• The Tiger football program is not exactly known for upsets. It’s been almost 18 years since Memphis last beat a ranked opponent. (Raise your hand if you remember the upset of 6th-ranked Tennessee on November 9, 1996.) Over the last quarter-century, Memphis has won exactly three games against Top-25 opposition. (They also beat 16th-ranked USC in 1991 and 23rd-ranked Mississippi State to open the 1993 season.) To be fair, the Tigers have gone entire seasons — most recently 2012 — without playing a ranked team. But what kind of chance do the Tigers have Saturday night in the Rose Bowl against 11th-ranked UCLA? Most betting lines have the Bruins favored by three touchdowns. The Tigers have won only two road games since Justin Fuente became head coach, and only three road games — total — since the start of the 2009 season. All of which, if you ask me, makes a delightful setting for an upset around midnight central time Saturday night. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley may win the Heisman Trophy and the Bruins may claim L.A. as their own with the recent turnover at Southern Cal. But the Tigers held serve (mightily) in their opener against Austin Peay, and have been looking forward to this trip an entire off-season. I’d be foolish to pick the Tigers to win, but I don’t think Paxton Lynch, Charles Harris and friends will be intimidated by the ranking their foe brings this weekend.
• My favorite stat from the Austin Peay game was the average yards per play allowed by the Tiger defense: 2.9. That’s an extraordinary number, and is certainly a reflection of the Tigers’ inferior opponent. But it’s a number worth watching as the U of M season — particularly the arduous first half — unfolds. I’m convinced the Tiger defense will win or lose games this season (by establishing how much a still-young offense must produce). Last season, the Tigers allowed 5.2 yards per play, down from 5.4 in 2012 and 6.6 the last year under coach Larry Porter. The closer Memphis can get to 4.0 — consider the figure a GPA for a college football team’s defense — the closer the Tigers will be to legitimate bowl contention. (Michigan State led the country last season, allowing 4.04 yards per play. Next was Florida State at 4.09.)
• The only white-knuckle moment for Tiger fans Saturday night came midway through the third quarter when senior defensive end Martin Ifedi was helped off the field, having apparently injured an ankle. (The Tiger staff and administration remain hush-hush on the severity of the injury, or whether or not Ifedi will play against UCLA.) Memphis was leading 49-0 at the time, which led to some easy second-guessing on the wisdom of having a star like Ifedi on the field.
I have no problem with Ifedi playing, regardless of the score. He’s a football player, a defensive lineman no less. Trying to measure the probability of a lineman injuring himself on any snap of the football is like trying to dodge raindrops in a late-summer Mid-South thunderstorm. The Austin Peay game was the 37th of Ifedi’s college career (he has not missed a game for the Tigers). Needless to say, he’s been on the field when the score was the inverse of the one Memphis fans relished last Saturday. He’s earned the right to be on the field with his team comfortably ahead.
• Austin Peay is a big game.
The Governors are an FCS program that went 0-12 last season. They are a team Memphis must and should beat. But consider them a tune-up for UCLA and you’re misjudging the start to year three of the Justin Fuente era at the U of M. The Tiger program has not reached a point where any opponent can be considered inferior, a walkover, a “gimme.” Simply recall the last two games of the 2013 season, when many considered the Tigers favored to beat a pair of American Athletic Conference bottom feeders. Temple and UConn won those two games by a combined 55 points. It’s been ten years — a decade — since Memphis won its opening game. (DeAngelo Williams was a junior when the Tigers beat Ole Miss in Oxford to start the 2004 season.) Players and coaches these days like to emphasize the need to “take care of business” when hosting an underdog. Forget what comes next week. The Liberty Bowl hosts a big game this Saturday.
• Watch the players not wearing number 12.
When I recently asked Fuente about the development of sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch, he said something simple but illuminating: “I’m just as interested in the other 10 around him playing better, to help him out. I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen so far.” All eyes tend to follow the quarterback when an offense takes the field. And with 12 starts already under his belt, Lynch knows the spotlight he’s taken, and the expectations — from his coaches and Tiger fans — that come with the position. But Lynch’s performance this season will reflect the continued development of those “around him” on the Tiger offense. A veteran receiving corps has to stretch the field more than it was able to a year ago. Brandon Hayes and Doroland Dorceus have to create some second-and-short scenarios that tend to expose a defense. And then there’s the offensive line. Senior Al Bond is entrenched (likely at right tackle), but who plays the other four positions remains in question, the hope being depth has finally made starting slots hard to win for a Memphis blocker. Not since 2008 (Brandon Pearce) have the Tigers suited up a first-team all-conference selection on its offensive line. Memphis needs a star in the trenches.
• A packed house?
Attendance at the Liberty Bowl has always been a measuring stick for the Tiger program. (What exactly it measures remains debatable.) The cavernous (60,000-plus) stadium will never be full for a Memphis game unless an SEC foe is in town. So we’re left to determine how many empty seats make a positive indicator. Just over 39,000 fans came out to watch Fuente’s debut in 2012 (a loss to UT-Martin). Last year, 44,237 showed up to see the Tigers lose to Duke. The Tigers wouldn’t see a crowd of 40,000 the rest of the season (six more home games). Needless to say, 40,000 fans this Saturday would be considered a booming start to the season. It’s still (barely) August, sure to be hot. But the only SEC team with local ties playing at the same time will be Mississippi State. If you’re a Memphis football fan, the Liberty Bowl will be the place to be Saturday night. Here’s hoping the action on the field is a better story than the number of empty seats.
And a fourth thought (just this week). The Tiger schedule has two very distinct halves, the first arduous, the second stuffed with teams forecast to finish near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference. And Memphis will not play consecutive home games until the final two contests on the schedule. Trends will be hard to read (or forecast) beyond the most famous cliché in sports: “One game at a time.” That said, I do indeed believe this is the year Tiger fans have been waiting for. The U of M may be 2-4 after the Houston game (October 11th), but if key players can avoid major injury, the Tigers will finish strong and gain bowl eligibility (6-6) in their season finale against UConn (November 29th).
Be sure and check out the Flyer’s annual Tiger football preview in this week’s print edition, on streets Wednesday.
For every team, in every sport, there exists a dichotomy: what is expected of that team, and what that team actually becomes. The only exceptions are the super teams (think 1976 Cincinnati Reds, 1985 Chicago Bears, 2012-13 Miami Heat) or the extraordinarily dreadful (the 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks and the 2008 Detroit Lions come to mind). The mercurial nature of the 2013-14 Memphis Tigers made for a dichotomy as pronounced as any this proud program has experienced (suffered?) before.
