I love rankings. And the more subjective the better. Whether it’s U.S. presidents or swimsuit models, books, movies, or NFL linebackers, I love the debate stirred by a good, well-considered ranking.
And I love the feedback I’ve received on my ranking of the top 15 Memphis Tigers of all time. (I’ve taken to calling this bunch the “Fine Fifteen.”) As subjective as the day is long, the ranking was, in fact, well considered. Two spots in the ranking were open as I was writing the final draft. There are probably 30 current or former Tigers who could make a case for being members of the Fine Fifteen. But I’m sticking with my selections. I will share, though, some thoughts on that feedback.
• Keith Lee was a power forward! Penny Hardaway was a small forward!
I take some comfort in the most frequent criticism of the Fine Fifteen being the positions where I placed one player or another. And I’ll acknowledge taking some liberties. I didn’t want to simply number the players one through 15. Instead, I borrowed from the All-NBA format, essentially presenting three teams of Tiger greats, ranked first to third. (Presenting the list by position may have blurred this interpretation, and I regret that.)
I understand Keith Lee played power forward from 1981 to 1985, alongside centers Derrick Phillips and William Bedford. Particularly considering Phillips and Bedford didn’t make the cut for the Fine Fifteen, I felt moving a 6’10” rebounding machine to the pivot would not do major damage to the list of players as I composed it. That said, I’ll confess to a late decision that locked Lee into the center position.
I wanted Ronnie Robinson on my “first team,” atop the power forward rankings. The last cut I made was Bedford, in favor of David Vaughn (a power forward who actually played in much the same way Lee did a decade earlier). Instead of calling Vaughn a center (and placing him third, behind Lorenzen Wright and Joey Dorsey), I placed him at power forward (behind Robinson and Forest Arnold). And I remain quite comfortable with Keith Lee starting at center for this fantasy team. With Lee between Robinson and small forward Rodney Carney, a pair of guards from the Washington Generals would keep this team undefeated.
As for Hardaway, come on. As I wrote, Hardaway “could actually fit any of three positions.” Memories of Penny as an All-NBA point guard may have influenced his placement on this team (directly between the point and small forward). If I were to make a revision, though, it would be to slide Hardaway in front of Carney at small forward, then move Win Wilfong from second among small forwards to second among shooting guards. It’s hard to picture an alltime Tiger starting five without Penny in the lineup.
Last thought on positions: this is basketball, not baseball. I didn’t put a shortstop in rightfield or a second-baseman behind the plate.
• Any ranking of greatest Tigers has to include Larry Kenon!
Third paragraph of the original column: “My one qualifier for this ranking is that a player had to have suited up for at least two seasons with the Tigers. The ‘one-and-dones’ were fun to watch, players like Larry Kenon (left), Dajuan Wagner, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans. But they don’t belong on this list.”
The safest number in the Memphis record book is Larry Kenon’s 501 rebounds in 1972-73. (Second on the chart: 372 by Robinson in 1971-72 and Wilfong in 1956-57.) Had Kenon played a second season as a Tiger, he’d have a Fine Fifteen jersey today. Unfair to exclude one-year wonders? Rankings are unfair.
• But you overlooked [several great Tigers]!
Doom Haynes should be on this team for his nickname alone. Not just the best moniker in Tiger history, but in all of college basketball. One reader called Bobby Parks “the best all-around Tiger ever.” (Take that, Penny.) Another called James Bradley the “best forward, period.” (Take that, Keith Lee.) Cheyenne Gibson deserved consideration. Cedric Henderson and Dexter Reed are the top career scorers not among the Fine Fifteen. Chris Garner was an electric point guard over Larry Finch’s last four seasons as coach.
Alas, it’s a Fine Fifteen. Not a sweet 16 or top 20. Fifteen faces and stories that — undeniably, regardless of position — helped make the University of Memphis basketball program the civic treasure it’s become.
Tiger coach Josh Pastner loves D.J. Stephens. And there’s much to love about the gravity-defying senior forward, certainly the most popular Tiger since Joey Dorsey grabbed his last rebound five years ago. Pastner has enjoyed teasing the media this winter by proclaiming Stephens one of the “top five Tigers” of all time. He’ll acknowledge three other top-fives (Larry Finch, Keith Lee, and Penny Hardaway), then leave one slot open for us keyboard-tappers to consider.
The cold truth, of course, is that Stephens isn’t even among the top 15 Memphis Tigers of all time. The program has been too good for too long for a player with Stephens’s limited numbers to qualify among the top ten, let alone a top five. Below is one man’s ranking of the top three Tigers at each of basketball’s traditional positions. Consider it in no way a rebuke of all Stephens has given the 2012-13 Tiger team. It’s more a commentary on the historical strength of a program he’s helped thrive.
NOTE: My one qualifier for this ranking is that a player had to have suited up for at least two seasons with the Tigers. The “one-and-dones” were fun to watch, players like Larry Kenon, Dajuan Wagner, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans. But they don’t belong on this list.
1 — Elliot Perry (1987-91)
One of only two Tigers to score 2,000 career points (2,209), Socks led the Tigers in assists and steals all four seasons he played and led the team in scoring his last three seasons. He’s second in career steals (304) and fifth in career assists (546).
2 — Andre Turner (1982-86)
The Little General was the pulse of the Tiger program for a glorious four-year period that included a trip to the Final Four in 1985. He holds the Tiger record for assists in a game (15), season (262), and career (763). Turner averaged 7.7 assists in 1985-86. The highest average since: 6.4.
