• There were more than 40,000 empty seats at the Liberty Bowl last Saturday. With 16,241 tickets sold for the Tigers’ game against SMU, the football team drew 2,000 fewer fans than did the basketball team — for a glorified practice — the night before. (Granted, those basketball fans entered FedExForum for Memphis Madness with free tickets.) Just when you’d like to think second-year coach Justin Fuente has started a real movement, one that will hook a community supposedly desperate for good local football, along come the Mustangs for an 11 a.m. kickoff. And with the dawn of college basketball season to provide an ugly contrast.
The Liberty Bowl is too big for the Tiger program (broken-record alert). Saturday was gray and gloomy — before kickoff — and the game started before most Memphians had digested breakfast. But this was the city’s flagship college program hosting a conference foe in mid-October. If such a contest can’t fill the Liberty Bowl to half its capacity, the statement for the future of Tiger football isn’t loud and proud, but meek and weak. Recruits do their homework. That pocket-collapsing pass-rusher from the Sunshine State? He can do the math on 16,000 fans in a 60,000-seat stadium. And Memphis just got crossed off his list of possible visits.
I’ll say this: Those fans sitting in the Liberty Bowl at halftime last Saturday are my favorite sports fans in Memphis. (There weren’t 16,000 left in the second half.) Their team down by four touchdowns (with a blustery wind making a cool day colder), those football fans in blue define “diehard” for me. They deserve better than the Tigers showed in the first half Saturday. When Fuente apologized before opening his postgame remarks, he was apologizing to them. There aren’t all that many, but those fans are the faces of the Memphis football program.
• With the Tigers down 31-3 at halftime, chatter in the press box centered on senior backup quarterback Jacob Karam. Might Fuente put Karam in the game to provide a spark to open the second half? It’s the nature of football: the backup-QB “spark.” Had Fuente replaced his entire offensive line for a series, a message would certainly have been delivered . . . but a spark created?
Paxton Lynch is Fuente’s guy. Resist this as the losses mount and you’re only complicating the frustration of cheering a team with multiple gaps yet to fill. Fuente gave the job to Lynch the second week of training camp in August, all but telling any followers of his program that one quarterback is head and shoulders better than the others on the roster (in Lynch’s case, literally). And when the keys are handed to a superior signal-caller, that includes driving along bumpy stretches of the road. The first time Lynch is removed in the name of a proverbial “spark,” he’ll be checking the sideline every time a play or drive goes sour. And that kind of anxiety compromises a quarterback’s ability to lead.
Jacob Karam is a prince of a human being, and a good backup quarterback. Period.
• At the season’s midway point, the Tigers find themselves with the same record (1-5) they held halfway through the 2012 season. Any signs of progress? Not much in terms of scoring, as the team is averaging 20.2 points per game compared with 18.3 after six games last year. (And remember 14 points last Saturday were courtesy of linebacker Ryan Coleman.) But the Memphis defense is allowing considerably fewer points (22.5 per game, compared with 31.7 in ’12) and yards (331.0, compared with 423.3). And while the offense isn’t reaching the end zone more frequently, it is moving the football, averaging 359.7 yards per game, compared with 288.2 after six games last season.
• Beyond wins and losses, it’s hard to quantify the rebuilding progress of a college football program. However you view the second year of Justin Fuente’s master project, more people are viewing it with you. Tickets sold for the Tigers’ first three home games of 2012 looked like this: 39,076 . . . 27,113 . . . 17,831 (total of 84,020). And this year’s numbers: 44,237 . . . 36,279 . . . 30,274 (total of 110,790). Using the clearest gauge we have for community interest, Tiger football is up 31 percent from this point a year ago.
Better yet, there’s the “feel” of progress. Every game Memphis has played has been competitive, save their blowout victory over Arkansas State. Freshman quarterback Paxton Lynch seems like the football equivalent of a Triple-A prospect at AutoZone Park: glimpses of raw talent, with the best yet to come. The Tiger defense (third in the American) has shown strength from the line to the secondary. The program is still closing a gap, to be sure, but there’s reason to believe victories are on the way. After the loss to UCF last Saturday, Fuente was asked how he would handle such a crushing loss, and he responded with what amounts to a summary of his program’s growth: “When we got here, there were no crushing losses. They were just getting crushed.”