There’s the team Memphians wanted to see, the team they thought coach Josh Pastner had secured last November. A veteran (four senior guards!) core, a pair of prize recruits (Austin Nichols, Nick King), and a brand of athleticism that would ensure a frenetic offensive pace and stout, lock-down defense. And there were games this team did, in fact, surface. A payback win over 5th-ranked Oklahoma State in early December. An upset of 12th-ranked Louisville on the Cardinals’ floor in January. An astonishing late-game comeback against Gonzaga — with ESPN’s Game Day crew at FedExForum — in early February. When the Tigers closed their second game against Louisville (this time ranked 7th in the country) on a 15-1 run, Tiger fans collectively screamed, Yes . . . this is our team!
But hold on. The win over Oklahoma State was considered remarkable largely because the Cowboys had destroyed Memphis — scoring 101 points — less than two weeks earlier. As tough as the Tigers proved to be against the defending national champs, they were as soft in losing five games combined against Cincinnati and Connecticut. (You’d have to go back a few years to find a more dispiriting loss than the 19-point beat-down the Tigers took on their home floor against the Huskies in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament.) And let’s not forget the loss that may have done the most damage to the Tigers’ NCAA tournament seed: February 27th at Houston. A Cougar team the Tigers beat by 23 points in January controlled the game, start to finish. Mercurial doesn’t do this Memphis team justice.
So what exactly was the group we’ll remember as the 2013-14 Tigers? Once the hurt of the season-ending loss to Virginia on Sunday begins to fade, when we’re able to pull back and examine the mosaic of a season instead of the tiny panels that made that season, we’ll likely see precisely what we got: One of the top 32 teams in the country, and no more.
There was some irony to the Tigers falling out of the Top-25 rankings on the eve of the NCAA tournament, as they’d managed to stay in those rankings the entire regular season. (The AAC tourney loss was just that ugly.) After eight years of Conference USA 2.0, Pastner led his club through a gauntlet of 11 ranked opponents, tying a program record set in 2004-05. (That team, remember, played in the NIT). Memphis beat five of those teams, and came agonizingly close to knocking off a Florida team — in Madison Square Garden — that entered the NCAA tournament as the number-one team in the country. This was a good team. Just not a great one. (It was, let it be said, a poor defensive team, weak in both body and effort. Priority One for the offseason should be strengthening. Period.)
Next season will be very different. The departure of those four senior guards — Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson, and Michael Dixon — will alter, literally, the way the Tigers play the game. Tiger fans will have to get acquainted with Markel Crawford and Pookie Powell (both redshirted this season) and newcomers Dominic Magee and Avery Woodson. Big men Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols will become the faces of the program, while Nick King, presumably, transitions from role player off the bench to impact scorer. They will not be ranked among the country’s top ten teams, maybe not the top 20. And they will not be favored to win the AAC. They’ll enter the season claiming to be overlooked and under-appreciated, with little to lose and a new chapter in Tiger history to gain.
And they’ll likely surprise us, for good or ill. They’ll win a game they shouldn’t . . . and lose a game they shouldn’t. Leaving those who love Tiger basketball to wrestle, once again, with the dichotomy that makes every season worth following in the first place.
Anyone who saw as many as five minutes of the Memphis Tigers’ game in last week’s American Athletic Conference quarterfinals would have a hard time envisioning the team winning a game, let alone two, when the NCAA tournament gets underway this week in Raleigh (site of the Tigers’ sub-regional). In losing to Connecticut for a third time in three months, the Tigers looked worse than the 19-point margin of defeat suggested. No member of the Memphis eight-man rotation could claim to have played above average. Coach Josh Pastner and senior guard Geron Johnson used the words “embarrassed” and “disgusted” in facing the media after the game finally ended. They looked as beaten emotionally as they had been physically. Last Thursday was a late, sleepless night for much of Tiger Nation.
I’ve been asked since last fall if the Tiger season would be judged a failure if it ends short of the Sweet 16. Failure is a hard — and permanent — word. There are more than 200 Division 1 programs that would consider a single game in the Big Dance a successful season. (Ask the SMU Mustangs.) So if the Tigers can’t win two games . . . failure?
Define failure how you will. But there is much at stake for a proud program and its personnel this week. Among the areas of impact:
• Josh Pastner’s sunny disposition. If the Tigers lose their opening game (or even a second game, in the tournament’s “third round”), we’ll hear a lot about a fifth-straight 20-win season, and winning five games against ranked teams (including two against the defending national champs). But pulling back, examining the larger picture, we’ll see a five-year stretch of Tiger basketball with but one (or two) NCAA tournament victories. Short memories will forget the Tigers went ten seasons with but a single win in the Big Dance, from the 1995-96 campaign through John Calipari’s fifth as coach (2004-05). Those short memories remain heavy with images of four straight trips to the Sweet 16 (2006-09), a standard Pastner will be measured against as long as he keeps his current job. Lose this weekend and the season may or may not be a failure. But it will begin the longest, most trying offseason of Josh Pastner’s still-young career.
• Chris Crawford’s reputation. The senior guard has been an electric part of many Tiger wins. Only four Memphis players have hit more than Crawford’s 238 three-pointers. The Tigers don’t come back to beat SMU on March 8th without a three-shot flurry from downtown by Crawford. He and Joe Jackson will be just the sixth and seventh Tigers to play in four NCAA tournaments. But Crawford has been positively dreadful in his four tournament games (three of them losses). He’s taken a total of 32 shots and made six. He’s three for 19 from three-point range in NCAA tournament play. Crawford’s shooting can swing games, one way or the other. Perhaps he’s due for a positive swing.
• Joe Jackson’s legacy. Not every player leaves a legacy, but Joe Jackson will. This doesn’t mean the legacy will bring smiles. Good college players reach the NCAA tournament, as Jackson has four times now. Great players, of course, play on the second weekend (at least). Whether or not he embraced it, Jackson has been the face of this franchise for a while now. In ice cream terms, the Jackson years have been a swirl of revelry and disappointment. Upsetting a number-one seed in the Big Dance would change that.
• Faith in progress. In 2011, the Tigers qualified for the Dance only by virtue of winning the Conference USA tournament. In 2012, they were beaten in their first game, then in 2013, their second. The next step toward a shining moment would be the Sweet 16. Falling short of that would mean progress — on paper — has been stunted. Worse, the perception of progress would take a profound hit. Devoted fans would have to turn toward the likes of Markel Crawford, Pookie Powell, and Dominic Magee, wondering if the next group of players might be the one to return the Tiger program to national prominence.
Memphis fans must hope there are two versions of the current team. The one that went 0-5 against Cincinnati and Connecticut was on display last Thursday in all its horrific colors. Perhaps the one that went 23-4 against everyone else — a team that split with three opponents and dropped a narrow loss to top-ranked Florida — will show up to face George Washington Friday night. Only one of these versions will take a place in Tiger history.
