TTT is back! Check in every Tuesday for a test of your Memphis Tiger wisdom. From the merely memorable to the unforgettable, Tiger history will unfold one simple question at a time (with answers posted on Thursdays).
The 2012 Tiger football team finished its season with three straight wins. It was only the third such finish for the U of M since 1976. What were the other two seasons during this stretch in which Memphis won (at least) its final three games? And how did the Tigers do the following year?
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.
Even by modern standards, this was a story that shot out of the gate . . . whether or not it ever had legs. With speculation spiking over Josh Pastner's future — vacancies at Minnesota, USC, and UCLA! — the Tiger coach confirmed Tuesday that he will return to Memphis for a fifth season and, based on new contract terms, beyond. (It should be noted that Pastner just completed the second year of a five year contract that was paying him $1.7 million annually through the 2015-16 season.)
Pastner and U of M athletic director Tom Bowen met briefly with the press this afternoon at the Hardaway Hall of Fame on campus. Describing the new agreement with Pastner as "sound" and "long-term," Bowen declined to share details of the extension (number of years or annual salary). Bowen said the process for the new agreement began several months ago. Pastner said he did not receive any job offers since the Tigers' season ended Saturday.
Pastner earned his first win as a head coach in the NCAA tournament last Thursday when Memphis beat Saint Mary's in Auburn Hills. The team won Conference USA's regular season title for a second straight year, and the C-USA tournament for the third year in a row. The Tigers completed their final season in C-USA with a record of 31-5 (19-0 in league play). After four seasons, Pastner holds a record of 106-34.
A few highlights from the press conference (all quotes from Josh Pastner):
"I'm very grateful to be the head coach at Memphis. It's a privilege. Tiger Nation is phenomenal, the best fan base in the entire country. Even in times of loss, that's what makes it great: their passion and involvement."
On being contacted by the likes of UCLA or USC about coaching vacancies:
"When you've done a good job, your name is going to be thrown out there. I don't think there are any issues with talking as long as your bosses are kept in the loop, and that goes for any walk of life. That means you're doing a good job. Memphis is an elite job. Ninety-nine percent of programs are on page 9-C. Here, we're on page 1-C."
On the subject of his new raise:
"I'm a pretty simple guy. I believe in giving back [to the community]. Whether it's right or wrong, coaches' salaries are about the market. I like to help as many causes as I can, whether it's with my time or financially. I never let anyone pick up the tab at dinner, and I tip very well. Everything's a gift. I don't take this for granted. I'll be the same guy."
Seven of eight rotation players are eligible to return for the 2013-14 season. In addition to four seniors, though, six more players are graduating either in May or August. On the subject of his core players returning:
"I've started to meet with all the players. First and foremost, I want the guys to finish academically. The new rule with the NBA, you only have until April 15th. You're in or you're out. I never tell the guys what they should do. They have to make the best decision for them. But I believe our core group will be back. We have a chance to be really special next year. We could be a preseason top-10 team. With tremendous exposure in the new league."
And the quote of the day:
"We will never not have good players. You have my word. A really good coach is one that can win with no talent. I never want to be a really good coach. I'll be happy being an average coach, and let's go get great players."
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 Tiger season came to a close Saturday afternoon in Auburn Hills, Michigan, Memphis falling to 9th-ranked Michigan State in the third round of the NCAA tournament. The U of M finishes the season with a record of 31-5, while the Spartans (27-8) advance to the Sweet 16 for the 11th time under coach Tom Izzo. Spartan guard Gary Harris scored 14 points before halftime and finished with a career-high 23 to lead all scorers.
Dreadful shooting — and a Spartan team that dominated with size and defensive pressure — doomed the Tigers. Memphis took 63 shots and missed 44 of them, the team's most misfires in a game this season. After starting the game four-for-16 and falling behind 26-13, the Tigers rallied with a 16-6 run before halftime. Geron Johnson hit a pair of three-pointers and senior forward D.J. Stephens blocked three shots to fuel the rally, which proved to be the last positive development of coach Josh Pastner's fourth season.
