More often than not, a college basketball season is about revelations. The team we think we know on Thanksgiving is seldom the team we see on the court after New Year’s Day. And developments between New Year’s and St. Patrick’s Day can transform a team from also-ran status to national champions (see UConn, 2011 edition). The 2011-12 Memphis Tigers are hardly the team most fans and prognosticators expected to see when the team was introduced during Memphis Madness in November. Here’s a look at three misperceptions, and the new reality we must accept . . . at least for now.
• Misperception #1: The Tigers’ depth will be their greatest strength.
When the season opened on November 15th, junior forward Drew Barham was weighing an option to redshirt this season. Having played a complementary role — seven minutes a game — as a sophomore, Barham chose to redshirt because of the sheer number of players in front of him on coach Josh Pastner’s depth chart. Adding newcomers Adonis Thomas, Stan Simpson, and Ferrakohn Hall to the mix, Pastner appeared to have 11 players (not including Barham) to juggle over a game’s 200 player minutes.
By December 17th, when the Tigers traveled to Louisville, Pastner was playing a seven-man rotation. Due to suspension, injury, or old-fashioned ineffectiveness, Charles Carmouche, Wesley Witherspoon, Simpson, and D.J. Stephens had fallen off the menu when it came to prepping for the Cardinals. In both the loss to Louisville and a loss at Georgetown five days later, the Tigers looked undermanned in both talent and number. When (or if) the Tigers regain a couple of impact players for their bench will play a big factor in the steep climb toward an NCAA tournament bid.
• Misperception #2: The Tigers will share star power.
Who would be The Man for this year’s team? Point guard Joe Jackson, the hero of last year’s Conference USA tournament? Tarik Black, the big man who led the team in rebounding last year as a freshman? What about freshman sensation Adonis Thomas? Would Witherspoon bounce back as a senior and take command? It seemed like this could be the rare team that passed the game ball from one player to the next, depending on the day of the week.
Nope. This is Will Barton’s team. The lone preseason all-conference pick for Memphis, Barton has played to form and beyond. Through 13 games, he’s averaging 19.8 points and 9.2 rebounds, figures unmatched for a season in Memphis since Omar Sneed in 1997-98. Barton already has five games with 20 points and 10 rebounds, the most since Chris Massie had seven such performances in 2003. (The last Tiger to do this 10 times was Sneed in 1997-98.) Jackson has been as mercurial as he was as a freshman, missing the Charlotte game on New Year’s Eve for, as Pastner put it, a “personal matter.” Black is averaging 8.5 points and merely 3.9 rebounds, which makes you wonder about the weight he shed last offseason. Thomas is bound for stardom, but is not yet the consistent threat the Tigers need him to be. Bottom line: The 2011-12 Tigers will go as far as Will Barton takes them.
• Misperception #3: The Tigers’ athleticism would allow them to hang their hat on defense.
Pastner emphasized ball-control and rebounding during the preseason, but always predicated his talking points on the Tigers playing lock-down defense. He had the stallions in the barn. It was only a matter of intensity, that “want-to” intangible.
Through 13 games, the Tigers rank 11th among the 12 C-USA teams in scoring defense, allowing 70.9 points per game (they’re second in offense with 77.8 points scored). Remarkably, Memphis is second in the league (behind Tulane) in field-goal percentage defense, its opponents shooting just 38.2 percent. Trouble is, the Tigers are giving up a lot of shots (812, or 98 more than the Green Wave, a team that has played one more game than Memphis). The Tigers are dead last in C-USA in opponents’ rebounds (37.4). With Black, Simpson, and Hall on the roster, this is the ugliest number the Tigers carry entering the new year. Hall has averaged 5.4 boards in the five games he’s played, the only player other than Will Barton to average as many as four. Look for Hall’s minutes to climb from his current average of 22 unless Black and Simpson start cleaning the glass.
With Tennessee visiting Wednesday night and C-USA play opening Saturday (at UAB), the Tigers have a chance for a new beginning this week. Perhaps a new year is just what this team needs to further clarify a still-blurry identity.
If there was any debate on whether or not the U of M should retain football coach Larry Porter, it went something like this:
• KEEP HIM — There’s a standard thought among college administrators, boosters, casual fans, and even media types when a new coach is hired to rebuild a struggling football program: “You gotta give him three or four years.” Turning around a football program goes beyond a single prize recruit, or a single prize recruiting class. Even with Porter’s reputation as a recruiting star during his days as an assistant at LSU, the Tigers had reached a depth that will require two or three solid recruiting classes and, importantly, the seasoning of those classes before it will show on the scoreboard on fall Saturdays. So why the panic after just two years?
This year’s seniors and juniors — those who didn’t transfer to the U of M — were all recruited by Tommy West. A talent divide on both sides of the ball hamstrung Porter, but it’s not entirely of his doing. Six of 11 defensive starters in the home finale against Marshall were West recruits. (Somewhat tellingly, only three of the offensive starters that night preceded Porter.) The second-year coach did what he could to get his players on the field, most obviously with freshman quarterback Taylor Reed. He’s started freshmen at receiver (Kevin Wright), offensive tackle (Al Bond), and cornerback (Bobby McCain). Perhaps these will be the stars of a competitive Tiger team in 2012 and 2013. Are they to be coached by someone who didn’t recruit them?
Once a Memphis team is built around three or four Larry Porter recruiting classes, he could be fairly judged on the team’s performance and progress. But that requires a bit more patience, however uncomfortable for a slump-shouldered fan base.