Senior Day gets me every time. Whether it’s been one basketball season or four, I develop relationships with the Memphis Tigers as they make their way through college. It’s largely one-way, as a writer should never be as interesting to his subject as vice versa. But it’s a relationship nonetheless. And as the players walk to center-court with their families — for what could be the biggest round of applause of their lives — I tend to think the same thing: “I’ll miss this guy.”
So in advance of this Saturday’s Senior Day — honoring six(!) Memphis players before the Tigers face SMU — I’ll share precisely what I’ll miss the most about each member of this team’s senior class.
• I’ll miss the family tie that is Trey Draper. No ordinary walk-on, Draper is the son of Wanda and Leonard Draper. And Leonard Draper was among the late, great Larry Finch’s dearest friends. The undersized graduate of Mitchell High School connects this team to the program’s preeminent figure in a way few Memphis teams can. Draper happened to score the Tigers’ 100th point in two wins this season (over LeMoyne-Owen and Rutgers). He earned the cheers that followed.
• I’ll miss David Pellom just being there. (Let me explain.) The graduate transfer from George Washington has had no double-doubles or game-winning shots. He’s no all-conference candidate. And there will be loyal Tiger fans who have trouble coming up with his name five years from now. But Pellom has been there — on the offensive end and defensive — countless times this season when it seemed the Tigers needed a booster. A putback after an offensive rebound. Drawing an offensive foul. A rebound in a crowd of opponents. Pellom has battled knee discomfort all season, limiting the impact he might have made. But let’s not discount the impact he has made . . . and could yet make in the postseason.
• I’ll miss Michael Dixon’s bravado. After the Tigers’ win over Nicholls State last November, Dixon sat down next to me after the game, pointed to Geron Johnson a few feet away, and asked, “Who’s the better interview?” I laughed at the question (and refused to answer, knowing a full season lay ahead). Dixon was having fun, even after the final buzzer, but the question revealed a slice of Dixon’s competitive nature. He came to Memphis after being dismissed by Missouri (amid sexual assault allegations) before the 2012-13 season. And he has seized the chance to make a positive difference coming off the bench for a relentlessly positive coach. Rare is the guard who, without starting, scores at least 10 points in 10 consecutive games. Whether launching a three-point attempt or venturing into the lane against larger men, Dixon has personified a daring element that makes this Tiger team among the most resilient in recent history. Ask the Louisville Cardinals.
• I’ll miss Geron Johnson’s intensity. And I’ll miss his genial nature in the media room. Johnson arrived on the Memphis campus in 2012 with a rather ugly track record, having been dismissed from two junior college programs (after being charged with attempted burglary in high school). But since the day he first met with Memphis media, Johnson has stuck to a simple, yet profound mantra: That was then; we can only control the future. He’s been a critical component in the Tiger rotation for two seasons now, and without incident off the floor. Arguably the best natural athlete here since Derrick Rose, Johnson was electric in the Tigers’ loss at UConn last month. Were it not for Shabazz Napier’s late-game heroics, Johnson’s coast-to-coast drives would have carried highlights of that contest. And he’s been a model, really, for how to handle the media spotlight in a city where basketball players are celebrities before they make their first shot. Every win, according to Johnson, is a big win. Nothing should be taken for granted in basketball. Put a game in the win column, and move on to the next. You know what they call that kind of attitude, right? Professional.
• I’ll miss Chris Crawford’s eyes. The pride of Sheffield, if you ask me, is the best passer the Tiger program has seen since Penny Hardaway. When kids begin playing basketball, the first skill they’re taught is dribbling with their head up. But it’s one thing to look up as you dribble, quite another to see the entire floor as the likes of Magic Johnson, Penny Hardaway, and yes, Chris Crawford can. Crawford has some significant career numbers. He’s the only Tiger with 200 steals and 200 three-pointers. He’s ninth in school history with 454 assists. And the numbers Crawford put up in the 2013 Conference USA tournament — 77 points, 19 treys in three games — are already a part of Tiger lore. But that vision, those eyes. Rare indeed. Crawford and Joe Jackson are aiming to become just the sixth and seventh Tigers to play in four NCAA tournaments.
• I’ll miss Joe Jackson . . . being Joe Jackson. His was a challenge similar to that of Larry Finch, Elliot Perry, and Penny Hardaway: a local high school star who chose to be a Tiger in front of family and friends (the latter numbering in the thousands and growing with every basket Jackson made). But with the hometown adulation came acute pain when criticism was slung. Again, that family-and-friends factor. (A stranger can call me what he chooses, but when a “friend” says I can’t lead my team . . . .) Consider this a teaser, as Jackson will be the subject of our cover story in the March 13th print edition. I’ll finish with a quote from a longtime Memphis basketball observer, his identity to be revealed in that cover story.
“Joe and Elliot Perry had their choices of schools to attend, but didn’t even think of going anywhere else. Other coaches might get a player or two over time but Memphis, for the most part, owns Memphis. And that’s because of the legacy Elliot, Joe, and others have nurtured.”
I’m happy for Larry Kenon. By the time you finish this column, you may have your doubts. But I really am happy for Larry Kenon.
This Saturday, when the Memphis Tigers host arch-rival Louisville at FedExForum, Kenon will be given the highest honor an athlete can be given by a team when his uniform number (35) is retired and raised to the rafters. Kenon will join eight other Tiger greats — including two teammates — in the pantheon of Memphis basketball elite.
Should you need a refresher, Kenon starred alongside Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson for the 1972-73 Tiger team — then Memphis State — that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s championship game before bowing to John Wooden, Bill Walton, and mighty UCLA. Kenon averaged 20.1 points and 16.7 rebounds in 30 games for that legendary team, a group as important for the community cohesion it inspired as for its 24 wins on the hardwood. Kenon’s star shone especially bright in the national semifinals when he scored 28 points and pulled down 22 rebounds — his seventh 20-20 game that season — against Providence. He set a Tiger record for total rebounds that season (501) that remains 129 more than any other Memphis player has grabbed. Kenon was a spectacular component of a spectacular team in 1972-73. Some of those who saw him play here insist Kenon — pound for pound — remains the greatest player to ever wear a Tiger uniform.
Trouble is, that was his only season in Memphis. Thirty games. A year later, Kenon was running the floor with Julius Erving and the New York Nets on his way to an ABA championship. He went on to play in three ABA All-Star Games and two NBA All-Star Games as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Kenon is a great former Tiger, by all measures. But worthy of inclusion in the program’s most esteemed fraternity?
I take the retiring of numbers more seriously than I probably should, and I have a fundamental problem with college programs honoring players who spend but one season in uniform. Compounding matters here, the Memphis program has several players who starred for more than one season, in eras that haven’t been honored enough . . . or at all.