3 — Alvin Wright (1974-78)
Like the two players above him, Wright led Memphis in assists all four seasons he controlled the ball, but is one of only two Tigers to average more than five assists in three different seasons (the other is Antonio Burks). Wright increased his scoring average from 7.9 as a freshman to 15.5 as a senior. His 1,319 career points rank 15th in Tiger history.
1 — Larry Finch (1970-73)
Now and forever, the greatest Tiger of them all. Freshmen didn’t play in Finch’s day, but he still scored 1,869 career points, averaged 23.9 in 1971-72, and remains the face of the fabled 1972-73 team that reached the NCAA championship game only to fall to mighty UCLA. There should be a statue of Finch somewhere, anywhere in Memphis.
1 — Rodney Carney (2002-06)
A second-team All-America in 2006, Carney combined the arts of high-flying dunks and three-point marksmanship unlike any Tiger before or since. His 287 career treys are 45 more than the next Tiger on the chart (Anthony Rice). Surpassed 600 points as both a junior and senior. His 1,901 career points are third in Memphis history.
2 — Win Wilfong (1955-57)
A 6’2” swingman, we’ll put Wilfong at forward based on his playing days in the 1950s. Played only two seasons with the Tigers but averaged 22.1 and 21.0 points, leading Memphis to the 1957 NIT championship game. He was the program’s first All-America, earning first-team honors from Converse in ’57.
3 — Chris Douglas-Roberts (2005-08)
CDR is one of only three Tigers to earn first-team All-America recognition from the AP. He averaged 18.1 points per game for the 2007-08 squad that went 38-2 and lost in overtime to Kansas in the national championship game. His 724 points that season are the third highest in the program’s history.
1 — Ronnie Robinson (1970-73)
Larry Finch’s running mate at both Melrose and the U of M, Robinson averaged 14.2 rebounds a game as a sophomore, then 13.3 as a junior. He’s fifth in Tiger history with 1,066 career rebounds and averaged 13.9 points over his three seasons. His number 33 has long been retired by the program.
2 — Forest Arnold (1952-56)
Arnold was the alltime leading scorer at Memphis (1,854 points) until Finch came along. He’s one of only four Tigers to score 1,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds and starred for the Tigers’ first NCAA tournament team in 1955. For some reason, the school needed until 1995 to retire his number (13).
3 — David Vaughn (1991-95)
Overshadowed first by Hardaway and later by Lorenzen Wright, Vaughn was an integral member of Tiger teams that reached the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight (1992) and Sweet Sixteen (1995). Despite being limited to three seasons by a knee injury at the start of his sophomore campaign, Vaughn ranks seventh in rebounds (903) and third in blocks (235) on the Tiger chart.
1 — Keith Lee (1981-85)
He was the star of Tiger teams that reached at least the NCAA’s Sweet 16 each of his four seasons. An AP All-America all four seasons (first-team as a senior), Lee is atop the program’s list of scorers (2,408 points), rebounders (1,336), and shot blockers (320).
As for my top five? Forget the order: Finch, Hardaway, Lee, Perry, Robinson.
With 15 games under their collective belt and 16 regular-season games to play, the Tigers find themselves at the season’s midpoint with as many questions to answer, really, as they had back in November. Can the team compete with Top 20 opposition? Is an NCAA tournament run a reasonable expectation? Who is the Memphis Tigers’ alpha male, the player to lift this team to heights unseen under coach Josh Pastner?
Instead of distributing the formulaic (A to F) midseason grades, I’m borrowing from hockey, and giving each member of the Tigers’ rotation a plus or minus, based on his performance this winter as compared with preseason expectations.
ANTONIO BARTON (-)
If any of these grades is unfair, it’s this one. For three seasons, now, Barton has had to establish what his role should be (or can be) as the season is unfolding. Arriving as a package deal with his older brother, Will, before the 2010-11 season, Antonio was initially seen as bonus value for the Tigers, a reserve who could handle the ball if Joe Jackson got in foul trouble, a reasonable shooter who could supplement a team led by more prominent offensive talents (like his older brother).
Barton has managed to retain virtually the same amount of playing time this season (21.0 minutes per game) as he enjoyed over his first two seasons (23.2), despite the emergence of Geron Johnson and the improved play of Jackson. His scoring (6.8) is slightly below his career average entering the season (7.4) but he leads the team in three-pointers made (19). So why the minus sign? Juniors need to take a stride or two up the developmental ladder, not merely hold steady. Barton won’t lose a game for the Tigers. How many can he win?
TARIK BLACK (-)
The Tigers’ lone preseason all-conference pick, Black would like to forget the first two months of the season even happened. A captain and longtime voice for reason and perspective in the Tiger locker room, Black had to sit out the UT-Martin game after an incident in practice, not the kind of thing that earns a captaincy. Nursing a groin injury, he has not started a game since the team returned from the Bahamas in late November.
Nonetheless, Black is third on the team in scoring (10.4) and has made 64.7 percent of his shots, after setting a team record (68.9) last season. Black’s rebounding is inconsistent (13 last Saturday night but an average of 5.5) and low for a player of his size and strength. If these Tigers are to, in fact, win a game or two in the NCAA tournament, Tarik Black will re-emerge and be a primary reason.
CHRIS CRAWFORD (-)
There comes a point in the career of any athlete when you are what your numbers say you are. This former Sheffield star is a 37.8-percent shooter, one whose cold stretches have been more pronounced than his hot streaks. (Crawford has endured one stretch this season in which he made three of 14 three-point attempts, another in which he missed all 13 over five games.)