• DUMP HIM — About that fan base. Let’s forget that fewer than 3,000 fans showed up to watch the Tigers play Marshall in their home finale on November 17th. It’s been a rotten season (again), it was a cold night, and the game was on television (for those prepared to endure another loss, but in the warmth of their living room). The most damaging figure from that last home game of Larry Porter’s second season was 15,105, the number of tickets sold. For a team playing in a stadium that will seat as many as 60,000, one that has seen crowds that average more than 30,000 as recently as 2006, the ticket sales for that UAB game were pitiful. Consider that 16,294 tickets were sold to see the Tiger basketball team two days earlier. For a game played in the middle of the day . . . on a Tuesday! There are Tiger sports fans more inclined to skip work and watch the basketball team than to pay to watch the football team when off the clock. It’s an ugly contrast.
Those ticket-buyers who skipped the UAB contest missed a good game, one of the few Memphis played competitively into the fourth quarter under Porter. With last weekend’s drubbing by Southern Miss, the Tigers lost 14 games by at least 20 points in Porter’s two seasons at the helm. The defense gave up more than 40 points 13 times. The offense scored fewer than 20 points 17 times. These are grotesque numbers to football fans, and really the only ones that matter. If the Tigers’ final record of 2-10 is considered progress on Porter’s 1-11 inaugural campaign, were Memphis fans prepared for 3-9 next fall?
If there was any debate, it was one-sided. Within hours of the season-ending loss in Hattiesburg (if not before), Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson had seen enough. In a release Sunday morning, Johnson said, “The expectations for the 2011 season were to see marked improvement in the team. Now that the season has been completed, I do not feel that we have seen enough improvement for the future to justify keeping this football staff in place for another year.”
So the search begins (again) for a coach to build a weak-sister football program into one that might attract the eyes of a BCS league. If there’s a bigger challenge for a college football coach in America, find it. The challenge for the U of M administration, of course, is convincing a coach — he’s somewhere out there — that taking the Tiger job is a step up the career ladder. Not since Fred Pancoast departed after the 1974 season has a Memphis football coach left with a winning record.
Is Houston Nutt the guy? Having left Arkansas and Ole Miss, it would seem Nutt would be taking another step down the ladder of Mid-South football prestige by taking the U of M job. Mike Leach? His record at Texas Tech is remarkable (10 straight winning seasons in the middle of Longhorn country), but if he’s Candidate A, why hasn’t he been coaching the last two seasons? In the December issue of Memphis magazine, my colleague John Branston advocates for Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze. If there was one game during the brief Porter era that established where exactly the Tiger program sits, it was the 47-3 evisceration at the hands of ASU a little over two months ago. Freeze probably has a handle on the Memphis weaknesses.
At a press conference today, Johnson is expected to announce his imminent retirement. Which begs the question: Who will be in charge of hiring Porter’s successor? (The new football coach may turn out to be merely the second most important hire by the athletic department over the next year.) President Shirley Raines will obviously play a big role. There are local powers with various proximity to the football program that have an interest in seeing the program become what a still-loyal fan base believes it can. One told me Sunday, “The University of Memphis fan base is a very good one — underestimated and underappreciated. I have been surprised how resilient and loyal the fans have been in spite of the lack of commitment and poor decisions over the years.”
Firing a rebuilding coach after just two years all but wipes out any player development under that coach. A disturbing thought until you consider those players were “developing” by losing 21 of 24 football games. The first words to greet Larry Porter’s successor should be, “Welcome aboard.” The next words: “Take a deep breath.”
The Mountain West Conference has to be licking its chops. A day after the MWC and Conference USA announced an alliance with the hope of landing a future BCS bowl slot, two of C-USA’s bottom-feeders met at the Liberty Bowl to determine a degree of inferiority in C-USA’s East Division. The Tigers seem to have reserved exclusive rights on the cellar.
Ahead 10-7 at halftime, the Tigers gave up 28 points over the game’s next 20 minutes. After holding the Pirates to 14 rushing yards in the first half, Memphis gave up 143 on 18 carries in the second. Conversely, a reconstituted Tiger offensive line (four players started at new positions) was only able to open holes for 56 rushing yards on 29 carries. The new look didn’t help senior Skylar Jones in his first start at quarterback either. The Wake Forest transfer was sacked twice and left the game early in the fourth quarter with what appears to be a minor injury. (Regular starter Taylor Reed — nursing his own bruises — finished the game and threw a late touchdown pass to Tannar Rehrer.)
“We started strong,” said Memphis coach Larry Porter after the game. “We sustained it in the second quarter, but in the second half we just didn’t show up. I thought in all phases, we did some good things, but we just didn’t sustain it for 60 minutes. And it got out of hand.”
An early 10-0 lead for Memphis could well have been 14 points were it not for a bizarre reversal by the officiating crew in the first quarter. What appeared to be a 54-yard scoring pass from Jones to Curtis Johnson was taken off the scoreboard — after kicker Paulo Henriques converted the extra point — when Johnson was ruled down at the 4-yard-line. (Porter explained after the game that there had been a communication cross-up between the review officials and those on the field.) Despite having the ball, first-and-goal from the 4, the Tigers had to settle for an Henriques field goal.
Early in the third quarter, Jones threw a pass from deep in Tiger territory that was intercepted by ECU’s Emanuel Davis and returned 23 yards to the Tiger 9-yard-line. Two plays later, Torrance Hunt pranced into the end zone to give the Pirates a 14-10 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. “We didn’t generate enough offense to sustain any drives and balance their attack,” added Porter. East Carolina piled up 524 yards of offense — on 75 plays to the Tigers’ 59 — in beating Memphis for the sixth straight time. The Pirates improve to 2-4 while Memphis falls to 1-6.