Coming out of the break, Memphis missed nine of its first ten shots, fell behind by 11 (43-32 with 12:45 to play) and things never improved. MSU big men Derrick Nix (13 points, 7 rebounds) and Adreian Payne (14 points, 11 rebounds) dominated at both ends with an all-too-predictable shut-down of their Tiger counterparts, Shaq Goodwin (scoreless with two rebounds) and Tarik Black (six points, two rebounds). The Spartans pulled down 41 rebounds to the Tigers' 25.
Junior guard Geron Johnson led the Tigers with 16 points and Joe Jackson added 12. No other Tiger scored more than six. Chris Crawford — the player who hit 19 three-pointers in three games at last week's Conference USA tournament — was 0 for five from three-point range.
The Tigers enter the offseason with six of seven rotation players eligible to return and with one of the top-ranked recruiting classes in the country on the way. At least three of those recruits — Nick King from East High School in Memphis, Austin Nichols from Briarcrest, and Kuran Iverson from Windsor, Connecticut — are expected to be in Pastner's 2013-14 rotation. Sophomore forward Adonis Thomas has long been expected to enter June's NBA draft, but his prospects have plummeted with a disappointing season.
Today's loss ends the college career of D.J. Stephens. C-USA's Defensive Player of the Year was a part of 106 victories as a Tiger.
Consider the first monkey of Josh Pastner's young coaching career safely removed from his back. With a narrow escape this afternoon in Auburn Hills, Michigan, the Memphis coach earned the first NCAA tournament win of his career. Now 31-4 on the season, the U of M advances to the third round of the Midwest regional, where they'll face 9th-ranked Michigan State. The Spartans (26-8) beat Valparaiso, 65-54, on the same floor where the Tigers and Gaels played.
The Tigers utilized a 19-2 run over a nine-minute stretch of the first half to take a 28-13 lead. Back-to-back three pointers by Adonis Thomas and Joe Jackson keyed the run, along with five points from Tarik Black on consecutive possessions less than four minutes before halftime. The Gaels' star point guard, Matt Dellavedova missed six of his eight shots in the first half and Saint Mary's misfired on all six of their three-point attempts before the break.
In the second half, the Tiger offense froze, scoring only four points in over eight minutes of action. The Gaels drew within three (36-33), before Memphis countered. A dunk by D.J. Stephens (over Dellavedova in the snapshot of the game) and a three-pointer from junior guard Chris Crawford (his first points of the game after an MVP weekend at the Conference USA tournament) gave the Tigers a 44-35 lead with seven minutes to play.
His team down four with 4:15 to go, Dellavedova went to the foul line and missed the first of a one-and-one. When Joe Jackson followed with a trey from the top of the arc, the Tigers had a seven-point cushion (47-40). They would need virtually all of it over the game's final four minutes.
A pair of missed free throws — one by Jackson, another by Stephens — kept the Gaels close enough for desperation shots inside the final minute. When just such a shot by Eividas Petrulis— from behind the arc, off the glass — fell threw the net with 1.9 seconds to play, the Memphis lead was reduced to 54-52. Making matters that much worse, the Tigers turned the ball over on the ensuing inbounds play, a pass from Thomas deflecting off Jackson's hands. Dellavedova received the inbounds pass that followed and overshot a three-point attempt at the buzzer.
The loss was the first for Saint Mary's to a team not named Gonzaga since Christmas. The win for Memphis is the program's first in the NCAA tournament since 2009, and the first in three attempts by veterans Jackson, Black, Crawford, and Stephens.
Jackson led Memphis with 14 points, while Thomas and Black added 12 each. The Tigers blocked 12 Saint Mary's shots, eight of them by Stephens, C-USA's Defensive Player of the Year.
Memphis has beaten Michigan State in the only two meetings between the schools, the last coming in the 2008 NCAAs. With one monkey removed from Pastner's back, here's another: he's 0-11 against ranked teams.