Crawford is the prettiest passer on the team (second in assists to Jackson), and enjoys a lengthy leash (he’s second on the team with 28.4 minutes per game). Like Barton, though, you’d like to see a larger impact from a player who entered the season with 43 starts on his resume. Crawford may come to be the face of this mini-era: a good player, one easy to root for, but with shortcomings impossible to overcome.
SHAQ GOODWIN (+)
Armed with a refreshing smile (the best on the team in years), Goodwin has been strong (if not ferocious) in the paint for the Tigers. Playing almost 23 minutes a game, the freshman is second on the team in rebounding (5.5) and is efficient both from the field (52.7 percent) and the line (66.7). His scoring average (9.1) would be higher were this team’s offense not perimeter-based. (For every drive-and-scoop by Joe Jackson, there’s one less layup for Goodwin.) Similar to my thoughts on Black, if the Tigers are to do damage this March, Goodwin will have to make some headlines.
JOE JACKSON (+)
Certainly the most polarizing of the Tigers’ veteran players, Jackson has played lately like the kid who put White Station High School on his slim shoulders for four years. His performance against Tennessee earlier this month produced the kind of line (20 points, 7 assists, 4 steals, 2 turnovers) that leads highlight shows. Against a superior Louisville team, Jackson was guilty of eight turnovers but scored 23 points on just nine field-goal attempts and delivered eight assists.
Jackson has taken that “junior stride” we haven’t seen on the part of Barton or Crawford (or Black). He’s long played with a chip on his shoulder, knowing local expectations are all but impossible to meet. But there seems to be a focus to Jackson this season that has kept performance front and center and distractions (the chirping of friends and foes) to a minimum. We’ll call it maturity. It’s a welcome sight.
GERON JOHNSON (+)
The junior transfer is the best pure athlete on this team, and maybe the best to wear a Tiger uniform since Derrick Rose five years ago. It’s amazing how quickly concerns about Johnson’s off-court life faded when the strengths he brought his team became so abundantly clear. After sitting out the first three games of the season (for an academic violation at Garden City Community College), Johnson joined the Tiger rotation (playing 22 minutes against Minnesota in his debut) and has now started the last five games.
Johnson stole the spotlight against a good Ohio team in early December, hitting eight of 11 shots (including three treys) for 21 points. His line against Austin Peay: 14 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals. Then against Tennessee — the Tigers’ first real road test this season — Johnson drained a pair of late three-pointers to fend off a Volunteer rally. His toughness (physical and otherwise) is invaluable.
D.J. STEPHENS (++)
It’s a shame there isn’t a statistic that measures applause. A player considered a possible redshirt before his senior(!) season has garnered more (and louder) cheers per minute played than all but a very few Memphis players over the last 30 years. Stephens’s practice time has been dramatically reduced by a shoulder separation suffered during the team’s three-game visit to the Bahamas in November. Which means he’s living Allen Iverson’s dream: show up on game night and bring the house down.
His astounding leaping ability would be a nice novelty act, and would draw its share of cheers. (Stephens leads the team with 31 blocked shots, second in C-USA.) But Stephens personifies the hard-to-define “energy” Pastner preaches for winning basketball. He pulled down 14 rebounds against Oral Roberts, then 11 more last week against East Carolina. He’s reached double-figures in scoring four times, and with the least god-given talent of any player in the Tiger rotation. Jumping high is one thing; applying it to basketball another. Give D.J. Stephens credit for applying the skills he has magnificently.
ADONIS THOMAS (-)
Averaging 11.0 points and 4.1 rebounds a game is nothing to sneeze at. But not on this team, and not if you’re auditioning for the NBA draft’s first round. One of two Tigers to start every game this season, Thomas has been adequate, as his numbers suggest. (We’ll ignore the atrocious three-point shooting: 7 for 37.) But Thomas was to be the face of this team, the guy who filled Will Barton’s vacuum and then some. The alpha male. The nadir of his season (let’s hope) came against Louisville, when Thomas took only six shots in 33 minutes (he made two).
Theories abound for why Thomas has disappointed. One eye on the NBA. Too much weight added last summer. Expectations too high for the McDonald’s All-American from Melrose. He remains the most gifted player on the Tiger roster. And there’s a lot of season left for Thomas to show the player he truly is (his mission statement entering the season after an injury-plagued freshman campaign). The trick will be elevating his level of play against the low-hanging fruit that is C-USA competition.
Photos by Larry Kuzniewski
It must be an interesting view from Tom Bowen’s desk. Not quite six months after entering his new office, the University of Memphis athletic director is surely checking his notes on his department’s two primary revenue generators.
The flagship men’s basketball team — long the backbone of Tiger athletics — seems to be tottering on the edge of a cliff, overrated, underperforming, and in the same rut toward mediocrity it found itself in a year ago at this time. Meanwhile, over the last three weeks of its season, the football team (in a 6-39 death spiral a month ago) looked like a version of the early-Seventies Nebraska Cornhuskers, blowing away its last three opponents and scoring six touchdowns last Saturday against arch-rival Southern Miss only because it didn’t need to score seven.
Next, surely, the Mississippi River will be seen flowing north. Wet ribs will carry the day and the Jungle Room will be closed for good at Graceland.
The basketball team came perilously close to losing three games in three days — to three unranked teams — at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. By storming back to beat Northern Iowa(!) Saturday, Josh Pastner’s squad avoided a return to Memphis with the program’s first losing record since an opening loss to the 2003-04 season. Worse, though, Pastner’s veteran team looked shy in the “want to” department, playing the kind of perimeter defense expected of second-tier programs. When a single shooter is able to drain five three-pointers — and this happened in both losses last weekend — it leaves a scar on a team’s defensive reputation. The Tigers will be fighting this reputation, starting Thursday night at FedExForum.