• Before every season, we examine a schedule and mark what we consider “winnable” games. Then, of course, the season starts and what we saw on paper is chewed up and regurgitated by actual football teams, actual players. A month into the season, four American opponents the Tigers have yet to play have combined for a record of 2-17. Memphis will host SMU (1-4) and Temple (0-5); they’ll travel to USF (1-4) and UConn (0-4). Throw in UT-Martin, and today’s paper tells us a strong second half of the season could yield as many as six Tiger wins . . . and bowl eligibility. The midweek game against Cincinnati (at the Liberty Bowl on Wednesday, October 30th) could prove to be a season tipping point. Much to follow in the coming weeks.
• Memphis and Houston should be bitter rivals. Tigers vs. Cougars (cat fight!). Grizzlies vs. Rockets (NBA fight!). FedEx vs. NASA (flight fight!). Need more? In 1997, the NFL’s Oilers left the Astrodome for the Liberty Bowl (insert snicker). Yet despite 17 years in Conference USA together — and now a partnership in the American — Memphis and Houston don’t seem to rile one another all that much. The Cougars lead the series 12-9 (7-5 since the schools joined C-USA in 1996) and have won the last three meetings, putting up more than 50 points in 2009 (at Houston ) and 2010 (at Memphis). This is a game every Memphis fan should have circled in red(!) on their schedules.
Saturday could get ugly. Coach Tony Levine’s staff has had two weeks to prepare for the Tigers. One of the last two undefeated teams in the American (along with Louisville), the Cougars have averaged 43.5 points per game and lead the league in total offense (534.0 yards per game). After their last game, quarterback John O’Korn and cornerback William Jackson were honored with the American’s offensive and defensive player of the week, respectively. The game will surely tilt on Houston’s running attack. If the Cougars approach their average of 226.5 yards per game, the Tigers will come home for SMU with a 1-4 record. If the Memphis defense can keep things closer to the 81.3 yards its last three opponents have averaged on the ground, we might see another game decided in the fourth quarter.
• Let’s stop measuring the strength of the Memphis program relative to its neighbors in the SEC. (Remember, the Tigers have gone 2-25 against NFL Lite since beating Tennessee in that “program-changing” upset . . . 17 years ago.) If we’re trying to establish where Memphis might go, how prominent the Tigers might become on the college football landscape, we need to look at this week’s opponent at the Liberty Bowl. George O’Leary’s UCF Knights are the gold standard. Said Memphis coach Justin Fuente at his Monday press conference, “They’re fundamentally sound and they play hard, smart and tough. You very rarely see them hurt themselves or see them make silly mistakes.”
O’Leary took over the program in 2004, only its ninth in Division I. And UCF stunk up the place (0-11) for exactly one season. In 2005 — playing in Conference USA for the first time, which helps — UCF went 8-5 and played in its first bowl game (a loss to Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl). The Knights have since had three 10-win seasons, played in the C-USA championship game four times (winning twice), and played in four more bowl games (they’re 1-1 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl). This year they’ve already beaten Penn State and made South Carolina sweat considerably. With Louisville leaving the American next season, UCF will be the face of this new football conference. The Tigers’ annual meeting with this team is a new and valuable litmus test for a program seeking relevance.
• Among several promising sights in the Tigers’ win over Arkansas State two weeks ago, one stood out: the pass rush. Led by junior end Martin Ifedi (2.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss), the Tigers tied a program record with seven sacks, all but grounding the Red Wolves’ passing game. Despite playing only three games, Memphis leads the American Athletic Conference with 13 sacks for the season (the rest of the league has played four games each). Compare this total with 29 in 12 games last season, and you have the kind of trend that could impact a won-lost record. Andre Arnold holds the program’s single-season record for sacks with 13 (in 2000). Ifedi (5.5 through three games) could reach that mark by Halloween.