To name three:
• Antonio Anderson (#5, 2005-09) — I made a lengthy case for Anderson two years ago, and he remains atop the list of former players who would receive my vote (if I had one) for a retired number. He is the only Tiger to accumulate 1,000 career points along with 500 rebounds and 500 assists. Those are significant numbers, and Anderson is a club of one. He played in more games (150) than any other Tiger. Most importantly, the Tigers won at least 33 games all four years he played. That era needs to be acknowledged.
• Andre Turner (#10, 1982-86) — Impressed with Kenon’s single-season rebound record? Turner’s career assist mark (763) won’t be touched; the second-most in Memphis history is 639 (Chris Garner). The Little General led the Tigers to the Sweet 16 three times and was a late-game hero (twice) in the team’s run to the 1985 Final Four. If the 1973 team has three players in the rafters, it’s about time Lee is joined by a teammate from ’85.
• Chris Douglas-Roberts (#14, 2005-08) — There have been only three Memphis players to earn first-team All-America recognition from the Associated Press: Keith Lee, Penny Hardaway, and CDR. The first two have had their numbers hanging above the crowd at FedExForum for 20 years. And neither of them played in a national championship game. (Kenon was honorable mention in 1973.) Despite playing only three years in Memphis, CDR is 10th on the career-scoring chart and is one of four Tigers to score 700 points in a season.
Honoring one-year players like Kenon with such permanence as a retired number is a slippery slope. The Tigers don’t win the 2002 NIT without Dajuan Wagner. (Scoff if you must, but that NIT remains the only “national championship” the U of M has won in a team sport.) And what about Derrick Rose? The NCAA forced the U of M to take down the banner honoring the 2008 NCAA finalists. What if Rose’s name and number went up there instead? (This would be fun, if only to measure the outrage from NCAA headquarters.)
I really am happy for Larry Kenon. Years ago, I interviewed him about his memories of 1973, and he said something every Tiger fan will appreciate: “Memphis has been a great basketball school, from way before I got there up through today.”
As Kenon’s jersey joins eight others in the FedExForum rafters, here’s hoping the Memphis program reconsiders a few other deserving honorees. Take down a few of those (non-championship) NIT banners, and there’s plenty of room.
Last October, as part of our annual “Hoop City” issue, I presented ten questions for the 2013-14 Memphis Tigers. The answers would, in theory, determine how the season would be remembered. With February upon us — the NCAA tournament less than seven weeks away — let’s revisit three of those questions and see how close we are to the answers.
• Can a lighter Shaq Goodwin be a stronger player?
Two words: And how. The Tigers’ quartet of senior guards seems to be the opening talking point after every game. But it would take a remarkable two months of basketball from one of those guards for Shaq Goodwin to not be this team’s MVP.
As a freshman starter — playing at 270 pounds — Goodwin averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 20.7 minutes per game, hardly the numbers expected from a McDonald’s All-American recruited to be the post presence Memphis sorely lacked over Josh Pastner’s first three seasons as head coach. But as a sophomore — playing closer to 240 pounds — Goodwin leads the Tigers in rebounding (6.7 per game) and is second to Joe Jackson in scoring (12.5). Against Houston on January 23rd, Goodwin scored 12 points in the first five minutes. With a pair of thundering dunks, Goodwin basically scared the Cougars straight before the FedExForum crowd had shaken the unseasonable chill outside the arena. It would be Goodwin’s fourth game this season with at least 20 points and his 13th in double figures, matching his total for such games as a freshman.
“It’s all about focus,” says Goodwin. “Not bringing anything not to do with basketball on the court.” And about those guards: “We’re an inside-out team, so when we establish our presence in the post, it opens up the floor for our shooters.” Let’s consider Shaq Goodwin’s presence established.
• Just how strong is the Tiger backcourt?
This has become a thorny subject in the FedExForum media room (thornier after Tiger losses). If you want to quicken the pulse of the relentlessly positive Tiger coach, suggest he’s relying too heavily on the quartet of Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson (all starters), and Michael Dixon (off the bench). “When our four guards play poorly collectively, we’re gonna struggle,” said Pastner after the loss to Cincinnati on January 4th. “When they play well collectively, we’re a team that’s tough to beat. That’s a fine line.”
In that loss to the Bearcats, the foursome missed 15 of 17 three-point attempts, as ugly a collective shooting display as FedExForum has seen in some time. In the loss to UConn, the best guard on the floor was clearly the Huskies’ Shabazz Napier (17 points, 10 assists). But the quartet has delivered in big wins over Oklahoma State, Louisville, and Houston (combining for ten three-pointers in the win over the Cougars). Each of the guards has scored at least 13 points in a game and dished out at least five assists. Johnson is second on the team with 5.3 rebounds per game. With Goodwin in foul trouble last week at UCF, the guards accounted for 51 of the team's 69 points. It may not be the best backcourt in the country, but Memphis leads the AAC in assists (17.5 per game) and steals (9.7). Pastner’s right: This team will play as deeply into March as its senior guards allow.
• Are the Tigers a tougher team than they were last season?
Following the 21-point loss at Oklahoma State last November, chopping blocks were being dusted off all over Memphis. With Pastner’s name on them. Less than two weeks later, the Tigers beat those same Cowboys to win the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. After the dud against Cincinnati to open the new year, the Tigers’ strength relative to the rest of the American Athletic Conference was called into question. Five days later, they traveled to Louisville and beat the reigning national champions.
This team has its weaknesses, many of them exposed last Saturday at SMU. Outside shooting is inconsistent, at best. (Keep your eye on free-throws, too. Games are won and lost in March at the foul line and this team has slung some uncontested bricks.) Defensive breakdowns near the basket are too frequent. The rotation is thin, freshmen Nick King and Kuran Iverson not getting the minutes many expected. But let’s not question the team’s toughness. They’ll take a knock-down, as they did most recently in Dallas. But they tend to rise.
Will two weeks in January define a basketball season for the Memphis Tigers? Maybe or maybe not, but the U of M program has begun a four-game regular-season stretch unlike it has seen in more than 20 years. Two of the last three national champions (Connecticut and Louisville). The program’s two most intense historic rivals (Louisville and Cincinnati). With tradition-rich Temple — on the road — thrown in for good measure. By the time the Tigers host LeMoyne-Owen on January 18th, they could be 13-3 and ranked among the top 15 teams in the country. Or they could be 10-6 and facing a climb just to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The fun resumes this Thursday night at Freedom Hall in Louisville. (Has it really been nine years since Memphis beat the Cardinals?)
With a season’s tipping point upon us, a few observations from the Tigers’ first 13 games:
• “We put a lot of eggs in their basket.” After the Cincinnati loss last Saturday, Tiger coach Josh Pastner emphasized — again and again — that this team will go as far as its core of senior guards takes it. It’s a painfully obvious view: select any four-man unit from a college team’s eight-man rotation and its collective performance will impact games. But when the four are all guards, handling the ball on virtually every possession? This is easy math.