And the football team? In scoring 125 points over its three-game sweep of Tulane, UAB, and Southern Miss, the Tigers not only salvaged a distinctive positive vibe for the 2012 season (even with a 4-8 record), but provided a bold statement on their competitive worth entering the Big East next year. Quarterback Jacob Karam looked poised in a well-protected pocket. Brandon Hayes topped 100 yards rushing in each of the last two games. Martin Ifedi led a reborn pass rush that dropped Golden Eagle quarterbacks four times in the season finale. All three players will return for the 2013 season.
More than likely, the extremes we’ve seen in each program this month will become just that in memory: extremes. Joe Jackson is a better basketball player than the one we saw in two losses on Paradise Island. A team that suits up the number of athletes at Pastner’s disposal can be inspired to play better defense, can be infused with more “want to.” There’s simply too much bench time awaiting those players who, well, don’t want to.
And the football team has climbing to do. There will be no Tulane, UAB, or Southern Miss on next year’s schedule. Though there will be UT-Martin and Middle Tennessee, programs that handled Justin Fuente’s bunch before their late-season revival. There is renewable value, though, in finishing a season the way the 2012 Tigers did. When adversity hits next fall — a two-game losing streak? four? — will Karam or Ifedi dig a hole and hide? Not after spending nine months savoring a kind of winning streak quite foreign in these parts.
There’s a juicy coincidence to the basketball’s team return to FEF this week. The Tigers will tip off against UT-Martin, the very school that beat the football team in Fuente’s debut almost three months ago to the day. The way Pastner’s team approaches the game — between the ears — will say as much about what Tiger fans can expect for what remains a long season ahead. The basketball players would be wise to heed the words spoken last week by Fuente, the football coach aiming desperately to establish a new baseline for his program’s strength: “We’re not in a position to judge anyone in our program right now. We have to make sure that we focus on ourselves and our preparation.”
A Memphis basketball team inspired by a Memphis football team, Mr. Bowen. Imagine that.
A bye week can be a blessing or a curse for a football team. The Memphis Tigers and their rookie coach get an entire fortnight to stew over the team’s 0-4 start, the worst for the program in 14 years. On the other hand, the Tigers get two full weeks to lick wounds, review film, and prepare for the start of Conference USA play. (Memphis has lost 11 consecutive C-USA openers. The tilt with Rice on October 6th, of course, will be the school’s final such game, as the Big East awaits in 2013.)
What have we learned about the 2012 Tigers over the season’s first month? Let’s start with some raw numbers.
• Over the first four games of the 2011 season, Memphis was outscored 154-44. Over the first four games this season, the Tigers have been outscored 139-79. So the margin of defeat has been reduced by 50 points, or 12.5 per game.
• Over the first four games last year, the Tigers gave up 2,143 yards and gained 1,091. This season, Memphis has allowed 1,950 yards and gained 1,203. By the most basic measure — yards per play — the Tigers allowed 6.6 per play a year ago compared with 5.8 this year. Only two teams in C-USA have allowed fewer yards per play, but no team in the league has allowed as many plays — 334 — as the U of M. Lengthy drives against the Tiger defense are the norm.
Last season, the Tiger offense gained a measly 4.2 yards per play. (The national average for Football Bowl Subdivision teams was 5.6.) This year, the Tiger offense is averaging 4.9 per play (seventh in C-USA). The Tigers seem to be making strides offensively, however incremental they may be.
• The Tigers have been opportunistic on defense and special teams with nine turnovers forced, second only to SMU’s 10 in C-USA (the Mustangs, it should be noted, have only played three games). Little good this did, though, last Saturday against Duke. Four turnovers gained, none given . . . and a 24-point loss.
Now let’s forget the numbers and absorb what our eyes tell us about this year’s Tiger team.
• It’s a winless team, yes, but one that was tied late in the fourth quarter of the opener against UT-Martin, led Arkansas State after three quarters, and was down only three points midway through the third quarter at Duke. A second-quarter implosion at home against Middle Tennessee allowed the Blue Raiders 20 unanswered points, essentially the margin of victory.
• Jacob Karam is a competent, if not threatening, quarterback. The Texas Tech transfer has completed 59 percent of his passes (fourth in C-USA) and has tossed five touchdown passes against only one interception. He’s only averaged 179 yards per game, though, not the kind of figure posted by a quarterback marching his team toward the end zone.
• Marcus Rucker might be, could be, can be(?) a star. The senior from Whitehaven High School caught 10 passes against Middle Tennessee and came within one more catch of breaking the program’s single-game yardage record (he had 177). The trouble is, over the other three games, Rucker has compiled a total of 71 yards. Karam-to-Rucker needs to be more frequent for the Tiger offense to gain any traction in conference play.
• The most exciting component of the 2012 Tigers has proven to be their special teams play. A blocked punt and a touchdown on a fumbled punt gave Memphis an early lead at Arkansas State. Bobby McCain’s 95-yard kickoff return at Duke is the highlight of the season to this point. By now Fuente, special teams coordinator James Shibest, and any Tiger fan that’s paid attention recognizes that the kicking game can swing a contest one way or the other. (Recall McCain’s two fumbles on kickoff returns in the Middle Tennessee debacle.) With Tom Hornsey’s thundering punts and the coverage units hunting turnovers, the Tigers’ biggest plays this year may continue to be when the offense and defense are watching from the sidelines.