• Entering the season, Fuente emphasized that this year’s team has the kind of depth that will allow the coaching staff to make choices when it comes to attacking an opponent. There are multiple weapons along the defensive line (five players were in on the seven sacks against ASU) and, after what we saw two weeks ago, there may be a threatening tandem of Tiger tailbacks. Senior Brandon Hayes is the top returning rusher (576 yards in 2012), so his 114 yards — and 6.3 average on 18 carries — was pleasant, but can’t be called a surprise. But freshman Marquis Warford? Who had the diminutive Texan (he stands 5’8”) averaging 15.7 yards on 11 carries in his third college game? No way do these kind of numbers repeat themselves Saturday against UCF. But if the Tigers’ current version of Thunder & Lightning (my buddy Greg Gaston prefers to keep it local and call them “Hustle & Flow”) can find holes through a still-evolving Tiger offensive line, Memphis can control the clock to a degree, and limit the chances Knight quarterback Blake Bortles has to light up the scoreboard.
• Third Down Stinks
Compare the numbers from last year’s Duke game and last Saturday’s, and there’s one stat line that is particularly ugly (and familiar): the Tigers’ conversion rate on third down. In 2012, Memphis converted but one of 11 third-down opportunities at Duke. This year, the figure was two for 13. Related to these numbers, a year ago Memphis made only nine first downs against the Blue Devils. This year: 12. Throw the figures in a bag, shake it and this is what you get: Duke ran 84 plays against Memphis in 2012 and 82 this year. The Tigers ran but 50 plays a year ago and 57 last Saturday. Forget the disparity in overall strength, speed, and talent. If I let your team run 25 plays more than I get to run . . . I lose the game.
Memphis faced too many third-and-longs in its opener, partly the result of its running game averaging 2.7 yards per play. The Blue Devil front seven is a veteran unit, one of the best the Tigers will face this season. So credit to a defense for making third down so uncomfortable. But the U of M will have to improve its third-down conversion rate before the numbers that matter — on the scoreboard — show improvement.
• Fourth Down Ain’t That Bad
There are football fans who will tell you “star punter” is an oxymoron. Very few of those fans (none?) look forward to seeing the guy with the big leg trot on the field after another failure on third down. Here in Memphis, though, we should enjoy the Tom Hornsey Show while we can. For the Tigers are suiting up the best college punter on (at least) two continents.
Following the Tigers’ second drive of the season last Saturday (yep, a three-and-out), Hornsey trotted onto the field, the ball on his team’s 18-yard-line. By the time he finished his work, Duke had possession . . . on its own 3-yard-line. The 79-yard punt was the second-longest in Memphis history (Roland Eveland kicked one 85 yards in 1950). Now remember, a punt’s distance is measured from the line of scrimmage, though the punter stands roughly 15 yards behind the line when the ball is snapped. Last Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, an Australian punter with a leg that would be the envy of any kangaroo essentially punted a football the entire length of the field. Those who saw it will remember it. And Hornsey will help the Tigers win football games this year. Cheer him while you can.
• A Raider Rivalry
The best college football team in Tennessee plays in Nashville these days. The historical power in Knoxville is scratching its way back to respectability. But neither Vanderbilt nor Tennessee is on the Memphis schedule, making it imperative that the Tigers win their game in Murfreesboro this Saturday. Lose to Middle Tennessee — from Conference USA! — and the Tigers will spend the next three months knowing they are the fourth-ranked team in the Volunteer State.
Don’t like the concept of Memphis-Middle being a “rivalry game”? Perhaps it’s worth reconsidering. Since renewing a long-dormant series in 2007, the Blue Raiders have won four of five meetings, including two at the Liberty Bowl. Quarterback Logan Kilgore will be familiar to Memphis fans, having thrown for 253 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last year’s game. Sophomore tailback Jordan Parker has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the Raiders’ first two contests. Saturday night will be a battle, one worthy of intrastate rivals.
In some respects, Tarik Black’s three years at the University of Memphis unfolded as an inversion of your typical college life. Arriving in 2010 as a top-50 recruit and hometown favorite from Ridgeway High School, Black was supposed to fill a two-year void at the center position, one created with the departure of Joey Dorsey after the 2007-08 Final Four run. When he announced today that he would transfer (and pursue a master’s degree elsewhere), Black essentially left that same void he found three seasons ago, one he and freshman Shaq Goodwin were unable to fill, especially with the likes of Michigan State on the same court.
Black had better hands offensively than Dorsey the first night he took the court for the Tigers. And his presence in the locker room was that of a veteran leader: a quick smile, eye contact with media types, a willingness to acknowledge shortcomings as well as strengths. Black would be named captain of his team as a sophomore. Players two years his senior would follow Black’s lead.