In the season-changing upset of Oklahoma State on December 1st, the fab four — Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson, and Michael Dixon — combined to score 45 points. They made 17 of 36 field-goal attempts, including five three pointers. Last Saturday against the Bearcats, the foursome combined to score 37 points, but was woefully inefficient, hitting 14 of 49 shots from the field and missing 15 of 17 three-point attempts. It’s a group that seems to thrive on collective success, but one that also seems prone to collective shooting slumps.
• The bigs still matter. The four guards played well in the narrow loss to Florida on December 17th, combining for 52 points and six three-pointers. But starting forwards Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols were held to a combined three field goals and eight rebounds. (This was the night senior transfer David Pellom emerged as a difference-maker with 12 points in 16 minutes off the bench.) Last Saturday, Goodwin made only two field goals in 35 minutes and pulled down six rebounds (just under his average of 6.8 per game). Nichols looked a step slow in the first half (one field goal in four attempts and a single rebound) and didn’t get off the bench in the second.
With the Tiger big men all but nullified, Cincinnati was able to stretch its defense to the perimeter, contributing to the miserable Memphis shooting. Pellom again filled some of the void inside, hitting four of five shots, but Goodwin and Nichols will have to get closer to their combined averages of 20.8 points and 12.9 rebounds for the Tigers to threaten the top teams in the American Athletic Conference.
• The star freshmen . . . are still freshmen. As for early-career teasers, Nichols and Nick King have provided highlights that have had Tiger fans salivating. A starter since opening night, Nichols scored 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds in the win over LSU. King had the lone positive performance in the loss at Oklahoma State — just his second college game — with 23 points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes (alas, most of those minutes after the outcome had been decided).
But King hasn’t played as many as 15 minutes since the Northwestern State game on December 7th. Nichols is catching up to the speed of the college game. And Kuran Iverson has averaged only 9.4 minutes of playing time in the nine games he’s entered. It will be interesting to see how Pastner and his staff keep these future stars engaged, particularly through the tougher stretches of the schedule. A year from now, we won’t be discussing four senior guards. The primary topic will be the team’s young but veteran leaders: Austin Nichols, Nick King, and Kuran Iverson.
• Depth on paper is one thing. Pastner utilized but six players in the second half against Cincinnati: the four seniors, Goodwin and Pellom. A suggestion back in November that Memphis would battle the Bearcats with Nichols, King, Iverson, Damien Wilson, and Dominic Woodson all in a sitting position would have raised some eyebrows in these parts.
I asked Jackson about the squeezed rotation Saturday, and he was succinct in measuring the significance. “You earn playing time through practice,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.” Can the likes of Iverson, Wilson, and Woodson gain enough trust from the coaching staff — in practice — to take the floor at Louisville or Temple? The emergence of one or two of this team’s supporting cast could make the difference in a significant win.
Eighteen regular-season games remain for the Memphis Tigers. You gotta figure 12 or 13 wins would secure a dance ticket. But with five of those games against the American’s current big three (Louisville, UConn, and Cincinnati), there’s not a lot of margin to accommodate performances like last Saturday’s at FedExForum. It’s time to tighten the laces.
The University of Memphis football team just completed its sixth straight losing season (3-9). But was it a bad season? In simple terms, yes. Any losing season is a bad season, particularly the way this one ended. Let’s consider the campaign a little deeper, with a few points of consideration for a long offseason.
• First, the numbers (I’ll stick with per-game averages). The Tigers were outscored 24.6 points to 19.5 (compared with 30.2 to 24.4 in 2012). The Tigers gained an average of 311.5 yards and surrendered 370.7 (last year the respective figures were 318.3 and 383.6). The defense improved, if only marginally, while the offense regressed. Hard to measure overall progress from these stats. And there’s just no hiding what happened the last two weeks against Temple and Connecticut, bottom feeders in the American Athletic Conference. In giving up a combined 1,072 yards to the Owls and Huskies, the Memphis defense fell from a ranking of 16th in the country to 40th.
• Few positions in sports are measured by the performance of others like that of offensive linemen. If a running back is able to regularly break into the defensive backfield, offensive linemen are doing their jobs well. If a quarterback is able to camp in the pocket for four or five seconds, offensive linemen are doing their jobs well.
There were not a lot of lengthy runs from Tiger tailbacks this season, and quarterback Paxton Lynch did more running than he or his head coach planned last August. Chewing on these observations, the Tiger offensive linemen did not do their jobs all that well in 2013. Two of them being seniors (Antonio Foster and Chris Scheutz), the line will take new shape in 2014. It really has to. And holdovers like Taylor Fallin and Nykiren Wellington must improve or turn their duties over to others. Boiled right down, football is a simple game. The team that consistently gets a push at the line of scrimmage wins. That team was rarely the Memphis Tigers this fall.
• Is Paxton Lynch The Guy? The redshirt freshman threw a pretty ball when he was able to load up and fire downfield (all too rarely). And he was far more nimble a runner than most 6’7” signal-callers. He was durable, never missing a start and absorbing plenty of contact. I would have liked to see measurable improvement from Lynch over the 12-game season, and I’m not sure we did. He surpassed 200 yards in passing only twice all season (matching Jacob Karam’s total of a year ago). For the season, Lynch completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 2,056 yards, with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
As a redshirt freshman in 2001, Danny Wimprine completed 52 percent of his passes for 1,329 yards, with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. (The Tigers finished 5-6.) The next three seasons, Wimprine passed for more yardage — in each season — than any previous Memphis quarterback. That’s your bar, Paxton.
• The Tigers played their toughest schedule in some time, and without an SEC opponent. Duke, Louisville, and UCF each won at least 10 games. The three beat Memphis by a total of four touchdowns. Which makes ugly losses to Temple and SMU all the more painful. The Tigers were three or four plays — and several penalties, let’s remember — from a five- or six-win season. But they also lost to Temple by 20 points. And UConn by 35. Make of this jumble what you will.
• The Tigers have not had a first-team all-conference player since Jamon Hughes was honored by Conference USA after the 2010 season. That will surely change later this week, with punter Tom Hornsey — a finalist for the Ray Guy Award — due a salute from the American. Had Bobby McCain stayed healthy, he may have joined Hornsey. And it will be interesting to see what kind of support defensive end Martin Ifedi receives. The junior pass rusher had 8.5 sacks in the Tigers’ first seven games, but only three more over the last five.