The U of M has a long way to climb for respectability. But there are C-USA games to be won on the schedule. While the Tigers’ scoring differential stands at an ugly -50, Tulane (0-3) has been outscored 108-22. UAB (0-3) has a differential of -67. And fans of the Black-and-Blue game might take a look at the start perennial C-USA titan Southern Miss has endured: 0-3 with a scoring differential of -64.
The Fuente era has stumbled out of the gate, to say the least. As optimists would tell you, though, this merely allows room for improvement. And perfect timing for a bye week.
• Aesthetic Victory
Memphis coach Justin Fuente pays no attention to moral victories. He said as much during his postgame comments just after midnight Sunday morning. So let’s call the atmosphere at the Liberty Bowl for the 2012 season opener an aesthetic victory. After three seasons of lopsided losses and dwindling crowds, the University of Memphis hosted an event that felt like top-tier college football. Tiger Lane was buzzing, the new video board transformed the cosmetics of a stadium still too large, and a crowd of nearly 40,000 fans turned out . . . to watch their Tigers. (Hats off to UT-Martin’s traveling contingent, but it didn’t make up a significant portion of the crowd.)
Mother Nature’s dramatic interruption aside, this was college football as it can be in Memphis. It’s a shame so many fans were home before the fourth quarter (though no one can be blamed for seeking permanent shelter from a storm like Saturday’s). Would an extra 20,000 fans have made a difference? For a game decided by three points, who knows? Fact is, two-hour rain delays aren’t going to happen again. Let’s hope crowds of 40,000 are indeed in the seats the next time a tight fourth quarter unfolds at the Liberty Bowl.
• Jacob’s Ladder
Junior quarterback Jacob Karam has some climbing to do. (I’d give him a B- for his first start as a Tiger.) Karam’s play is the largest among several variables that will determine if this year’s team is competitive in Conference USA. He led an impressive scoring drive in the first quarter, completing a beautiful pass to tight end Alan Cross down the right sideline for a 36-yard gain. Better yet, he was cool late in the game, connecting with Keiwone Malone on 4th-and-12 then scrambling twice to extend the drive that tied the game with under a minute to play. And in Fuente’s words, Karam “valued the football,” tossing it to the sideline to avoid a sack, avoiding the temptation to throw deep into coverage.
On the other hand, Karam connected on only 12 of his 28 passes, and averaged 5.6 yards per attempt (13.1 per completion). Many of his 157 passing yards came after a receiver had the ball in hand. The Tigers will need to develop a downfield threat as the season progresses. Otherwise, they’ll see an opponent load seven defenders (if not eight or nine) into the tackle box, making life miserable for running backs Jerrell Rhodes (106 yards Saturday), Jacquise Cook (40), and Artaves Gibson.
• Pressure, pressure . . . pressure?
Ugliest stat from an ugly loss: UT-Martin quarterback Derek Carr dropped back to pass 38 times and was not sacked once. I’m guessing the Skyhawk offensive line won’t be the biggest or toughest Memphis faces this season, so to have the opposing quarterback play an entire game pressure-free may be the most troubling indicator of all entering this Saturday’s Arkansas State game. Whether it’s bull rushes from linemen Corey Jones or Terry Redden, or blitzes from the outside by linebackers Zach Gholson or Charles Harris, the U of M has to establish pocket pressure or the Tigers will likely discover an undermanned secondary dreadfully exposed. (Starting safeties Mitch Huelsing and Cannon Smith combined for a single assisted tackle against the Skyhawks.)
Last year’s opening loss to Mississippi State, by a score of 59-14, was troubling, but it was the 47-3 dismantling at Arkansas State the next week that was the real “uh-oh” moment for the 2011 Tigers. How might that loss motivate the Tiger veterans this weekend? Will the objective be to merely close that gap . . . or grab the first win of Fuente’s coaching career? Coming off a 57-34 drubbing of their own at Oregon, the Red Wolves won’t be lacking for motivation.
Fuente emphasizes that the building of the Tiger program is a “process.” It’s a process that won’t get any easier until that first victory is secured.
Three years into the Josh Pastner era at the University of Memphis and the win totals are healthy and creeping steadily upward: 24 in 2009-10, 25 his second season at the helm, and 26 this season. Back-to-back Conference USA tournament titles and a regular-season crown this winter. So why so many clouds darkening above Tiger Nation? Why the sorrow in some corners, anger in others?
Love him or loathe him, John Calipari took the Tiger basketball program to heights an adoring fan base had not seen (or expected). Over his last four seasons in Memphis, Calipari coached the Tigers to 13 wins in the NCAA tournament (counting the five from 2008 since wiped from the books by the governing body). That number, folks, is silly, a run that only the likes of North Carolina, Kansas, and Duke might consider a realistic barometer for a program’s success.
But the Cal Standard lingers in these parts. So for Josh Pastner to have three seasons under his belt without a solitary NCAA tournament win . . . well, the clouds are gathering. Those C-USA trophies make good doorstops.
Is there reason for concern? Let’s examine the state of Memphis basketball in the context of two Pastner mantras, one of them quite wise, the other not so much.
“Winning is hard.”
Think the Tiger program is in a dark place now? Let’s look back at the three seasons that followed the departure of another coaching icon — Larry Finch — in 1997. Under Tic Price and interim coach (for one year) Johnny Jones, Memphis won a total of 45 games, with nary an appearance in the NCAA tournament. Seventeen wins in 1997-98 was the peak of this dreary “era.”