But then his junior season arrived. Black was the only Tiger named to Conference USA’s preseason all-league team, and that would be, all things considered, the highlight of his 2012-13 campaign. After starting the Tigers’ first five games (including the 1-2 trip to the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend), Black’s downward spiral began with his storming out of a late-November practice, the frustration of his team’s disappointing start fracturing what seemed to be the strongest pillar of leadership on coach Josh Pastner’s squad. The preseason All-CUSA center was suspended for the Tigers’ next game (a win over UT-Martin) and would not start another game for Memphis. Black’s last hurrah, ironically, came against the team that would win the national championship. He had 21 points in 22 minutes off the bench against Louisville — minus Gorgui Dieng — on December 15th. Fittingly, Memphis lost the game.
Black’s numbers weren’t horrible last season (8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game). They just weren’t the kind of numbers that would make local fans forget Lorenzen Wright. Or Chris Massie, for that matter. Even with added weight, the 6-9, 260-pound Black played smaller than he was. Over a six-game stretch in February, Black grabbed no more than three rebounds. He blocked 20 shots in 32 games (after rejecting 56 in 35 games as a freshman). Four Tigers made at least third-team All-CUSA, and none of them were named Tarik Black. As for that void in the pivot, Goodwin replaced Black in the starting lineup and averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds, numbers that won’t make local fans forget . . . well, Tarik Black.
Black leaves the Tiger program just 51 points shy of the 1,000-point club. Having graduated in three years (with a degree in organizational leadership), Black deserved a Senior Day at FedExForum, one he’ll now have to process through imagination, just like an NCAA tournament game in late March (or April). Perhaps he’ll enjoy a Senior Day at his next destination. (Degree in hand, he can play immediately.) Maybe he’ll find a team where he can blend as a role player and contribute to some postseason success.
Tarik Black’s a good man. And I’m convinced he’ll lead other men someday. There are life stages, alas, when familiarity — of setting, of faces — stunts growth. A new challenge should fuel growth for Black, and basketball may prove to be merely incidental. I, for one, wish him success.
Meanwhile, Josh Pastner turns back to that void at center, a new season seven months away.
The 2012-13 Memphis Tigers won 31 games they were supposed to win. Cream-puff conference and soft nonconference schedule. (Though we should ask the New Mexico Lobos how soft Harvard is.)
The Tigers, when faced with stiff competition, lost all five times.
There are analysts, near and far, who will tell you today that Memphis just completed the most predictable season in the 83-year history of the program. They would be wrong.
One fact is as predictable as the flow of the Mississippi River, but it goes for every Tiger season: The coach is a failure without a run in the NCAA tournament. (And a two-point win over a “first four” survivor doesn’t count as a run.) However positive his pitch, Josh Pastner will have to coach his team to the second or third week of the NCAAs before he’ll be universally accepted by the program’s legion of passionate followers. This fact is predictable, tiring, and won’t be discussed further in this column.
What was surprising about the 2012-13 Tiger season? Let’s examine things from the perspective of the seven players who finished the season in Pastner’s rotation.
Joe Jackson is a mercurial, me-first point guard who will lose as many games as he wins.
Tiger fans were shaking their heads last November 23rd, when Jackson seemed to quit during the Tigers’ loss to Minnesota in the Bahamas. After playing seven uninspired minutes in the first half, Jackson watched from the bench the entire second half. It was no place to be for a veteran point guard, one who had earned MVP honors at the Conference USA tournament as both a freshman and sophomore.
It was the last truly “bad Joe” we’d see all season. Jackson reeled off 16 consecutive games with at least 10 points, including 23 against mighty Louisville and 20 at Tennessee. In scoring 26 at East Carolina on January 30th, Jackson joined the 1,000-point club just 20 games into his junior season. In the regular-season finale, he came one rebound shy of the program’s fourth triple-double. (Heart? Jackson led the Tigers with seven rebounds in their NCAA tournament loss to Michigan State.) His numbers for the season were hardly off the charts: 13.6 points and 4.8 assists per game. But this was Jackson’s team, and for his efforts in leading the Tigers’ 19-0 farewell tour of the league, he was named C-USA’s Player of the Year.