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.
Not since 2003 — when they played in The Pyramid — had the Memphis Tigers' drawn as large a crowd (of players) for Senior Day as they did in today's regular-season finale at FedExForum. The pregame ceremony stirred 18,289 Tiger fans as it always does, and three of those seniors — Charles Holt, Stan Simpson, and Ferrakohn Hall — received a farewell ovation unlike any they'll ever experience again. For the fourth senior, though, it must have seemed like your average home game . . . just turned up a notch.
"It was the perfect day for me," said that senior, forward D.J. Stephens. "To have all four of us on the court near the end of the game, and getting the win."
The Tigers allowed an overmatched UAB team within a single point (45-44) before erupting for 41 points in a 12-minute span to secure their 27th win of the season and complete a 16-game whitewashing of Conference USA. The win ends the 18th and final regular season for Memphis as members of C-USA. They'll travel to Tulsa next week for the league tournament, opening with a quarterfinal game on Thursday.
"To go 16-0 in league play is special," said Tiger coach Josh Pastner after his 102nd win as Memphis coach. "You don't take that for granted. Tremendous win. And the way the season started, with lots of darts and arrows being thrown at us. You appreciate this; it isn't a birthright. We have tremendous young men, academically, socially, and athletically."
Junior guard Joe Jackson did all he could to steal the spotlight from Stephens, falling but a rebound shy of the program's fourth triple-double. Teammate Chris Crawford (who scored a game-high 20 points) pointed out that Jackson wasn't all that far from a quadruple-double: 17 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds, and six steals. "Joe was awesome, with a capital A," said Pastner. "He dominated on 50-50 balls today, and that's what this team is about."
Rounding out the guard-dominated performance for Memphis was junior Geron Johnson with 19 points, four assists, and three steals. As a team, the Tigers picked up 22 assists on the 30 field goals they converted, a percentage that keeps the head coach smiling.
As for Stephens, the Texas native finished one of the most unlikely seasons in Memphis history by scoring 13 points (on five of six shooting) and grabbing eight rebounds and three steals. After the final buzzer, Stephens delivered a parting kiss . . . to the rim on his team's side of the floor.
"Everybody kept telling me to kiss the tiger [logo at midcourt], but that's been done before," said Stephens. "A couple of days ago, Shaq [Goodwin] jumped to see how high his head could get. I went right after him, and when I jumped, I actually looked down at the rim a bit. Man, that was kind of cool. I just wanted to be remembered for something different."
The win ends an annual series between Memphis and UAB that dates back to the 1990-91 season, a series the Tigers have dominated (35-10), but one special to fans of both programs for the connection to the late Hall of Fame coach, Gene Bartow. Did the meaning of the game — and his unique senior moment — make for an emotional afternoon for Stephens?
"I was actually more happy than anything," said Stephens. "To be able to walk out there with the people who brought me into the world, and my girlfriend . . . my future wife. She's pregnant, so in a way she walked out there with our child. For them to be with me in a moment like that, it means a lot."
September 7 — Duke (3:30)
September 14 — at Middle Tennessee (TBD)
September 21 — Arkansas State (3:30)
October 5 — UCF (3:30)
October 12 — at Houston (TBD)
October 19 — SMU (3:30)
October 30 — Cincinnati (TBD)
November 9 — UT-Martin (3:30)
November 16 — at USF (TBD)
November 23 — at Louisville (TBD)
November 30 — Temple (3:30)
December 7 — at UConn (TBD)
When Memphis fans reflect on the Tigers' pending exit from Conference USA, the team fans may most rejoice in leaving behind: the UTEP Miners. Whether in the cozy quarters of FedExForum or at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso, UTEP has been the splinter lodged quasi-permanently between the toes of the Tiger basketball program over the last four years.