Since Calipari’s arrival before the 2000-01 season, 20-win seasons have come to be a part of the script, the baseline for consideration of what a Tiger team might accomplish. Thus we have Pastner with 75 wins in three seasons and staring down disappointment.
It was easy to snicker when, as a first-year coach, Pastner opened one press conference after another by emphasizing, “Winning is hard.” This after beating East Carolina by 20, or Rice by 12. But he saw what so many Tiger faithful had forgotten: it’s much easier to slip from heights than it is to reach them.
Last Friday in Columbus, the Tigers ran into a style of play they weren’t capable of handling. Saint Louis played risk-free basketball on both ends, which forced the Tigers to reach desperately — and, too often, individually — for openings through which a run might be started. The Tigers picked up only four assists on 21 made field goals, their lowest such total of the season. (Remarkably, Saint Louis only had seven assists on the same number of converted baskets.) Memphis missed 13 of 15 attempts from behind the three-point arc. Saint Louis made five, including two desperation heaves by Kwamain Mitchell. There’s your difference. It’s the nature of the Big Dance. One slip and your season’s over. Winning . . . is . . . hard.
“Conference USA is a good league.”
C-USA is a dreadful league. And getting worse. Two of the best teams in the conference this season — Marshall and UCF — were summarily dismissed in the first round . . . of the NIT. Southern Miss somehow maintained a top-20 RPI ranking all season, then got tossed from the Big Dance by Kansas State, a team that finished fifth in the Big 12.
I’m guilty — like Pastner — of getting too close to the trees with C-USA, seeing a solid UAB team here, a decent UTEP team there, and calling the league under-rated. Pull back and look at the forest, though, and you see a lot of wilting, rotting brush. Consider this: Since Louisville, Cincinnati, and Marquette departed for the Big East after the 2004-05 season, not a single C-USA team other than Memphis has won an NCAA tournament game. It’s a mind-blowing statistic. 237 opening-round games have been played since the 2006 tournament, and exactly four of them have been won by C-USA teams (all coached by John Calipari).
So was the Tigers’ run of 20 wins in 23 games since Christmas over-inflated due to middling competition? A thousand times yes. The case can be made that Memphis was fortunate to be in the top half of the West regional bracket. They beat Belmont. They beat Xavier. With no other wins worthy of flag-waving.
All this changes, of course, with the move to the Big East for the 2013-14 season. The harder the grindstone, the sharper the ax. USF lost 13 games this season and destroyed a Pac 12 team (Cal) that went 24-9. Marquette lost seven games but still received a 3 seed and beat a Murray State team that had gone 31-1. The Tigers will likely win their C-USA farewell tour next season. Alas, they’ll likely be softened prey come the 2013 NCAA tournament.
There remains much to anticipate over what will be a long off-season for Memphis fans. Best-case scenario, Will Barton and Adonis Thomas return and you have essentially the same team for 2012-13, with Wesley Witherspoon replaced by a McDonald’s All-American, Shaq Goodwin. Worst-case, Barton and Thomas enter the draft and next season is anchored by three junior stars — Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, and Tarik Black — with Goodwin taking on a larger role and more minutes. The latter scenario, mark this down, will be good enough to win Conference USA.
There will be emptiness for Tiger fans when this weekend’s Sweet 16 is played. Four straight appearances in the tournament’s second weekend are still dancing prominently in this community’s collective memory. If it’s really about the journey, though, faith should be retained. Memphis will get back. And the taste will be that much sweeter.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been healthy and been able to play this way. This was an emotional game for me. — Wesley Witherspoon (November 15, 2011)
Say this for Wesley Witherspoon: he didn’t take the easy way out. Few Tiger fans would have raised an eyebrow had Witherspoon chosen to follow coach John Calipari out of town after his freshman season (2008-09). The Atlanta native had been named Conference USA’s Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 4.0 points and 13.7 minutes off the bench for a Tiger team that went 33-4 behind stars Tyreke Evans, Antonio Anderson, and Robert Dozier. The award surprised many, even some in the Tiger locker room, as teammate Roburt Sallie had averaged 5.8 points and 15.3 minutes as a reserve. But the honor seemed to forecast a higher standard for Witherspoon. Was he prepared for the next step under a rookie head coach?
Witherspoon started 20 games as a sophomore and averaged 12.5 points and 4.6 rebounds, good enough to earn third-team All-CUSA honors. But he began to show signs of being that infamous “tweener,” a player not quite suited for guard duty, but also lacking the size, strength, or skill set to fit naturally at either forward position. (You’ll see few players 6’9” get their shot blocked more often than did Witherspoon.)
Mentioned in preseason all-conference talk for 2010-11, Witherspoon endured a junior season he’d rather forget. Knee soreness cost him 10 games and a suspension two more (he allegedly mocked a coach over the team-bus intercom system). When on the floor — he played 23 games and averaged 22.9 minutes — Witherspoon was productive, if inconsistent. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.3 rebounds but did not repeat as an all-conference honoree.
Then came opening night of Witherspoon’s senior season, November 15th against Belmont: 22 points, 8 for 8 from the field (3 for 3 from behind the arc) in 28 minutes. Witherspoon was visibly relieved in a jubilant postgame locker room, acknowledging the frustration of his junior season. (His remarks can be considered chatty for a young man who often replied to questions by opening with, “I’m a basketball player.”) The Tigers were loaded with a quintet of talented sophomores. How high might they rise if a senior swingman became the ’Spoon that stirred the drink?
Over the next 17 games, Witherspoon failed to reach double figures in the scoring column. In hockey terms, he was essentially a healthy scratch in the Tigers’ two games before Christmas, playing a total of eight minutes against Lipscomb and Georgetown. He endured a nine-game stretch in which he played less than 20 minutes seven times.