• Looking at attendance figures (tickets sold), the Tigers averaged 28,537 for their seven home games this season, compared with 24,371 last year (and 20,078 in 2011, Larry Porter’s last year as head coach). That’s significant and measurable growth, though still less than half the capacity at cavernous Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. The season’s largest crowd attended the opener (44,237) while the smallest turned out for the SMU game on October 19th (16,241). Keep this in mind: Since the Liberty Bowl became their home in 1965, the Tigers have averaged 40,000 fans (two-thirds capacity) exactly three times: 1976, 2003, 2004. I don’t know what the solution is for this program’s long-term health, but I know a stadium with (at least) 20,000 empty seats is not part of it.
It was a bad season, and I hand down such judgment entirely based on the beatings Memphis took in its last two games. Having seen the Tigers compete so fiercely against the American’s top two teams (UCF and Louisville), who saw the drubbings against Temple and UConn coming? Had the Tigers not suffered fourth-quarter heartbreak against the Knights, and had they cut their penalties (15 for 145 yards) in half and beaten Middle Tennessee, we’re reviewing a 5-7 season, a victory shy of bowl eligibility. That same record could have been achieved, though, by beating Temple and UConn.
The Memphis Tigers will land on the schedule of American foes next fall as a winnable game, no matter the opponent. It’s hard to feel emboldened by any traces of progress this fall.
Senior guard Chris Crawford could well become the Memphis program's 49th member of the 1,000-point club Saturday when the Tigers host Northwestern State. The pride of Sheffield High School needs 13 points to join teammate Joe Jackson (and 23 other native Memphians) north of four figures on the school's scoring chart.
Crawford and Jackson will make a rare pair, indeed, as four-year teammates in the 1,000-point club. Only three other pairs of teammates played four years together as Tigers while surpassing 1,000 career points:
• Doom Haynes (1,479 points) and Bobby Parks (1,266) from 1980-81 thru 1983-84
• Andre Turner (1,442) and Baskerville Holmes (1,112) from 1982-83 thru 1985-86
• Robert Dozier (1,381) and Antonio Anderson (1,277) from 2005-06 thru 2008-09
Dwight Boyd and Vincent Askew played three seasons together (1984-85 thru 1986-87) and each scored 1,000 points, but Askew was off to the NBA for the 1987-88 season.
Chris Douglas-Roberts scored 1,545 points with the Tigers and joined the program the same year Dozier and Anderson did (2005). But CDR entered the NBA draft after his junior season (2007-08).
The most famous pair of teammates in Memphis Tiger history — Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson — are each members of the 1,000-point club, of course, but freshmen were not eligible when the Melrose duo enrolled in 1969. Considering they were teammates on the freshman team for the 1969-70 season, they make this list on a technicality.
I actually have 15 thoughts this week, as Senior Day approaches. Here’s hoping a healthy crowd shows up to salute these players as they suit up for the final time when Temple visits the Liberty Bowl. (Get there early, as kickoff will be at 11 a.m. Saturday.)
Holding to format, I’ll present this class of Tigers in three categories.
• I’m reluctant to ever use the expression “role player” during football season. Tell a young man getting the spit knocked out of him in mid-August training camp that he’ll be playing a “role” for his team . . . and take a step back. Football’s a brutal sport. The sacrifices we see on Saturday afternoon are a tiny slice of the toll taken over the course of the year (which includes spring camp). Defensive lineman Roderick Howard (a graduate of Kingsbury High School), offensive lineman Andrew Niblock, and wide receiver Jamere Valentine never topped the Tiger depth chart, but each devoted himself to coach Justin Fuente’s cause. Work done outside the spotlight can be hard to measure. In some respects, Senior Day is meant for players like this.
• In basketball terms, these eight players have been in the Tiger “rotation” at one point or another, some for lengthy stretches. Anthony Brown has been a regular starter at linebacker since joining the Memphis program for the 2012 season. Defensive lineman Johnnie Farms entered the season as an all-conference candidate, only to serve a lengthy suspension for a violation of team rules. (Farms had 9.5 tackles-for-loss as a junior.) Antonio Foster has started at both guard and center over his two seasons as a Tiger and was a member of the team’s leadership council. Tailback Brandon Hayes (White Station High School) leads the U of M in rushing yards (789) and could become the first Tiger to gain 1,000 on the ground since Curtis Steele in 2009. Quarterback Jacob Karam made headlines this year for playing the piano at St. Jude, but he was precisely the leader the 2012 Tigers needed. He passed for 1,895 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, tossing only three interceptions in leading the Tigers to four wins, the program’s most in four years. Tight end Jesse Milleson caught one of the biggest passes of this season, a fourth-quarter touchdown connection with Paxton Lynch at Louisville that brought the Tigers within seven points of the heavily favored Cardinals. Jai Steib saw his workload drop when Hayes took over at running back, but he gained 427 yards as a junior and scored six touchdowns.Anthony Watson has been a regular starter at strong safety for the Tigers, strengthening a defensive backfield that just a couple of years ago was the weakest component of the team.
• If you had to pick a “core four” from the 2013 senior class, it could well be this group, each of whom played four years as Tigers (two of them under former coach Larry Porter). They’ve endured the program hitting rock bottom (3-21 under Porter) and have been integral to the transition under Fuente. Free safety Lonnie Ballentine (Southwind High School) started eight games as a sophomore and has been a regular starter the last two seasons under Fuente. He received honorable-mention all-conference recognition from Conference USA after the 2012 season and has 97 solo tackles for his career. Simply put, Tom Hornsey is the greatest punter the Memphis program has seen. The Aussie deserves hazard pay for the sheer number of kicks he’s been assigned (95 in the 2011 season alone). He has surpassed 12,000 yards for his career (no other Tiger reached 10,000), dropped 95 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, and has had but one of his 286 punts blocked. If there’s justice, he’ll receive the Ray Guy Award at season’s end. Linebacker Corey Jones (Mitchell High School) started four games as a freshman in 2010 and has seen action in 44 games as a Tiger. Offensive lineman Chris Schuetz has started at least seven games each of the last three seasons, playing center as a sophomore before moving to guard as a junior and back to center this season.
You build a program on the backs of your seniors. Hats off to the weight of growth these 15 Tigers carried.
• Has Lady Luck finally winked the Tigers’ way? In the win over UT-Martin two weeks ago, two field-goal attempts by the Skyhawks’ kicker deflected off the same (left) upright. Then last Saturday at USF, a 56-yard attempt by Tiger freshman Jake Elliott kissed the crossbar before securing Memphis another three points just before halftime. These are events worth noting for a program not accustomed to breaks going its way. (See the last three minutes of the UCF game.)
The Tigers converted only two of ten third-down opportunities against the Bulls. Their quarterback did more damage as a runner (51 yards) than as a passer (59). They scored exactly one offensive touchdown. And yet, Memphis won the game . . . and by 13 points. Credit to a stout defense (particularly AAC Defensive Player of the Week Bobby McCain, he of three interceptions). But let’s measure good fortune when we can. Luck and talent have partnered for a lot of success stories on the gridiron.