NBA-bound Adonis Thomas will carry this club before hearing his name called as a lottery pick in June’s draft.
Surprises aren’t always pleasing. Has there been a more disappointing Tiger to earn all-conference accolades? (Thomas was named to C-USA’s third team, in itself a disappointment.) Entering his sophomore campaign, Thomas intended to show fans (and importantly, pro scouts) what he wasn’t able to show them during a freshman season compromised by injury. Reasonable expectations would be for the former McDonald’s All-America to average 16 points and six rebounds. He averaged 11.7 and 4.5. Worse were the random disappearing acts. On four occasions, Thomas played at least 20 minutes and grabbed nary a rebound. If you were ranking “go-to” players for the 2012-13 Tigers, Thomas — not so long ago considered a future lottery pick — would be no higher than fourth.
D.J. Stephens is a sweet role player and the star of Memphis Madness. But perhaps worth a redshirt season as a senior.
You surely know his story by now. From “zero star” recruit (according to Pastner) to C-USA’s Defensive Player of the Year, a rim-kissing highlight reel who blocked shots into popcorn vendors and decided how he would deliver a dunk in mid-flight. Stephens saw his playing time increase from 8.3 minutes as a junior to 23.6 this season. He led C-USA with 95 blocked shots and personified the commodity Pastner holds dearest: energy. Perhaps the greatest surprise of all coming out of this Tiger season is the fact D.J. Stephens is on the NBA radar. Should he make The Association, few will have traveled further to do so.
The team’s only all-conference player is junior center Tarik Black.
The pride of Ridgeway High was the only Memphis player to make C-USA’s preseason all-conference team. At season’s end, four Tigers made at least the third team, and none of them were named Tarik Black. Showing leadership since he arrived as a freshman, Black was named a captain (along with Jackson and Chris Crawford) at the start of the season. He then walked out of a practice and found himself suspended for the team’s sixth game of the season. Coming off the bench for freshman Shaq Goodwin, Black never found a groove, his scoring average dropping from 10.7 as a junior to 8.1 and his rebounds from 4.9 to 4.8 (though in five fewer minutes per game). The most likeable Tiger this side of Stephens, a motivated Black could prove invaluable next winter.
Geron Johnson is trouble walking, a time bomb.
Kicked off three teams before he arrived in Memphis, Johnson seemed to defy “the Pastner way”: all positive, all the time. As things turned out, Johnson became the proverbial “glue guy” for these Tigers, the team’s defensive stopper (ask Saint Mary’s Matt Dellavedova) and a player ready and willing to bury shots with a game in the balance. On the road against Tennessee, SMU, and Southern Miss, Johnson drained clutch three-pointers when the Memphis lead had all but disappeared. And let’s remember he spearheaded the only Tiger run last Saturday against Michigan State with a pair of treys late in the first half. If Stephens represents “the great story” of this season, Johnson isn’t far behind as a very good one.
Shaq Goodwin will bring size and strength that pushes this team into the realm of elite.
He started 33 games as a freshman (and the Tigers won 29 of them). He pulled down 12 rebounds in his sixth college game and scored 20 points in his seventh. So why does it feel like we didn’t see the entire Shaq package? His 7.4 points per game were seventh on the team. His 4.4 rebounds were fifth (and fewer than Johnson’s 4.6). Goodwin scored 10 points in but two of the Tigers’ last 15 games and was a nonfactor in the two NCAA tournament contests (zero points and three rebounds, combined). Much is expected of McDonald’s All-Americans. Goodwin may deliver yet, but he fell short as a freshman.
Chris Crawford is solid in several areas, but will never be a difference-maker.
Most athletes yearn for a game — one game — in which they can say they were The Man. For three games in three days in Tulsa earlier this month, Crawford — C-USA’s Sixth Man of the Year — was, indeed, The Man. The Tigers don’t win their third consecutive (and final) C-USA tournament without Crawford averaging 25.7 points and burying 19 three-pointers in wins over Tulane, Tulsa, and Southern Miss. He scored 11 points in the two overtimes against the Golden Eagles to prevent a loss that would have killed the team’s seeding for the NCAAs. In fact, Crawford’s was the most electrifying performance from any of the program’s seven C-USA tournament championships. Had that same Crawford shown up in the NCAA tournament (total of 11 points and one trey), this season recap may have appeared later.