Roller coasters climb their highest, though, after a long drop. Witherspoon’s playing time got a booster with the injury that sidelined freshman Adonis Thomas in mid-January. And the senior played a huge role in big wins over Marshall and Xavier (scoring 12 points in both), games the Tigers had to secure to keep hopes of an NCAA tournament berth alive. Since Thomas was forced to the bench, Memphis has gone 10-3. With 927 career points, Witherspoon will likely come up just short of the 1,000-point club (he’s averaging 6.3 this season). But you get the sense that, if this team is to (A) reach the NCAAs and (B) advance to the second weekend, Witherspoon will have to make an impact, be it in the scoring column or elsewhere.
Along with fellow seniors Preston Laird and Charles Carmouche, Wesley Witherspoon will walk to center court before Tuesday night’s game with UCF at FedExForum. (Better yet, he’ll receive his degree this May.) Needless to say, “Spoon” will get a warm send-off from Memphis fans that have grown familiar with his ups, downs, and in-betweens over the last four seasons. He’s earned the salute. He finished what he started.
Anfernee Hardaway played his last game as a Memphis Tiger on March 18, 1993 (a loss to Western Kentucky in the opening round of the NCAA tournament). Among the eight Tiger greats to have had their numbers retired, Hardaway is the last to have worn that number in game action. (Forest Arnold had his number retired in 1995, but starred for Memphis from 1952 to 1956.) Which means almost 19 seasons have now passed since a Tiger star received the ultimate honor from the university he represented on the hardwood.
The drought is too long. Going back to 1952, when Arnold played his first game, the longest previous drought between honored players was 13 years, from 1957 (when Win Wilfong played his last game) to 1970 (when Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson played their first). The Sixties weren’t exactly a golden era for Tiger hoops. Between one NCAA tournament appearance and three NIT trips, Memphis won only one postseason game in the decade (at the 1963 NIT). But since 1993? The Tigers have appeared in nine NCAA tournaments, winning 16 games (in addition to 14 wins in the NIT over the period). Far too much success for there to be no player representing the era in the rafters at FedExForum.
I’ve got the guy. But first, a look at three candidates who could make a claim for the honor:
• Rodney Carney, #10 (2002-06) — Carney thrilled Tiger fans from two extremes, as a high-flying dunker and a three-point marksman (his 287 treys are a U of M record). He finished his career with 1,901 points, behind only Keith Lee and Elliot Perry. Carney was a second-team All-America in 2006. Among the top five scorers in Memphis history, Carney is the only player not to have his number retired.
• Chris Douglas-Roberts, #14 (2005-08) — A first-team All-America in 2008, CDR is ninth on the Tiger career-scoring chart (1,545 points) despite playing only three seasons with Memphis. He was part of 11 NCAA tournament wins.
• Robert Dozier, #2 (2005-09) — Dozier played in 148 games as a Tiger, third-most in the program’s history. He was part of an NCAA-record 137 wins (until the governing body stripped Memphis of 38 from the 2007-08 season as punishment for the Derrick Rose affair). He ranks sixth among Tigers in rebounds (961) and 14th in points (1,381).
Any of these three stars would be worthy of a banner, but my vote goes to number 5 in your program, Antonio Anderson.
Like Dozier, Anderson played over that glorious four-year stretch (2005-09) in which Memphis never won fewer than 33 games and never lost more than four. He played in a program-record 150 games (starting 133 of them). What separates Anderson from the other candidates is ironically the all-around play that made him blend so seamlessly with his teammates on the floor. Anderson is the only Tiger in history with 1,000 career points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists. On January 3, 2009, he joined Hardaway as the only Tigers to achieve a triple-double (12 points, 10 rebounds, and 13 assists in a win over Lamar).
And Anderson was clutch. His free throws inside the final minute beat Texas A & M in the 2007 Sweet 16. He hit a game-winning shot as time expired at UAB in 2008 to help Memphis stay atop the national rankings. And it was Anderson — not CDR, Rose, or Dozier — who earned MVP honors at the 2008 Conference USA tournament. As a senior, Anderson earned a rare honor for a guard: C-USA’s Defensive Player of the Year.
The U of M needs to reclaim the 2005-09 era, having been forced to remove the 2008 Final Four banner by the NCAA. The best — and classiest — way to accomplish this would be to raise Antonio Anderson’s #5 to the rafters for good.
The U of M is holding a press conference at noon Wednesday (Hardaway Hall of Fame) in which athletic director R.C. Johnson is expected to announce that Memphis will join the Big East Conference, effective with the 2013-14 academic year. The first six thoughts I have on the news:
• Hallelujah. This had to happen for Tiger basketball (to say nothing of Tiger football) to stay relevant on a national scale. This will be the Century of the Super Conference, and schools will either be in the club or out. The tired, shapeless expression "mid-major" is going the way of the dodo bird. Had Memphis missed the final cut with the Big East, no Conference USA-Mountain West merger could approximate the long-term gain.
• Tigers vs. Cardinals . . . twice! It's a fair presumption that the Big East powers-that-be will find a way to make sure Louisville and Memphis meet on the hardwood twice each winter. Whatever the conference banner happens to be, in these parts that means roundball justice. North Carolina-Duke was never interrupted. Fans in Kansas and Missouri are running to extremes over the divorce of that age-old rivalry (with Mizzou leaving the Big 12 for the SEC). Memphis-Louisville is bigger than conference affiliation. It's a link to history that gains luster with the renewal of hostilities.