• Tiger senior Tom Hornsey has now punted for almost seven miles over his four years in blue and gray. The Aussie pigskin punisher surpassed 12,000 yards in the win at USF. (No other Memphis kicker has reached 10,000.) Such a figure, of course, is an ugly statement on how dreadful the Tiger offense has been over the last four seasons. But imagine what Memphis football would have looked like the last four years without Hornsey. (Yes, folks, it could be worse.) During the USF game, we saw the prototypical Hornsey punt in the third quarter, the Tigers clinging to a 6-3 lead. Sixty yards the ball traveled . . . before being downed at the USF one. Back in August, Tiger coach Justin Fuente summarized Hornsey’s impact with words that would inspire anyone ever charged with saving fourth down: “Tom Hornsey is as versatile a punter as anyone I’ve been around. He’s a real football player.” Give this man the Ray Guy Award.
• The best football game I’ve seen live — in the stadium — was the Memphis-Louisville tilt on November 4, 2004, at the Liberty Bowl. This was the height of a Tiger offense built around tailback DeAngelo Williams (200 rushing yards that night) and quarterback Danny Wimprine (361 yards passing and four touchdowns). The teams combined for 1,202 yards (Memphis with 603), 63 first downs (30 for the Tigers), and nine lead changes (the last to the Cardinals, who won the game, 56-49). It was an epic offensive display by two teams off the radar (at the time) of any national title consideration.
This Saturday’s game in Louisville won’t be anything like that game. Sadly, it may be the last time we see the Tigers and Cardinals clash on the gridiron for some time. (Louisville moves to the ACC in 2014.) The football series between these schools is nothing like the legendary basketball rivalry, but nonetheless, they’ve played 42 times (the Cardinals own a 23-19 edge). The Tigers have lost the last three meetings and seven of the last eight (Memphis won at Louisville in 2003). It’s a nothing-to-lose contest for the U of M as the 21st-ranked Cardinals hold out hopes for an American title and the automatic BCS berth that comes with it. There have been bigger upsets, right?
• The Tiger penalties have to stop. Since the Oakland Raiders franchise was born (in 1960), no pro team has led its league (first the AFL, since 1970 the NFL) in penalties more than the “Silver-and-Black” made famous by outlaw owner Al Davis. While no other team has led the NFL as many as 10 times over the last 53 years, the Raiders have paced pro football in penalties no fewer than 15 times. Somehow, this is a lauded part of the franchise’s image for ferocity. If you wear Oakland Raiders colors, breaking the law is cool, and that translates to committing penalties on the field.
The Memphis Tigers are not the Oakland Raiders. They escaped last Saturday’s game against FCS foe UT-Martin with the help of two field-goal attempts off an upright and despite twelve penalties that cost the U of M 123 yards and a player (almost two). After eight games, the 2-6 Tigers “lead” (trail, really) all of FBS with more than 80 yards per game in penalties. And these infractions are costing the team wins. In the two-point loss at Middle Tennessee in September, Memphis surrendered 145 yards in penalties (called by the same crew that worked the UT-Martin game). In the 10-point loss at Houston, the Tigers were penalized for 86 yards (four lost fumbles didn’t help). And in the five-point loss to SMU last month, the Tigers were penalized for 110 yards. I’ll venture to say one of those games goes the Tigers’ way if the penalties had been cut in half.
It’s sloppy. And it’s an ugly reflection on a team being built on discipline by a still-new coaching regime. The penalties have to stop. Make the opponent beat you.
• With every passing week, my favorite individual story of the season is that of Brandon Hayes. The senior tailback from White Station High School leads Memphis with 625 rushing yards and six touchdowns, two years after running for 556 yards — for the season — with Scottsdale Community College. Remember, Hayes walked on at Memphis as a freshman in 2010, only to lose that season to a broken foot. He returned to Memphis when Justin Fuente was hired before the 2012 season, and played without a scholarship until late October of his junior season. He led the Tigers with 576 rushing yards last year, surpassing 100 in each of the Tigers’ last two wins of the campaign.
Hayes has topped 100 yards in each of the Tigers’ two wins this season, meaning you can count on seeing a few carries by number-38 this Saturday at USF. Said Fuente at Monday’s press luncheon: “Brandon’s going to be our guy.” Hayes has a reasonable shot at a 1,000-yard season, which would place him in the top-15 in Tiger history. Better yet, he’s a nominee for the Burlsworth Trophy, given annually to the most outstanding college football player who began is career as a walk-on.
• The Tigers have three realistic chances at winning their first American Athletic Conference game, the first this Saturday against USF in Tampa. The programs last met in the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl, the Tigers’ last taste of postseason play. (The Bulls won what amounted to a home game, 41-14.) USF is dead last in the American in total offense (256.0 yards per game) and scoring (15.4 points). They’ve scored but 12 touchdowns in their eight games (third-lowest total in the country). But among common opponents, USF beat a Cincinnati team that handled the Tigers. Their other win came at UConn (13-10) five weeks ago. It’s not the Bulls’ offense that concerns Fuente, not based on his remarks Monday: “It’s going to be a rough game, the way they play defensively and the way we’re capable of playing defensively.” Sounds like one of those 16-13, who-plays-less-poorly kind of games. Keep the penalties down, boys.
The “secret scrimmages” and exhibition games are over. In modern vernacular, the Memphis Tigers tip off the 2013-14 basketball season this Thursday night, for real.
A few thoughts as we enter year five of the Josh Pastner Era:
• The Tigers’ four senior guards — Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson, and Michael Dixon — will form a rotation-within-the-rotation unlike any other in college basketball. Each has enjoyed a 30-win season, and each faces a final year that will brand their careers as college athletes. How these four similar-but-different playmakers establish their roles — within the larger rotation and among themselves — will largely determine the ceiling for this year’s team. It’s hard to envision a moment this season — in a competitive game — when the Tigers do not have a senior guard on the floor.
In the exhibition win over CBU last Friday, Jackson and Dixon started, with Crawford (Conference USA’s 2013 Sixth Man of the Year) and Johnson coming off the bench. They each played between 15 minutes (Crawford) and 20 (Dixon), figures sure to leap when the likes of Oklahoma State or Florida are the opponent. Crawford took only three shots (missing all three) and Jackson was only two for six from the floor. But Dixon hit an early three-pointer and led the team with 18 points (hitting seven of ten shots from the field). And Johnson — again the best athlete the Tigers will suit up — hit four of eight (including a trey) and dished out four assists. It’s a potentially lethal “fab four” at Josh Pastner’s disposal. Collectively, they’ll be the faces we remember years from now in reflecting on the 2013-14 season.