Against a pair of C-USA defenses allowing more than 30 points per game, the Tigers have scored 6 and 17 the last two weeks, with only one offensive touchdown. (Defensive lineman Martin Ifedi scored the U of M’s first touchdown tonight on a fumble recovery.)
Asked how he stays positive, Porter suggested there’s too much season left for anything else. “We’ve got five games left,” he said. “We can’t succumb to the negativity around us. We’re going to stay positive as a team. I don’t think you guys are seeing clearly how these guys come out each week and fight and battle for victory. We’ve got to be able to sustain that commitment, that sacrifice, and accountability. I will continue to challenge them to finish the season in a way that allows us to gain some momentum.”
Added defensive lineman Johnnie Farms, “I’m a positive guy, and I try to keep everybody around me positive. If we can stay positive, we’ll get right back at it.”
The Tigers travel to New Orleans for a game with Tulane next Saturday and won’t play again at the Liberty Bowl until UAB comes to town November 12th.
It's the most deflating sports story of my 20 years in Memphis. Think about that. I've seen some dreadful Tiger football over the last two decades (and no, not just under Larry Porter). Saw this city teased with NFL football one season before a franchise skipped eastward to settle in Nashville (and reach the Super Bowl!). And the first two Grizzlies seasons made you wonder if finally being major league meant nothing beyond the punchlines going national.
But the stench of those struggles and disappointments don't linger. Not like the Derrick Rose Affair. A quick summary:
Playing with skills that would have made him NBA Rookie of the Year in 2007-08 (the only season he'd play college basketball), Rose led the Tigers to a 38-2 season and one Mario Chalmers heave away from the program's first national championship. A year later, though, an NCAA investigation concluded that Rose had enrolled at the U of M with SAT scores achieved by a proxy. Down comes the 2008 Final Four banner at FedExForum. Wiped from the record books are all of those record-setting 38 wins. Rose's coach, John Calipari, takes off for Kentucky and the most lucrative package for a college coach in the land.
Rose himself? Not only did he win the 2009 NBA Rookie of the Year trophy, he had to make room in his case for the 2011 NBA MVP hardware. (Rose was named MVP after what would have been his senior season at the U of M. In hindsight, his playing any college basketball at all is laughable.)
And the stench lingers. The fact that three local attorneys — importantly, representing unnamed season-ticket holders enraged by the Rose Affair — managed to sue Calipari, Rose, and Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson for some of the damage done makes for a nice metaphor. Especially considering each of the three principles named in the suit has apparently agreed (as part of a settlement) to make payments to the school's scholarship fund. In sports, nothing says "I'm sorry" like a signed check. Hats off to the lawyers who made this happen: Martin Zummach, Frank Watson III, and William Burns.
But those checks also say "Go away." Calipari needs $232,000 — the amount of a returned bonus, according to The Commercial Appeal — like he needs an extra bottle of hair gel. Derrick Rose makes more than $5 million a year to play for the Bulls, a figure that will leap exponentially when his next contract is drawn up. Most uncomfortable, certainly, is the hit Johnson will take if he has to return his bonus for the vacated championship season (reportedly $70,000 after taxes). But Calipari was Johnson's hire. Rose was Calipari's recruit. Follow the authority, if not the money.
That banner will never hang at FedExForum. The thousands of Tiger fans who cheered what they considered a transcendent team will never get any "damages" from those responsible for the vacated season. (What a cruel word. Imagine something you hold dear . . . now consider it "vacated." Ouch.) Beyond unnamed season-ticket holders represented by determined lawyers, every last fan who cheered the 2007-08 Tigers deserves, at the least, an apology for sheer incompetence. (At best, Calipari and Johnson are guilty of incompetence in the Rose Affair. At worst, they're guilty of lying to their employers and fan base.) But the apology won't come. Only the stench of a lost, however memorable, season.
Memphis Madness is a week from tonight, the start of a new college basketball season, with the usual hope for big wins, star performances, and maybe a championship. And yes, the season will feel new, fresh even. But madness? With the Derrick Rose Affair — like that ugly stench — it lingers.
• It’s hard to measure the progress of a quarterback without a few wins in the mix. Still looking for his first victory over an FBS opponent, freshman Taylor Reed is still in the embryonic stage of his college career. But the 19-year-old from El Dorado, Arkansas, is showing promise in trying conditions. Let’s remember he was called into duty in the opener against Mississippi State after an ankle injury to starting quarterback Andy Summerlin. On top of that, the Tigers’ top running threat — Jerrell Rhodes — left the same game with an injury. On top of that — jeesh! — the U of M’s most experienced receiver, Marcus Rucker, has been on the sideline the last two games with his own injury. Here’s the ball, rookie. Win us some games.
Tiger coach Larry Porter puts a premium on decision-making with his quarterback. Less interested in seeing the spectacular, Porter wants his quarterback to avoid the disastrous. Over his five games behind center, Reed has thrown 158 passes and only one interception. The most promising stat from the Middle Tennessee game last week were the 23 first downs for the Tigers (a season high). Reed ran an offense that steadily gained yardage — even on the ground — and reached pay dirt four times (another season high). The return of A.J. Antonescu at center was a major booster, as Reed wasn’t sacked (a week after going down four times against SMU). As for Reed’s tools, the fourth-quarter touchdown pass he lofted to Keiwone Malone was as pretty a toss as we’ll see all season. This lefty may be a keeper.
• The Tigers rank 11th in Conference USA in total offense (297.2 yards per game). This week’s foe, Rice, ranks 9th (305.2). Memphis ranks 10th in total defense (524), two slots ahead of the Owls (549.8). The Tigers will welcome back Rhodes against a team that is last in C-USA against the run (272). Looking at the rest of the schedule, this is one of two games the Tigers could win that wouldn’t be considered a monumental upset. (The other is a home tilt against UAB on November 12th. The Blazers are actually averaging fewer points per game than the Tigers.) Porter needs to pull out every motivational trick he may have learned as an assistant at LSU and treat this game like a season-shifter. Win and the Tiger faithful have something positive to lean on entering a home game next week (against East Carolina). Lose, and we’re likely staring at a 1-8 record before UAB comes to town.