By my count, there are 256 basketball teams that play in cream-puff conferences (it’s time we acknowledge the Atlantic 10 as a power conference). Exactly two of them won 30 games. Alas, Gonzaga has begun its offseason as well. Can a 31-5 team be considered a disappointment? That’s for you to decide. But predictable? No way.
The NCAA basketball tournament is a cruel event. No other sport requires a team play so many games to qualify, then delivers a series of pass/fail tests to earn a championship. One off night from your best shooter . . . season’s over. Foul trouble for your inside presence? Done. The opponent’s reserve shooting guard heats up from three-point country? Finito.
Talk in Memphis this week will center around a “must-win” Thursday, that if the 30-4 Tigers happen to fall to St. Mary’s or Middle Tennessee (teams that square off Tuesday night for the right to face the U of M), the season instantly goes down the tubes as a failure. The line of thinking is cruel . . . and honest. But it really applies to most of the 68 teams in your bracket this morning. Should the mighty Louisville Cardinals lose before the Final Four, Rick Pitino will join John Calipari in a Bluegrass State doghouse built for two. When teams lose to lower seeds this Thursday and Friday (and they will), they’ll go home with the same scarlet letter — “D” for disappointment — Memphis fans fear so greatly. It’s not all that unique.
Except it is for Tiger Nation. Conference USA has been summarily kicked out the back door, collectively victimized by a 19-0 farewell tour led by Player of the Year Joe Jackson, Coach of the Year Josh Pastner, and Defensive POY D.J. Stephens. Their reward? Could be a matchup with a program (MTSU) joining C-USA next season. The NCAA tournament is cruel, particularly when fate is twisted in knots of irony. Heaven forbid Memphis should fall to the Blue Raiders. With Tennessee and Vanderbilt safely dismissed by the selection committee, the Tigers are, at the very least, atop the state’s basketball pecking order. A must-win Thursday? If it’s the boys from Murfreesoboro on the other bench, put it in bold type. All caps.
• Should the Tigers advance to a second game (the “third round” as defined by the NCAA) and face Michigan State in Auburn Hills, you’ll be able to hear pressure released like that of an overheated steam engine. No chance for Memphis against the Spartans in what amounts to a road game. Tom Izzo will coach circles around the Tigers’ boy wonder. Twenty-five wins in the Big 10 vs. thirty in C-USA? No contest. It’s precisely the kind of game the Tigers should welcome. They’ve played with chips on their shoulders since bumbling around the Bahamas last November. Let it loose.
• There is no weapon in basketball like a hot shooter. And there aren’t many hotter entering the tournament than the Tigers’ Chris Crawford. Finally living up to his uniform number, Crawford has connected on 40 three-pointers in the Tigers’ last nine games (after hitting but 17 in the previous 17 games over two months). Needless to say, he’s the factor any Memphis opponent will consider most threatening this week. Crawford missed all five of his long-distance attempts last year against Saint Louis in the Dance (and hit two of five as a freshman against Arizona). If you’re taking the Tigers’ temperature early in Thursday’s game, focus on Crawford’s shooting touch.
• For each of the 68 teams in the field, there are three possible scenarios to every game: a blowout victory, a blowout loss, or a game that could go either way. The most likely, of course, is the third possibility. Which makes the Tigers’ double-overtime heart-stopper in last Saturday’s C-USA championship game the perfect dress rehearsal for the NCAAs. Maybe the Tigers win a blowout Thursday. Perhaps they get blown out (unlikely). But I don’t see them getting rattled on the big stage late in a tight game. Geron Johnson has made shots when things are tight. So has Joe Jackson and, for crying out loud, Chris Crawford. I see these Tigers as more battle-tested than the national analysts who can’t peer beyond the C-USA affiliation.
• Pastner has been forced to use what amounts to a seven-man rotation since Antonio Barton’s foot injury in early February. If the coach has a roster concern entering the tournament, it has to be the center position. Forget possible foul trouble to Shaq Goodwin or Tarik Black. When will one of the Tiger big men again have real impact on a game? Foul trouble or otherwise, it’s hard for two players with the talents of Shaq and Black to combine for two points in 50 minutes as they did in the C-USA title game. Goodwin pulled down seven boards against Southern Miss, his first game with as many as six since January 30th. Black has scored as many as 10 points once since January 22nd. Standard hoops theology says guard play wins in March. But particularly with Michigan State looming, a Tiger big man needs to play big.
