the Liberty Bowl. Quarterback Logan Kilgore will be familiar to Memphis fans, having thrown for 253 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last year’s game. Sophomore tailback Jordan Parker has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the Raiders’ first two contests. Saturday night will be a battle, one worthy of intrastate rivals.
In some respects, Tarik Black’s three years at the University of Memphis unfolded as an inversion of your typical college life. Arriving in 2010 as a top-50 recruit and hometown favorite from Ridgeway High School, Black was supposed to fill a two-year void at the center position, one created with the departure of Joey Dorsey after the 2007-08 Final Four run. When he announced today that he would transfer (and pursue a master’s degree elsewhere), Black essentially left that same void he found three seasons ago, one he and freshman Shaq Goodwin were unable to fill, especially with the likes of Michigan State on the same court.
Black had better hands offensively than Dorsey the first night he took the court for the Tigers. And his presence in the locker room was that of a veteran leader: a quick smile, eye contact with media types, a willingness to acknowledge shortcomings as well as strengths. Black would be named captain of his team as a sophomore. Players two years his senior would follow Black’s lead.
But then his junior season arrived. Black was the only Tiger named to Conference USA’s preseason all-league team, and that would be, all things considered, the highlight of his 2012-13 campaign. After starting the Tigers’ first five games (including the 1-2 trip to the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend), Black’s downward spiral began with his storming out of a late-November practice, the frustration of his team’s disappointing start fracturing what seemed to be the strongest pillar of leadership on coach Josh Pastner’s squad. The preseason All-CUSA center was suspended for the Tigers’ next game (a win over UT-Martin) and would not start another game for Memphis. Black’s last hurrah, ironically, came against the team that would win the national championship. He had 21 points in 22 minutes off the bench against Louisville — minus Gorgui Dieng — on December 15th. Fittingly, Memphis lost the game.
Black’s numbers weren’t horrible last season (8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game). They just weren’t the kind of numbers that would make local fans forget Lorenzen Wright. Or Chris Massie, for that matter. Even with added weight, the 6-9, 260-pound Black played smaller than he was. Over a six-game stretch in February, Black grabbed no more than three rebounds. He blocked 20 shots in 32 games (after rejecting 56 in 35 games as a freshman). Four Tigers made at least third-team All-CUSA, and none of them were named Tarik Black. As for that void in the pivot, Goodwin replaced Black in the starting lineup and averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds, numbers that won’t make local fans forget . . . well, Tarik Black.
Black leaves the Tiger program just 51 points shy of the 1,000-point club. Having graduated in three years (with a degree in organizational leadership), Black deserved a Senior Day at FedExForum, one he’ll now have to process through imagination, just like an NCAA tournament game in late March (or April). Perhaps he’ll enjoy a Senior Day at his next destination. (Degree in hand, he can play immediately.) Maybe he’ll find a team where he can blend as a role player and contribute to some postseason success.
Tarik Black’s a good man. And I’m convinced he’ll lead other men someday. There are life stages, alas, when familiarity — of setting, of faces — stunts growth. A new challenge should fuel growth for Black, and basketball may prove to be merely incidental. I, for one, wish him success.
Meanwhile, Josh Pastner turns back to that void at center, a new season seven months away.
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.
The NCAA basketball tournament is a cruel event. No other sport requires a team play so many games to qualify, then delivers a series of pass/fail tests to earn a championship. One off night from your best shooter . . . season’s over. Foul trouble for your inside presence? Done. The opponent’s reserve shooting guard heats up from three-point country? Finito.
Talk in Memphis this week will center around a “must-win” Thursday, that if the 30-4 Tigers happen to fall to St. Mary’s or Middle Tennessee (teams that square off Tuesday night for the right to face the U of M), the season instantly goes down the tubes as a failure. The line of thinking is cruel . . . and honest. But it really applies to most of the 68 teams in your bracket this morning. Should the mighty Louisville Cardinals lose before the Final Four, Rick Pitino will join John Calipari in a Bluegrass State doghouse built for two. When teams lose to lower seeds this Thursday and Friday (and they will), they’ll go home with the same scarlet letter — “D” for disappointment — Memphis fans fear so greatly. It’s not all that unique.
Except it is for Tiger Nation. Conference USA has been summarily kicked out the back door, collectively victimized by a 19-0 farewell tour led by Player of the Year Joe Jackson, Coach of the Year Josh Pastner, and Defensive POY D.J. Stephens. Their reward? Could be a matchup with a program (MTSU) joining C-USA next season. The NCAA tournament is cruel, particularly when fate is twisted in knots of irony. Heaven forbid Memphis should fall to the Blue Raiders. With Tennessee and Vanderbilt safely dismissed by the selection committee, the Tigers are, at the very least, atop the state’s basketball pecking order. A must-win Thursday? If it’s the boys from Murfreesoboro on the other bench, put it in bold type. All caps.
• Should the Tigers advance to a second game (the “third round” as defined by the NCAA) and face Michigan State in Auburn Hills, you’ll be able to hear pressure released like that of an overheated steam engine. No chance for Memphis against the Spartans in what amounts to a road game. Tom Izzo will coach circles around the Tigers’ boy wonder. Twenty-five wins in the Big 10 vs. thirty in C-USA? No contest. It’s precisely the kind of game the Tigers should welcome. They’ve played with chips on their shoulders since bumbling around the Bahamas last November. Let it loose.