Though one more C-USA tournament remains to be played, Memphis may have finally removed the splinter with tonight's 56-54 escape in Texas. A game that featured 15 lead changes wasn't decided until UTEP's Jacques Streeter missed a desperation heave just inside the midcourt stripe as time expired. Streeter stole an inbounds pass intended for Joe Jackson after the Tigers had retained possession following a missed free throw by Tarik Black. The splinter was that stubborn. The win was that ugly.
Junior forward Adonis Thomas hit a three-pointer to give the Tigers the lead for good (54-51) with just under three minutes to play. Down 56-53 with 5.3 seconds left, the Miners had a chance to tie the game when Black fouled UTEP's C.J. Cooper well behind the three-point arc. But Cooper missed the first of three free throws (and intentionally missed the third, which was rebounded by Black).
Chris Crawford came off the bench and led the Tigers with 15 points, while Thomas added 11 and nine rebounds. Geron Johnson contributed with 10 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals. Senior forward D.J. Stephens was limited to eight minutes of playing time by an aggravation of his asthma condition.
The win improves the Tigers' record to 26-4 and 15-0 in Conference USA play. A victory this Saturday against UAB at FedExForum (on Senior Day) would give the U of M its fourth undefeated season atop the league it leaves behind with next week's tournament at Tulsa. Among the teams coach Josh Pastner would prefer not facing in the C-USA tourney? The UTEP Miners.
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.
The Tigers played the first six minutes of today's game at UCF with a lingering hangover from their deflating loss at Xavier last Tuesday. Boosted by the energy of Senior Day, the Knights stormed out to a 14-4 lead as Memphis missed 10 of its first 11 shots. UCF still led with 5 minutes to play before halftime (21-20), but the Tigers closed the half on a 14-8 run thanks largely to 11 points in four minutes from junior guard Chris Crawford (nine of them on three long-range jumpers).
UCF tied the game at 38 early in the second half when Knight senior Keith Clanton — the program's career leader in games played — scored nine straight points. But the Tigers gradually pulled away, extending their lead to nine (52-43) on a Joe Jackson trey with 12:30 left in the game. Jackson and Crawford each scored 19 points for the game while Adonis Thomas added 12. Clanton led all scorers with 29 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field.
The Tigers were able to rattle their hosts with defense, picking up 10 steals and forcing a total of 15 turnovers. Crawford had three thefts and junior center Tarik Black picked up four before fouling out late in the second half.
The victory improves the Tigers' record to 25-4 and gives coach Josh Pastner the 100th win of his four-year career. (Pastner will turn 36 in September.) Memphis is now 14-0 in Conference USA play with two games remaining in the regular season: Tuesday at UTEP and next Saturday when they host UAB at FedExForum for Senior Day.
Goodbye Top 20.
The newly crowned Conference USA champions traveled to Xavier for a rare February nonconference game and lost to a team currently sixth in the Atlantic 10 standings. That hum you hear is the nationwide harmonizing of C-USA critics. Memphis can beat up on its inferior league brethren, but . . . .
Down 31-20 at halftime, the Tigers staged a rally in the second half built largely on a flurry of three-pointers over a three-and-a-half-minute stretch. Junior guard Geron Johnson (from nearby Dayton, Ohio) hit a trey from the right corner at the 9:50 mark to pull the Tigers within five points (41-36). With two from Chris Crawford and two more from Johnson, Memphis took its first lead of the night (50-49) with 6:25 left in the game. A dunk by Tarik Black gave the Tigers a 52-49 lead, but the margin would not be extended.
A driving layup by Joe Jackson with 1:55 on the clock gave the Tigers their last lead of the night (57-55), as Xavier's Brad Redford hit a three-pointer on the Musketeers' next possession. Johnson missed the first free throw on a one-and-one and D.J. Stephens missed a pair from the line with just over a minute to play.
Down 60-59 with 29 seconds to play, Tiger coach Josh Pastner used a timeout to set his offense. Jackson took the inbounds pass, drove into the lane and dished to a wide-open Crawford in the left corner. Crawford's shot was awry, though. Down two after a missed free throw by Travis Taylor at the other end, Stephens pulled down a rebound only to throw his outlet pass off of Crawford's knee.