• Josh Pastner can still recruit. There's grumbling that the Tiger basketball coach now faces an impossible task: recruiting nationally against the likes of Louisville, Georgetown, UConn, Villanova, and Notre Dame. This suggests that a player like Chris Douglas-Roberts is more likely to cross a few state lines if he can be assured of beating up on the likes of Rice, UAB, and East Carolina. That's not my take. Memphis will be on national television more, in prime time more, in the national conversation, not as a curious outsider, but as a program competing with the "insiders," the big boys. Coaches who recruit well are good salesmen. I'm convinced Josh Pastner will sell his new Big East neighborhood as the stepping-stone to the NBA it's expected to be by prized recruits.
• The Tiger football program needed a Hail Mary . . . and this one was caught in the corner of the end zone as the clock expired. Who knows how the BCS landscape will look when all is settled? (For starters, let's hope the tag itself expires. There is no "series" in college football.) Big East football will never be mistaken for the SEC, the Big Ten, or even the Pac 12. But it's a step closer to legitimacy than Conference USA, a significant stride closer to convincing prep football players they'll be playing on a stage that will attract the eyes of NFL scouts. Will hosting Rutgers or South Florida fill the Liberty Bowl on a fall Saturday? Of course not. (The stadium is too big. Someone read my lips.) But I like the sound of Memphis-Louisville on the gridiron. Even Memphis-Cincinnati. Best of all, I like the idea of looking at the Big East standings and finding the Memphis Tigers, wherever they may be.
• Among the Big East basketball programs that will remain after the defection of Syracuse, Pitt, and West Virginia, 11 have been to the Final Four since 1984. That's a bowl full of hoops history and heroes. And that doesn't even include Notre Dame and DePaul. The Big East remains a great basketball league.
• I love the fact that Memphis can now claim a baseball team in the Pacific Coast League and a university in the Big East. Truly a city that reaches for greatness beyond regional boundaries. Now, about that travel budget . . . .
The composition of a basketball team is easy to measure. Who’s on the roster? How big are the players? How experienced? Who’s injured?
The style of a team may evolve over the course of a season, but it’s also measurable to some degree. Does the team play intense defense? Does it like to push the pace offensively? Do players move well without the ball?
But what about a basketball team’s personality? In no other sport do the players present themselves so visibly to their audience. No helmets or hats. No facemasks. Only five players competing at any given time. Despite wearing shorts that would hide a Great Dane, basketball players are relatively naked when doing what they do best. And their personalities are exposed in ways that would shame a baseball player and get a football player penalized for excessive something or other.
So what have we learned about the personality of the 2011-12 Memphis Tigers? It would be easy to lean on the old cliché: A team assumes the personality of its coach. Are the Tiger players a reflection of Josh Pastner? Relentlessly positive, ebullient in the face of criticism, deferential in crediting others. (Pastner has yet to face a team that was not “well-coached.”) For these Tigers, is the glass indeed always three-quarters full?
One of the advantages of occupying a courtside seat on press row is reading the players’ facial expressions and hearing a verbal exchange now and then (player-to-player or player-to-coach). Every game is a 40-minute dance of personalities, a waltz of reactions and spontaneous outbursts — positive and negative — that give the sport of basketball much of the color that brings us back every winter. Having read various Tiger expressions for more than two months now, defining this team’s personality is no easier than it would have been the night the players were introduced at Memphis Madness.
Last Saturday at FedExForum, junior forward Ferrakohn Hall was quite visibly upset at his diminished playing time as he sat on the Tiger bench for extended stretches. (Hall played only 11 minutes, his third straight game with fewer than 20 on the floor.) When asked about Hall’s body language after the game, Pastner pulled no punches: “He wasn’t getting the job done, wasn’t producing. We don’t have time to enable or baby.”
Entering the season, sophomore Joe Jackson was expected to be part of a starring trio (along with Will Barton and Adonis Thomas). Jackson now finds himself in a reserve role (behind starting point guard Antonio Barton) and fighting negative energy with every headshake, grimace, or return to the bench. “It happens in the NBA, it happens in high school, it happens in college,” said Pastner after Saturday’s win over SMU. “If you’re a high-level guy, it kills you [to be on the bench]. To be great, you have to have some toughness and some ego. The great ones have that. You have to have a burning desire and want to play every minute.”
Jackson was limited to 14 minutes against the Mustangs and missed four of his five shots. (He found time to make a brilliant pass to Stan Simpson that led to a dunk midway through the first half.) After the game, he had cleared out of the locker room well before the media was allowed in. The glass ain’t half-full for Joe Jackson these days.
Will Barton plays with emotion bursting from his ears (most of it positive this season as his play has taken a form much closer to the hype that followed him to Memphis). Antonio Barton has a smile that almost looks timid. It’s one he can’t suppress when making that peephole with his hand after draining a three-pointer or hitting his brother for an alley-oop jam. Then there’s Wesley Witherspoon. Petulant maybe? This is a player who will sail a shot three feet over the rim, then moments later hit a trey and blow a kiss to the crowd . . . on the road. There are times I’m not sure Witherspoon even knows the glass is there.
“We’re student-athletes,” acknowledged Tarik Black after the SMU win. “We’re students first, but we’re also athletes. This is what we do. It’s our passion, it’s in our hearts.”
Maybe Black hit on the one word that might summarize this Tiger team, and the one word Memphis fans always hope is part of their team’s personality, win or lose: passion. Pump your fists when things go well. Grind your teeth, maybe bow your heads when things break against you. Either way, play the game with passion. After all, we can see it on your faces.
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.