• In times of struggle, we have to count small blessings, even those that go unseen. One game that will go unseen in 2011 is Memphis vs. Houston. Led by record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum (no, he’s not a Heisman candidate; not as long as he’s playing in C-USA), the 5-0 Cougars are averaging 45.2 points and 610 yards per game. If Keenum were given an afternoon against the Tiger defense, there may not be a scoreboard operator in the country with fingers quick enough to tally the numbers. (Remember, Houston beat Memphis 56-17 a year ago . . . without Keenum.)
• Last season, playing for one of the worst defenses in the country, Jamon Hughes emerged as a star. Consider how well a linebacker must play to earn first-team all-conference honors for a team that allows an average of 39.8 points per game. Years from now, will Tiger fans remember Hughes and his 147 tackles (the most by a Tiger in 30 years)? The sad truth is that rare jewels from 1-11 seasons tend to gather dust.
Be sure and watch Akeem Davis over the next two months. Listed on the depth chart as a linebacker but built like a safety (6-1, 200), the junior from Laurel, Mississippi, appears to be this season’s Jamon Hughes. Through four games, Davis leads Memphis with 26 unassisted tackles and is second to Terrence Thomas in total tackles (34). Against SMU last Saturday, Davis forced a fumble, recovered two fumbles, and intercepted a pass by Mustang quarterback J.J. McDermott. In many respects, Davis may personify this year’s Tiger defense: undersized, with his primary talents being heart and effort.
• Where does a team that has suffered three blowouts focus on improvement? Larry Porter would do well to look at his offensive line. Since rushing for 164 yards in the opener against Mississippi State, Memphis has averaged 60 yards over the last three games, including a woeful -14 against SMU. While quarterback Taylor Reed wasn’t sacked against Austin Peay, he went down five times against Arkansas State and four times last Saturday. Porter uncharacteristically singled out freshman center Monte Golden for his struggles against the Mustang pass rush. Golden was forced into duty after injuries to the Tigers’ top two centers.
Whether or not first-string center A.J. Antonescu is back in the lineup Saturday (or second-stringer Chris Schuetz), Memphis has an inexperienced offensive line, with senior Ron Leary (at left tackle) the only true veteran. As dreadful as the first month of the season has been for the Tigers on the scoreboard, the rest of the season could be just as ugly without improvement from this unit.
• The Tigers face Middle Tennessee this Saturday. Rest assured, the Blue Raiders know they were the only team to lose to Memphis last season. Needless to say, this is not a regional gimme (Middle won the two previous meetings with the Tigers since the series was renewed in 2007). The Blue Raiders are near the bottom of the Sun Belt in total defense (498.3 yards per game) but near the top in total offense (461.3). They were blown out by Georgia Tech, but lost by three points on the road to Purdue and Troy.
It’s a state of where the Tiger program currently sits, but this is a big game. A win would ensure improvement over last season’s 1-11 finish. A win would create the opportunity for Memphis to even its record on October 8th at Rice. And, of course, a win would be the team’s first over a Football Bowl Subdivision team. Huge game.
The parallel is too profound to ignore. Two Conference USA championship games, separated precisely by six years. In each contest, a freshman point guard goes to the foul line with a chance to win a bid to the NCAA tournament for the Memphis Tigers. If Joe Jackson (in 2011) had an advantage of seven seconds left on the clock (time had expired for Darius Washington in 2005), he also had to take his shots on the home floor of his opponent. Washington missed two of his three shots and collapsed to the FedExForum floor in tears. Jackson made both of his, earning MVP honors for the tournament and a hall pass for 31 pre-tournament games considered a disappointment by most Memphis fans. What a difference two free throws can make.
The 2010-11 Tigers were on the verge of being remembered collectively in much the same way Jackson would have been had the C-USA tournament unfolded differently. They were a group packed with talent and press clippings, but underwhelming after the games tipped off. A team that entered the season ranked among the country’s top 20 came up short against power-conference headliners on its schedule (Kansas, Georgetown, Tennessee) then stumbled against longtime C-USA weaklings (SMU, Rice, East Carolina). Its lone preseason all-conference selection — junior Wesley Witherspoon — missed 12 games, some due to a lingering knee injury, others punishment for behavior that would have been considered immature for his freshman teammates. These Tigers had no rhythm, a scattered identity (at last count, 17 starting lineups used by coach Josh Pastner), and no true star. (You have to go back 20 years to find a Tiger team with a rebounding leader with as few as Tarik Black’s 5.0 per game this season. You need 30 years to find a leading scorer with a figure lower than Will Barton’s 12.3. Neither the ’81 nor the ’91 team played in the NCAA tournament.)
But then came El Paso and what can only be described as a team’s collective maturation. The Tigers beat a solid Southern Miss squad for the third time this winter. They beat East Carolina handily, just nine days after getting whipped by the Pirates in Greenville. Then the epic 17-4 run to catch and defeat UTEP for the tournament championship. The win — the Tigers’ 25th of the season — gained merely a 12th seed in the Big Dance (an indication of how far the team’s national standing had fallen). But even when matched up against a top-20 foe — Pastner’s alma mater, Arizona — the Tigers were a blocked shot away from overtime. Whatever shortcomings this squad may have carried in the skills department, they can be said to have found plenty of heart when the games mattered most.