• Back to that “must-win” scenario for the Tigers. Since Memphis won its first NCAA tournament game in 1973, the program has endured two droughts longer than three years without a win in the Dance, each of them spirit-threatening eight-year periods (1974-81 and 1996-2003). A loss Thursday would extend the current drought to four years and make for the longest offseason of Pastner’s still-young career. The NCAA tournament is a cruel test, indeed.
As the regular season's final week unfolds, a few thoughts to ponder:
• Last Tuesday’s loss at Xavier may have proven, once and for all, that Conference USA is college basketball’s kiddie pool. The league champion — 13-0 against its conference brethren — travels to face a foe sixth in the Atlantic 10, minus its point guard . . . and loses? There will be no sugarcoating the defeat come Selection Sunday for the NCAA tournament. The Musketeers lost to Pacific (at home). They lost to Vanderbilt (at home). They lost to Wofford (at home). But they beat the C-USA-champion Memphis Tigers.
The Tigers returned to C-USA competition Saturday at UCF, played dreadful basketball for the first ten minutes of the game . . . and led by five at halftime. What a difference a league makes.
• If you think the loss at Xavier on ESPN2 hurt the nation’s impression of the Tigers, imagine what a loss to a C-USA opponent might do. If coach Josh Pastner felt pressure to win in Cincinnati last week, he should know that the last two games on the Tigers’ regular-season schedule (at UTEP, UAB) and every game Memphis plays in the C-USA tournament (save the championship . . . maybe) is a must-win.
Let’s say the Tigers finish the regular season 27-4 (undefeated in C-USA) and suffer a monumental upset in the C-USA tourney quarterfinals. That would inspire some lengthy discussion in the NCAA selection room. The loss at Xavier eliminated any margin for error the Tigers may have enjoyed. They must hold serve and get out of the kiddie pool for good.
• It’s looking like the Tigers’ biggest win of the season came in Knoxville on January 4th. Tennessee’s recent wins over the reigning national champs (Kentucky) and a top-10 team (Florida) put that Memphis victory in new context. If only this brand of math translates in the NCAA selection room. (For that matter, the loss to a Minnesota team that beat the top-ranked squad in the country could paint the Memphis record a new shade. And VCU manhandled 20th-ranked Butler last Saturday. We’ll see.)
• Evidence that pressure to perform at Xavier entered the Tigers’ heads: 12 missed free throws in 18 attempts. You would have thought John Calipari stood on the sideline as one Tiger after another left points behind by damaging the rim with a foul shot. A team that had made 20 of 24 freebies in its previous game could hit only one third of its shots from the charity stripe. (They weren’t much better at UCF, hitting 12 of 21.) D.J. Stephens entered the Xavier game shooting 71 percent from the line. He made one of seven shots, missing a critical pair late when the game was very much there to be won. Geron Johnson — a 74-percent free-throw shooter — missed the front end of a one-and-one near the end. How does a player bury three long-distance shots to bring his team back . . . and miss a critical free throw? It’s all between the ears.
• Is it possible for a team to go undefeated in its league and not have the league’s player of the year on its roster? Could happen with these Tigers. The U of M’s top scorer, Joe Jackson, is 13th in C-USA (13.9 points per game). The Tigers’ top rebounder, D.J. Stephens, is 12th in the league (6.8). The team’s top pro prospect may be Geron Johnson, but are his numbers (10.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists) POY stuff? Tulane’s Josh Davis could lead the league in both scoring and rebounding. Preseason POY Keith Clanton of UCF has hardly been a disappointment (15.3 points, 8.6 rebounds). Tulane and UCF could each finish the season with 20 wins (kiddie pool alert), perhaps enough to earn their guy a trophy.
• The memory of last year’s one-and-out loss to Saint Louis in the NCAAs is all too fresh among Tiger fans. Then came VCU last November and now a crushing loss at Xavier. Tiger faithful may be thrilled to be leaving C-USA behind. They may be just as glad the program isn’t joining the Atlantic 10.
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.