With Xavier up 64-61 with 1.5 seconds on the clock, the Tigers attempted a desperation pass-and-shoot from under the Musketeer basket. Stephens drew a foul, made the first free throw, then failed to hit the rim on an intentional miss, giving Xavier possession . . . and the win.
The Tigers were led on the scoreboard by Johnson (14 points), Jackson (11), and Crawford (10).
The loss ends the Tigers' 18-game winning streak, the team's longest in four years under Pastner. (The U of M's 11-game road winning streak is also over, a run that dates back to the 2011-12 season.) They'll next play Saturday at UCF, with hopes of remaining undefeated in C-USA. What remains to be determined is how impressed the NCAA tournament-selection committee will be with the Tigers' C-USA record, spotless or otherwise.
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.
The Tigers won their second straight Conference USA regular-season championship Saturday with a rather thorough dismantling of the league's second-best team. A midcourt steal followed by a breakaway dunk by junior guard Geron Johnson spurred an 18-3 run to end the first half, giving Memphis a 46-30 lead. Southern Miss would get no closer than 12 the rest of the way as the 21st-ranked Tigers secured their 18th consecutive win and improved to 24-3 on the season.
"To win a conference championship over a two-and-a-half-month period . . . that's not easy to do," said Memphis coach Josh Pastner after the game. "Especially when you're picked to win it, and you're getting everyone's best shot. To fight through all the negativity back in November, to stay together and get to this point is a tremendous testament of character to these young men."
Memphis fans likely saw the last of a longtime Tiger rival as Southern Miss will remain in C-USA when the U of M moves to the Big East next season. The victory was the 40th for Memphis in 48 games against the Eagles here in the Bluff City.
Senior guard Dwayne Davis did all he could to keep things tight, scoring 18 points in the first half and 28 for the game. His efforts, though, were thwarted by a Tiger team that shared the ball exquisitely with 25 assists on 29 field goals. It was the fifth time in seven games Memphis has accumulated at least 20 assists. Johnson had seven helpers, Shaq Goodwin five, and Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford four each.
"We're an unselfish team, spreading the ball around to everybody," said Jackson, who added 15 points to his line. "We feed off each other. When you've got four or five guys who can pass, shoot, and dribble, it makes the game easy. We won a conference championship last year, but it's so different. We pay attention to detail better than we did last year. We're more unselfish. There are good teams and bad teams in the conference; Southern Miss is a good one. But we've got to treat everyone like they're good."
Junior guard Chris Crawford heated up late in the first half, hitting four three-pointers to help fuel the burst before halftime. He finished with five treys (tying a career high) and scored 19 points. D.J. Stephens scored 16 points (three more dunks) and blocked five shots. Goodwin added 19 points, his most since the December 5th win over Ohio.
"Two of our goals before the season were a conference championship and an NCAA championship," said Goodwin. "We got one of them, so let's go on to the next. We know we have a team full of scorers, but we have to play together. This is more than basketball. We decided to look at this as something bigger, like life. I'm from out of town, so these are basically my brothers. Every time we go out there, we say 'Play for your brother next to you.' "
Pastner continues to relish the winning streak, the fifth-longest in the proud history of the program. "It shows you how great this program is, so much bigger than any coach or player," he said. "We've got 18 wins in a row. For most teams, that would be the longest in the history of the program. Here, it's fifth. That's crazy. It shows you how great the tradition is here. You're witnessing some beautiful basketball."
The Tigers won't return to FedExForum until March 9th (Senior Day). They travel to Cincinnati for a rare February nonconference tilt against Xavier on Tuesday. They'll then travel to UCF and UTEP before returning home.
NOTE: Pastner said there is a slight chance junior guard Antonio Barton — sidelined with a broken foot — could return for the March 9th game against UAB. More likely, he'll be in uniform when the Tigers play their first game at the C-USA tournament on March 14th.