With the end of one season, speculation begins for what’s to come. We live in an age of one-year wonders across the college basketball landscape. The biggest headlines belong to the likes of Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, and John Wall. (Among those five, the closest to win a national championship was Rose, and we know his story.) The presumption that accumulating “freshman phenoms” was enough to play deep into the NCAAs proved faulty in the Tigers’ case. (Last Friday was the Memphis program’s 55th NCAA tournament game, but the first in which four freshmen started.) How many of the freshmen will return for a sophomore season? Will Wesley Witherspoon put this embattled season — and any friction with the Tiger coaching staff — behind him, and rebuild his pro credentials? Will Melrose star Adonis Thomas join the returning cast and make a difference beyond recruiting rankings? As with most college programs this time of year, the questions outnumber any answers.
Here’s an attempt to answer one question: “Is Pastner the right guy?” Dana Kirk and John Calipari each needed three seasons to take the Tigers to the NCAA tournament. Still shy of his 34th birthday, Pastner has done it in two. He needed every ounce of that 17-4 run against UTEP two Saturdays ago, but he took the Memphis program where it’s expected to be every March. Pastner earned some criticism this season for his team’s uninspired play at SMU (at least in the second half) and at UTEP near the end of the regular season. He also earned a healthy dose of credit for making his young squad believe it could beat that same Miner team to reach the promised land.
Rare is the 21st-century college basketball team that can be considered seasoned. Memphis fans may have seen their last senior-laden group of players. But there’s something to be said for watching a team (and its coach, for that matter) grow.
As the fourth seed in this week’s Conference USA tournament in El Paso, the Tigers have a mountain to climb if they’re to win C-USA’s lone automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. If seeds hold, Memphis will have to beat a pair of teams — Southern Miss and UAB — a third time this season just to reach the championship, where they’ll likely face a UTEP team on the same floor where they lost to the Miners by 27 points on February 26th.
But mountains are there to be climbed. Here are five recommendations for the 22-9 Tigers as they prepare for Thursday’s quarterfinal tip-off (2:30 pm).
• Stop Experimenting
Coach Josh Pastner drew up 17 different starting lineups over the Tigers’ 31-game regular season. That’s a ridiculous number, and it screams uncertainty. If the head coach is uncertain about the best way to attack an opponent, how certain do you think the players are about the roles they’re expected to play? Adjustments aren’t just necessary over the course of a basketball season; they’re required. But again . . . 17 lineups? Only one quintet started more than three games.
Before the team’s first practice in El Paso, Pastner should name his starting five for the duration of the postseason, however long it lasts. Every player on the roster could then go to bed at night knowing his role for the challenge ahead. Some might be angry. So be it. Pastner expects commitment from his players. It’s time he shows some commitment himself. My lineup? Antonio Barton, Chris Crawford, Will Barton, Will Coleman, and Tarik Black. Which brings me to the next point.
• Go Big
Basketball remains a big man’s game. I’m mystified by Pastner’s reluctance to play his two big men (the senior Coleman and freshman Black are co-captains) together. Too much rebounding? Too much interior defense? There were eight games this season in which Coleman and Black each played at least 20 minutes. Memphis won seven of them.
Last Saturday against Tulane (C-USA’s last-place team), Pastner chose to go small, prioritizing perimeter defense against the Green Wave’s three-point shooters. Tulane proceeded to hit nine of 18 shots from long distance. The strategy didn’t work at all, and Coleman sat on the bench for 34 minutes on a day he was honored before the tip-off. The Tigers escaped with a victory by making a comeback over the game’s final ten minutes. Black delivered his first career double-double. You have to wonder what kind of numbers Coleman might have added as a supplementary post presence. When Coleman (or Black) sits, the Tigers are essentially playing a four-guard lineup. A four-guard lineup without a consistent shooter. This team needs all the muscle it can get on the floor.
• Forget the Trey
Here are the Tiger shooting percentages from three-point range over their last 12 games: 33, 24, 21, 20, 27, 35, 31, 27, 18, 31, 6(!), 25, 29. That’s not a trend; it’s a habit. This is a poor-shooting team, and they won’t discover a collective flaw to spur a run though any field, be it C-USA, NCAA, or NIT. This Tiger club is best when pushing the pace, scoring in transition, and getting ugly second-chance baskets (again, go big). I’d go so far as to recommend that if a Tiger attempts a shot from beyond the arc, he immediately sits. Look at those percentages again. The lone exception I’d make: If the game’s tight in the last three minutes, Antonio Barton can let it fly.
• Use Your ’Spoon
You get the impression a divorce is unfolding between Pastner and Wesley Witherspoon. Healthy and in uniform, Witherspoon didn’t get off the bench in the loss at East Carolina last week, then played all of 14 minutes against Tulane Saturday. It’s been a rocky junior season for Witherspoon, much of it his own doing. But he’s too talented — and too tall — for Pastner to ignore if the Tigers are to win a postseason game or two. Back to role-defining: Witherspoon needs to understand when he’ll be playing and how much. Is he expected to be a scorer? A facilitator? A defensive stopper? It’s too late for Witherspoon to meet the expectations of his preseason all-conference nod. But what about an all-tourney selection?
• Ignore All the Boots
Playing in Pastner’s native state of Texas hasn’t been good to the Tigers this winter. They lost at SMU in January, then at Rice and UTEP in February. Perhaps wearing their home whites, as they will in Thursday’s quarterfinal, will help. El Paso is a haul, even for the traveling division of Tiger Nation and the Don Haskins Center has a stench to it for the Tigers. Whatever it takes, though, Memphis has to reverse its Lone Star losing streak.