• There is no weapon in basketball like a hot shooter. And there aren’t many hotter entering the tournament than the Tigers’ Chris Crawford. Finally living up to his uniform number, Crawford has connected on 40 three-pointers in the Tigers’ last nine games (after hitting but 17 in the previous 17 games over two months). Needless to say, he’s the factor any Memphis opponent will consider most threatening this week. Crawford missed all five of his long-distance attempts last year against Saint Louis in the Dance (and hit two of five as a freshman against Arizona). If you’re taking the Tigers’ temperature early in Thursday’s game, focus on Crawford’s shooting touch.
• For each of the 68 teams in the field, there are three possible scenarios to every game: a blowout victory, a blowout loss, or a game that could go either way. The most likely, of course, is the third possibility. Which makes the Tigers’ double-overtime heart-stopper in last Saturday’s C-USA championship game the perfect dress rehearsal for the NCAAs. Maybe the Tigers win a blowout Thursday. Perhaps they get blown out (unlikely). But I don’t see them getting rattled on the big stage late in a tight game. Geron Johnson has made shots when things are tight. So has Joe Jackson and, for crying out loud, Chris Crawford. I see these Tigers as more battle-tested than the national analysts who can’t peer beyond the C-USA affiliation.
• Pastner has been forced to use what amounts to a seven-man rotation since Antonio Barton’s foot injury in early February. If the coach has a roster concern entering the tournament, it has to be the center position. Forget possible foul trouble to Shaq Goodwin or Tarik Black. When will one of the Tiger big men again have real impact on a game? Foul trouble or otherwise, it’s hard for two players with the talents of Shaq and Black to combine for two points in 50 minutes as they did in the C-USA title game. Goodwin pulled down seven boards against Southern Miss, his first game with as many as six since January 30th. Black has scored as many as 10 points once since January 22nd. Standard hoops theology says guard play wins in March. But particularly with Michigan State looming, a Tiger big man needs to play big.
• Back to that “must-win” scenario for the Tigers. Since Memphis won its first NCAA tournament game in 1973, the program has endured two droughts longer than three years without a win in the Dance, each of them spirit-threatening eight-year periods (1974-81 and 1996-2003). A loss Thursday would extend the current drought to four years and make for the longest offseason of Pastner’s still-young career. The NCAA tournament is a cruel test, indeed.
As the regular season's final week unfolds, a few thoughts to ponder:
• Last Tuesday’s loss at Xavier may have proven, once and for all, that Conference USA is college basketball’s kiddie pool. The league champion — 13-0 against its conference brethren — travels to face a foe sixth in the Atlantic 10, minus its point guard . . . and loses? There will be no sugarcoating the defeat come Selection Sunday for the NCAA tournament. The Musketeers lost to Pacific (at home). They lost to Vanderbilt (at home). They lost to Wofford (at home). But they beat the C-USA-champion Memphis Tigers.
The Tigers returned to C-USA competition Saturday at UCF, played dreadful basketball for the first ten minutes of the game . . . and led by five at halftime. What a difference a league makes.
• If you think the loss at Xavier on ESPN2 hurt the nation’s impression of the Tigers, imagine what a loss to a C-USA opponent might do. If coach Josh Pastner felt pressure to win in Cincinnati last week, he should know that the last two games on the Tigers’ regular-season schedule (at UTEP, UAB) and every game Memphis plays in the C-USA tournament (save the championship . . . maybe) is a must-win.
Let’s say the Tigers finish the regular season 27-4 (undefeated in C-USA) and suffer a monumental upset in the C-USA tourney quarterfinals. That would inspire some lengthy discussion in the NCAA selection room. The loss at Xavier eliminated any margin for error the Tigers may have enjoyed. They must hold serve and get out of the kiddie pool for good.
• It’s looking like the Tigers’ biggest win of the season came in Knoxville on January 4th. Tennessee’s recent wins over the reigning national champs (Kentucky) and a top-10 team (Florida) put that Memphis victory in new context. If only this brand of math translates in the NCAA selection room. (For that matter, the loss to a Minnesota team that beat the top-ranked squad in the country could paint the Memphis record a new shade. And VCU manhandled 20th-ranked Butler last Saturday. We’ll see.)
• Evidence that pressure to perform at Xavier entered the Tigers’ heads: 12 missed free throws in 18 attempts. You would have thought John Calipari stood on the sideline as one Tiger after another left points behind by damaging the rim with a foul shot. A team that had made 20 of 24 freebies in its previous game could hit only one third of its shots from the charity stripe. (They weren’t much better at UCF, hitting 12 of 21.) D.J. Stephens entered the Xavier game shooting 71 percent from the line. He made one of seven shots, missing a critical pair late when the game was very much there to be won. Geron Johnson — a 74-percent free-throw shooter — missed the front end of a one-and-one near the end. How does a player bury three long-distance shots to bring his team back . . . and miss a critical free throw? It’s all between the ears.
• Is it possible for a team to go undefeated in its league and not have the league’s player of the year on its roster? Could happen with these Tigers. The U of M’s top scorer, Joe Jackson, is 13th in C-USA (13.9 points per game). The Tigers’ top rebounder, D.J. Stephens, is 12th in the league (6.8). The team’s top pro prospect may be Geron Johnson, but are his numbers (10.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists) POY stuff? Tulane’s Josh Davis could lead the league in both scoring and rebounding. Preseason POY Keith Clanton of UCF has hardly been a disappointment (15.3 points, 8.6 rebounds). Tulane and UCF could each finish the season with 20 wins (kiddie pool alert), perhaps enough to earn their guy a trophy.
• The memory of last year’s one-and-out loss to Saint Louis in the NCAAs is all too fresh among Tiger fans. Then came VCU last November and now a crushing loss at Xavier. Tiger faithful may be thrilled to be leaving C-USA behind. They may be just as glad the program isn’t joining the Atlantic 10.