• If I were to rank the first impression I had of the four freshmen vying for rotation slots, it would go something like this:
1) Austin Nichols — Dexterity, grace, and length. Midway through the first half, Nichols received a pass just outside the key, maybe seven feet from the rim. Without taking a dribble, the 6’8” forward used one stride to get to the rim and lay the ball in off the glass. It was a simple, elegant basketball play by a big man . . . in his very first college game. Memphis has grown accustomed to brute force in the low post, from Chris Massie to Joey Dorsey to Will Coleman (and some degree, Tarik Black). Nichols brings an offensive repertoire that diversifies the Tiger attack.
2) Nick King — Having watched ESPN’s new documentary Bernie and Ernie last week, I had another King — Hall of Famer Bernard — on my mind as the pride of East High School managed a double-double (12 points and 10 rebounds) in 22 minutes against CBU. King hit five of seven field-goal attempts (including a pair after offensive rebounds) and picked up three steals, playing the kind of active role Tiger fans remember from Will Barton two years ago. (Or Tennessee fans of a certain generation might remember from a certain Bernie.) King will have to guard forwards much of this season and, especially once conference play begins, will be challenged to find some of the shots that seemed to come easily last Friday night. But his minutes will add up, and Tiger fans are going to like him.
3) Dominic Woodson — The Tigers lost three of their top four rebounders from last season (Black, Adonis Thomas, and D.J. Stephens). Senior forward David Pellom will be sidelined five weeks after having knee surgery last week. So who will absorb the rebounding responsibility? The 6’10” Woodson only pulled down two boards in 18 minutes against CBU, but if he shows the touch on offense he displayed against the Buccaneers — seven of seven from the field — this giant (he’s listed at 310 pounds) will do his share of stomping on the hardwood for Pastner. You can’t help but wonder if Woodson benefited more than any other Tiger from the smaller opposition. Let’s see what kind of impact he makes on November 19th at Oklahoma State.
4) Kuran Iverson — Raw. An overused description for a basketball player making a transition in level, but it’s the word I had in the back of my mind all 16 minutes Iverson played last Friday night. Pastner just about split his suit with excitement when Iverson dunked an offensive rebound in the second half. At 6’10”, Iverson has the chance to fill much of that rebounding and defensive void left by Stephens. But he has an erratic offensive game (he missed seven of ten field-goal attempts) and will give weight to many of the players who guard him this season (he’s listed at 209). What a luxury, though, if a top-30 recruit is merely the fourth-best freshman on the Memphis roster.
After winning his first game at FedExForum, Dixon offered a calm, cool take on the campaign ahead. “I’m kind of like a freshman,” he said, “just getting out there and seeing all the fans, the passion this city has. We’ve got a lot to work on but, as a team, collectively, I think we played pretty good. This is our home floor, and we have to defend it.”
When asked about his role in that “fab four” backcourt, Dixon said the band is ready to play . . . for real. “We’re ready to go out there and take on somebody when it counts,” he said. “I have a serious leadership role [here]. I like to talk and communicate, have my teammates’ back. Get everybody in the right spots. We have a lot of guys with experience, and that’s going to help this team.”
• How do we define a “playmaker” on the football field? It’s a vague description, really. (How do we define a “play”?) Generally, playmakers can be categorized as the famous line about pornography goes: “I know it when I see it.” Marcus Rucker led the Tigers with 41 receptions in 2010, while Tannar Rehrer was the top wideout a year later with 70 catches. Who was the playmaker? Rucker got into the end zone eight times (to Rehrer’s four) and Rucker piled up 704 yards (12th in Memphis history) while Rehrer’s 70 receptions only gained 593 yards. Rucker was a playmaker. (Less so as a senior last season, when he caught 47 passes for 525 yards and only three touchdowns.)
The 2013 Tigers desperately need a playmaker. (For these purposes, we’re qualifying playmakers as those who catch passes. Brandon Hayes has been solid on the ground for Memphis, and his 31-yard TD jaunt last week against Cincinnati was certainly a “play.”) Joe Craig leads Memphis with 26 receptions, but averages barely 10 yards a catch (272 yards). Mose Frazier has shown the ability to catch the ball downfield (he averages 17.4 yards per catch), but has only caught 14 balls and scored a single touchdown. Depending on how you measure, the Tigers dropped between six and ten passes in their loss to Cincinnati, killing “plays” and leading to a miserable two-for-twelve conversion rate on third down. You know the best place to find playmakers? In the winning locker room.
• I don’t like the Tigers’ new chrome helmets. I’ve tried to let them grow on me, but I liked them less in the Cincinnati game than I did in the opener against Duke. And I have three primary gripes:
1) The Tigers have a cool logo. That tiger leaping through a bold “M” is a brand instantly recognizable, here and abroad. (As nice as the Grizzlies’ logo is, it doesn’t incorporate the one letter that most says “Memphis.”) Unless you’re standing on the sidelines at the Liberty Bowl, a logo is impossible to see on those chrome domes. The sheer brightness of their reflection prevents your eye from absorbing a logo, much less blue tiger stripes as they wore against the Bearcats. (Try black for those stripes if the helmets are used again.)
2) There’s a sameness to the chrome look. We can thank Phil Knight and Nike for this trend in college football, but silver and gold are not (and will never be) the primary colors for this sport. I know the team when I see a crimson helmet, have a pretty good guess when I see a bare white helmet, and can sure as hell see a certain orange T on a non-chrome helmet. Here’s hoping this love affair with a chrome sparkle is temporary.
3) Memphis just isn’t a chrome town. “Shiny” is not an adjective often used in describing the Bluff City or its people. It certainly doesn’t apply to its teams. There’s a reason “grit” and “grind” took hold of this community two years ago. The still-struggling Tiger football program may shine under Justin Fuente in the near future. Let’s not pretend it is now.
• For a team sporting a 1-6 record, every game is a big game. And when UT-Martin visits the Liberty Bowl this Saturday afternoon, it’s a must-win for the Tigers. The U of M has been “competitive” all season long . . . with a single win to show for it. With an FCS program across the field this weekend, there’s no room for the “competitive” angle. The Skyhawks (6-3 on the season) are literally undermanned as FCS programs are limited to 63 scholarship players (compared with 85 for FBS teams). Having won last season in the Liberty Bowl — 20-17 in Justin Fuente’s debut as head coach — UT-Martin will take the field believing it can win its biggest game of the season. This is a team that blew out its last two opponents (38-14 over Austin Peay and 45-17 over Murray State), averages 423.7 yards of offense per game and 26.6 points. Beat the Skyhawks and Memphis has something to build upon entering the final third of the season. Lose a second straight game to an FCS program and the balance of the season will feel like recovery mode at best. It’s a must-win for the home team.