Will Coleman didn’t have to come to the University of Memphis. In the spring of 2009, Coleman had a ready-made excuse for finding another program to help sculpt his late-developing skills on the hardwood. Having been originally recruited (out of Miami Dade College) by John Calipari, Coleman would have raised few eyebrows had he chosen to forsake a Tiger career when Calipari left to coach at Kentucky. Instead, he met Calipari’s successor and chose to honor his commitment.
The son of a military man, Coleman is familiar with commitment. Look at the oversized Tiger logo now tattooed on Coleman’s left biceps, and you get a sense of the commitment he’s made over his two years playing for Josh Pastner and the rabid Tiger fan base. When he’s the lone Tiger marching to center court for a Senior Day salute Saturday afternoon at FedExForum, Coleman will have his shoulders high, chin up, and likely a broad smile on his face.
“I have faith in my guys; we’re gonna be okay.” I’ve heard this quote from Coleman a dozen times over the last two seasons. An agreeable, unusually enthusiastic postgame interview, Coleman likes to talk about his “guys,” and how his faith is unwavering, however much doubt may be growing among media types and the Twitterati. As menacing as he can appear when slamming a lob home for a thunderous dunk, Coleman’s personality is engaging and what I’d call passionately sensitive. He’s an easy player to like.
On the floor, Coleman’s development hasn’t been what Pastner envisioned before the 2010-11 season opened. In terms of average, Coleman’s minutes, rebounds, and blocks are all down from his junior season. He endured a three-game stretch in February when he played a total of 27 minutes. (Coleman was on the floor for only four minutes in the February 19th loss to Rice, a team that was relatively undersized.) Consistency has been elusive for Coleman: 19 points and 11 rebounds in a victory over Marshall, then 2 points and 2 rebounds in a road loss to the same team.
The emergence of freshman center Tarik Black has impacted Coleman’s numbers and playing time, so there’s some irony to the two big men being named co-captain by Pastner at midseason. The shared leadership is a point of pride for Coleman, and the Tigers have enjoyed stretches of dominance — if rare — with both big men on the floor.
“I feel like me and Black, we have a relationship amongst bigs that no one else has,” said Coleman after the Marshall win on January 15th. “I love him to death. We work together, we hang out together, we’re in the gym together.”
Years from now, when I think of Will Coleman, I’ll think of the transition Tiger basketball has made from an era — under Calipari — of over-the-top dominance to one of scratching, clawing, biting for the respect and national admiration many Memphis fans had come to take for granted. For a young man playing merely his sixth season of organized basketball, Will Coleman has been dynamic at times and adrift at others. He’s helped win many games, and contributed to a few losses. In other words, he symbolizes his two seasons as a Memphis Tiger every bit as much as that tattoo on his left arm.
The 2010-11 Memphis Tigers are a team that will be remembered for its freshmen. Three of the four upperclassmen who entered the season in coach Josh Pastner’s rotation — Will Coleman, Wesley Witherspoon, and Angel Garcia — all came up short of expectations, for various reasons. (Those shortcomings are the primary reason this team is on the bubble for an NCAA tournament bid.) With two regular-season games left to play (Wednesday at East Carolina and Saturday at home against Tulane), the Tigers are aiming for a top-four seed — and first-round bye — in the Conference USA tournament.
Just what kind of impact have the five Tiger frosh made? Here’s a look at each player’s performance over 29 games, complete with a grade . . . one that could be boosted by a postseason run.
ANTONIO BARTON — Considered by many a recruiting throw-in, Will’s younger brother has been a surprising difference-maker, particularly in back-to-back road wins over Gonzaga and UCF. If you’re looking for the biggest shot of the season, it was either Charles Carmouche’s game-winning trey at Southern Miss or Antonio’s game-winning triple at UCF. (Imagine the Tigers’ tournament prospects had either of those shots not fallen.) He opened eyes early, leading the Tigers with 17 points in their season-opening victory over Centenary, and has twice been named Freshman of the Week. Antonio has had to establish a role not only in the shadow of his more highly-acclaimed brother, but also in that of fellow freshman point guard, Joe Jackson, a player to whom thousands of Memphians would like to hand the position for as long as Jackson is enrolled at the U of M. To the younger Barton’s credit, he’s making the decision hard for Pastner. Grade: B+
WILL BARTON — He can be a college basketball star, but he’s not there yet. Barton’s length and playmaking ability on the run call to mind Penny Hardaway at times, but Will has forced too many shots and committed too many offensive fouls to fit the “next Penny” tag. He has been the most exciting Tiger to watch this season, scoring from three-point range or via off-balance leaners in the paint. He’s been a better rebounder than expected (second on the team behind Tarik Black) and not exactly a liability on the defensive end. An intangible in Barton’s favor is his confidence. Between the ears, he’s already a star. With another year (or two?) of seasoning, the rest of his body will follow. Grade: B
TARIK BLACK — Not since the days of Chris Massie (and before him, Kelly Wise), have the Tigers had a go-to presence in the pivot. Black’s offensive skills are already superior to those of Joey Dorsey as a senior. Soft hands, a touch around the rim, a better-than-average jump-hook. When (or if) Black develops mastery for positioning himself before receiving the ball, he could be among the best Tiger big men in a generation. He’s already a shot-blocking menace, having enjoyed a stretch of seven games in which he blocked at least four shots in five of them. (Through Sunday, Black has 52 blocked shots for the season. Dorsey had 43 as a freshman.) Most impressive, perhaps, is Black being named a captain (along with Coleman, a senior). Leadership can’t be assigned, but it’s easily recognized. Grade: A-
CHRIS CRAWFORD — “Confounding” would be a nice, alliterative word to describe this shooting guard’s first college season. Expected to be among the Tigers’ top shooters, Crawford opened the season by hitting all six of his shots (including four three-pointers) against Centenary. He drained eight treys (in 15 attempts) over two games in December. But then Crawford had a six-game stretch in which he hit two of 18 three-point attempts. And a nine-game stretch in which he hit four of 34. An adept ball-handler and terrific passer, Crawford received some of the season’s toughest defensive assignments (i.e. Tulsa’s Justin Hurtt) and held his own. The tease here is the number of areas Crawford might impact when he regains his scoring touch. Grade: C+
JOE JACKSON — You can see the pressure on Jackson’s face. A homegrown superstar who set scoring records at White Station High School, Jackson in many respects personifies this Tiger season. Watch Jackson dribble through traffic (around much bigger players) and you see the talent that made him a McDonald’s All-America. But watch him bounce a pass off an opponent’s knee and you see how steep the learning curve can be for college basketball players, regardless of their prep credentials. While Pastner stirred his starting lineup like a potluck stew, Jackson remained the constant. But when his struggles began to show ripple effects in the team’s playing style, Jackson was forced to the bench (he played only six minutes in the win at Gonzaga). There comes a time when elite point guards must make a team their own. It will be interesting to watch how Jackson achieves this, or if Antonio Barton gets in the way. Grade: C
It’s been fun this season to watch three freshmen raised in Memphis make an immediate impact on the Tiger basketball team. Point guard Joe Jackson (White Station High School) is the only player to start all 23 games and leads the team in assists. Center Tarik Black (Ridgeway) leads the team in rebounds and blocks and was named a co-captain (with senior Will Coleman) last month. Despite a dreadful shooting slump of late, guard Chris Crawford (Sheffield) leads the team in three-point field goals and has proven himself the best passer on the team. Sophomore Drew Barham, a graduate of Christian Brothers High School, adds even more local flavor to the squad, having started during the Tigers’ four-game winning streak last month. (Barham had five points, seven rebounds, and five assists in the win over UCF on January 26th.)
Should the group stay in school two or three years, it could go down as one of the finest home-grown units ever to suit up for the U of M. Which had me thinking about other Memphians to play as teammates for the Tigers. Here are a few that stand out:
1994-95 and 1995-96 — Lorenzen Wright, Cedric Henderson, Chris Garner
Wright’s freshman season was a memorable one, as the Tigers went undefeated (17-0) at The Pyramid, won 24 games, and lost (controversially) to defending national-champion Arkansas in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Wright led the team in both scoring (14.8) and rebounding (10.2), a feat he would repeat as a sophomore (17.4 and 10.4), earning first-team all-conference honors both seasons. Garner led Memphis in assists all four seasons he played and is second only to Andre Turner in career dimes (639). Henderson was merely one of the most consistent scorers in Tiger history, averaging at least 12.6 points per game each of his four seasons. He currently ranks sixth in career scoring (1,697). This trio helped the Tigers reach number 3 in the country in 1995-96, but were upset by Drexel in the first round of the NCAAs.
1990-91 — Elliot Perry, Ernest Smith, Billy Smith
Perry’s senior season didn’t turn out the way he would have liked. The Tigers struggled on the road (4-9) and were relegated to the NIT with a final regular-season record of 16-14. (Making matters worse, Memphis lost to Arkansas State — by a single point, at home — in the second round.) The Tigers beat Tennessee, though, and beat Louisville twice before losing to the Cardinals in the Metro Conference tournament. Perry averaged 20.8 points per game and joined Keith Lee as the only Tigers in history to score 2,000 career points. The Smith boys were contributors, too, with junior Ernest averaging 8.2 points per game and sophomore Billy 5.1.
The Smiths would be joined in 1991-92 by another Memphian — guy by the name of Anfernee Hardaway — and reach the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. While Penny was a sophomore sensation (17.4 points per game), Ernest’s role was diminished; he was the rare Tiger to see his scoring average drop each of his four seasons. Billy averaged 11.2 per game. Each of the Smiths would finish his career with more than 1,000 career points.
1984-85 and 1985-86 — Andre Turner, Baskerville Holmes, William Bedford, Vincent Askew, Dwight Boyd
No Tiger fan will ever forget coach Dana Kirk’s final two teams. Over two seasons, the teams went 59-10, reached the nation’s Top 10 (twice), won the 1985 Metro Conference tournament, and reached the ’85 Final Four. The star of the 1984-85 squad, of course, was Keith Lee. But coming from across the river in West Memphis, he represented long-distance recruiting for this era. Turner (the Little General) set a Tiger record for assists in 1984-85 (224), then proceeded to break it (262) the next season. The totals remain the top two in Memphis history. Bedford was a formidable complement to Lee in ’84-’85, averaging 12.2 points, then led the team with 17.3 the next season. Askew and Holmes were dynamic scoring options both seasons, averaging 10.9 and 14.3, respectively, in ’85-’86. Three of these Memphians — Turner, Bedford, and Askew — would gain first-team all-conference recognition, and all five are in the Tiger 1,000-point club.
1972-73 — Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, Bill Cook
The most fabled — and certainly most significant — team in Memphis Tiger history. Led by a pair of buddies (Finch and Robinson) from Melrose High School, coach Gene Bartow’s third Memphis team went 24-6, ending their season in the NCAA championship game against mighty Bill Walton and UCLA. Finch averaged 24.0 points per game and was named Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. He and Robinson were named first team All-MVC all three seasons they played varsity basketball. Robinson is one of only five Tigers to grab 1,000 career rebounds. As merely a freshman, Cook averaged 5.4 points off the bench and was one of only five Tigers to score against UCLA. Finch and Cook are each in the top 10 on the Tiger career scoring chart.
After two months and 15 games, there are, to say the least, some concerns about the Memphis Tiger basketball team. For a team sporting a 12-3 record, coach Josh Pastner’s second squad finds itself in somewhat unique crosshairs of criticism. A 20-win season is sure to come, postseason play (NCAA or NIT) all but certain. So what the heck is wrong with this team?!
A few observations, with the criticism in the form of questions:
• Can this team play defense?
After allowing Tennessee State to hit 12 three-point shots on January 2nd, Pastner said, “My biggest pet peeve is allowing three-point shots. It’s really not that hard a shot. We have to get in our opponents’ air space.” So how did his Tigers take the lesson? They gave up 12 three-pointers (on 21 shots) at Tennessee. Then allowed a weak East Carolina team to stay alive last Saturday by draining eight treys.
Interior defense would be a legitimate concern, you’d think, with Will Coleman and Tarik Black the only real shot-blocking threats. But what’s the problem on the perimeter? Could be a matter, in coach-speak, of “want to.” Wesley Witherspoon and Will Barton have that modern hoops commodity — length — that translates well on both sides of the ball. They, among others, must put forth the effort of invading opponents’ air space beyond the three-point arc.
• Is there an offensive scheme? Any?
You won’t see many Tiger possessions with four passes. (They seemed to pick up against East Carolina, but Memphis was twice called for a three-second violation.) Memphis fans need to get used to it. This ain’t Princeton. It’s not a Bobby Knight-coached team. John Wooden’s approach to teaching basketball is an art worth reflecting upon in a museum (or Hall of Fame), but you won’t see it at FedExForum.
This Tiger team is built on freshman athletes. Will Barton didn’t need back screens to score in high school. Joe Jackson wasn’t asked to master the pick-and-roll as he became a McDonald’s All-America at White Station High School. And I imagine the next time Tarik Black is fed the ball in the high post as a tool for attacking a defense will be the first.
With six of the top eight players (counting junior transfer Charles Carmouche) wearing a Memphis uniform for the first time, this is a team still getting used to individual likes and dislikes. The coaching staff is still trying to identify which units work best together. (One question: should Jackson and Antonio Barton ever be on the floor together?) In other words, a young team is evolving. There was a day when fans could close their eyes and imagine how such a team might look in a couple of years, when the Barton brothers, Chris Crawford, Black, and Jackson have had time to coalesce. That, of course, is fantasy now. All five of those players may need three years (at least) of college basketball seasoning. But there’s no chance all five will be Tigers for the 2012-13 season. Reality: the frosh have to gel as an offensive unit for this team to win in March.
I’ve got Angel Garcia on my mind. After a few days of pondering his hasty departure from the U of M program (to play professionally in Spain), I find Garcia’s tale more and more unsavory, if not atypical in the modern world of college basketball.
The word commitment has grown quaint when it comes to sports of any kind, but it seems especially so — like a set-shot from the corner — in college hoops. In the age of “one-and-done” wonders (the Tigers have suited up Dajuan Wagner, Shawne Williams, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans), the notion of a college basketball star staying in school even two seasons is a blurred dream of yesteryear. If Will Barton plays for Memphis as a sophomore, it will be the result of (A) his performance being so disappointing that his NBA draft stock plummets or (B) an NBA lockout forces “one-and-doners” like Barton to consider Plan B on their way to a first pro contract.
But this is where Garcia’s story diverges from some of his predecessors in the U of M program. Garcia was not a star. At best, he would become a complementary player. But this looked like the winter when Garcia might indeed maximize his size and long-range shooting to complement Wesley Witherspoon and the freshman stars surrounding him. Role players help win basketball games. Garcia had his chance, finally as a junior, to fill a role for coach Josh Pastner.
And consider the role the University of Memphis filled for Garcia before the 2010-11 campaign tipped off. Recruited by John Calipari, Garcia was academically ineligible as a freshman, but remained with the program — and, not incidentally, enrolled in school, on scholarship. A knee injury cost him all but the last few games of his sophomore season, but Garcia showed glimpses of what he could bring Pastner this season, particularly the unusual combination of height and long-range shooting touch. A poor man’s Dirk Nowitzki, we might have considered Garcia.
But then eight games into his junior season, Garcia decided to hop the Atlantic and play professionally. Combined with injuries to Witherspoon and D.J. Stephens, Garcia’s absence left Pastner with what amounted to a seven-man rotation last Thursday night against Austin Peay. Freshman forward Hippolyte Tsafack had his redshirt status removed, an effort to build on what was suddenly a small team. (The Tigers gave up 51 rebounds to the Governors.)
I don’t have a problem so much with a young man going where he might earn a living and provide for his family. Money screams, particularly to those who haven’t had a lot to manage in their bank account. But I find the timing and haste of Garcia’s departure unseemly. After two years of the University of Memphis serving as a free training ground for a young man unable — on two counts — to perform the duties for which he was awarded a scholarship worth thousands of dollars, he departs a program that could finally rely on the strengths for which he was recruited in the first place. The public gratitude Garcia expressed upon announcing his decision is worth a Derrick Rose SAT score. No more.
College basketball coaches recruit based on need. Pastner factored in a healthy Angel Garcia as he built his 2010-11 team. The coach would be myopic to consider this year’s roster a forecast for the 2011-12 season, but he should at least be able to count on his full allotment of scholarship players for one season. Garcia blew that notion to bits.
Angel Garcia’s legacy as a Tiger? Unlike some of the one-and-done stars that sold tickets by themselves, Garcia took much more from the U of M program than he gave. I honestly wish him well and hope his pro career blossoms, whatever paths he follows. But as for his time here in Memphis, one word sticks in my head: waste.