Friday, November 25, 2016

Providence 60, Tigers 51

Posted By on Fri, Nov 25, 2016 at 10:51 PM

A college basketball team's season really doesn't begin until it takes the show on the road. The Tigers traveled to Destin, Florida, to face Providence in the semifinals of the Emerald Coast Classic Friday night, and played like a team starting its season. Memphis shot a miserable 34 percent from the field and missed 18 of 23 three-point attempts in falling to to the Friars for its first loss of the season. The Tigers are now 4-1, having taken their first four games against underwhelming competition at FedExForum.

Sophomore forward Dedric Lawson fell a rebound shy of his fifth straight double double (19 points and 9 rebounds), missing much of the second half in foul trouble. Also limited by foul trouble, his brother, K.J. Lawson, scored but four points and pulled down six rebounds. Chad Rykhoek scored ten points for the U of M.

Memphis led by as many as 12 points in the first half, but the Friars enjoyed an 8-0 run prior to halftime, making the score 30-29 in favor of the Tigers at the break. Providence took its first lead with just less than ten minutes left to play. Dedric Lawson closed the Tigers' deficit to three points with a trey at the 3:22 mark, but Providence finished the game on an 11-5 run to improve its record to 4-1. Rodney Bullock led the Friars with 18 points and Emmitt Holt added 16.

The Tigers will face Iowa in Saturday's consolation game, the Hawkeyes 74-41 losers to Virginia in Friday night's opening semifinal.

Tigers 48, #18 Houston 44

Posted By on Fri, Nov 25, 2016 at 4:52 PM

It took 12 games as a head coach for Mike Norvell to earn his first Gatorade shower.

Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson hit his favorite target, Anthony Miller, on a slant pattern for a 10-yard touchdown with 19 seconds to play Friday afternoon to give the Tigers their biggest win of the season to date. The duo's 15th connection of the game gave Memphis the victory after four lead changes in the game's final ten minutes. After a week of speculation about whether or not he would play following an undisclosed injury last week at Cincinnati, Ferguson completed 30 of 45 passes for 409 yards and four touchdowns. As for Miller, the record-setting junior scored two of those touchdowns and added 169 yards to the single-season record he'd already established (now 1,283). Miller shattered Isaac Bruce's single-season mark for receptions in a season (74) and now has 84 with a bowl game to play.

The heart-pounding win made for fitting holiday fare, with 36,527 fans in the Liberty Bowl for Senior Day and a national-TV audience watching, ABC hooked largely by Cougar upsets earlier this season of Top-5 opponents Oklahoma and Louisville. Instead, Memphis ended a six-game losing streak to its longtime rival from Texas and avenged a one-point loss last season.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

"What a game," said a partially dry Norvell after the win. "I'm so very proud of this football team, this coaching staff, everyone associated with this program. We had an opportunity to go out and do something special. The way our guys prepared was incredible. I'm glad the game went the way it did — with the ups and downs — because it provided us an opportunity to show our heart and character, how our guys would respond. Houston has a terrific football team. But today, our guys would not be denied. To see the joy and excitement in that locker room . . . that's what makes coaching."

Memphis scored on its second play from scrimmage, a 67-yard pass from Ferguson to Phil Mayhue, and proceeded to score on every other possession — five of them — in the first half for a 34-17 lead. The Cougars had the lone punt of the first half, and an interception by junior safety Shaun Rupert preceded a two-yard Darrell Henderson touchdown run that seemed to give the Tigers a cushion heading into the second half.

Houston scored the next 20 points, though, quarterback Greg Ward tossing a pair of lengthy touchdown passes, first to Chance Allen (35 yards), then to Linell Bonner for 55 to give the Cougars their first lead (37-34) with just over seven minutes to play in the game.

A 35-yard surgical strike from Ferguson to Miller in the right corner of the end zone seized the lead back for the Tigers and culminated a 75-yard drive with 3:49 left on the clock. But the Cougars responded and drove 75 yards themselves, Ward hitting Allen just inside the right boundary of the end zone for a 44-41 Houston lead with 1:29 to play.

"We live for this," said Ferguson when asked about his team's final drive of the game. "I was talking with [reserve quarterback] Jason Stewart on the sideline. It's like MJ [Michael Jordan]. Give us the ball."

After a 12-yard Ferguson scramble took the ball to the Memphis 40-yard line, Ferguson found Mayhue, who made a leaping catch near the sideline for a 30-yard gain. A pass interference penalty on Cougar cornerback Brandon Wilson took the ball to the Houston 15 with less than a minute to play. Doroland Dorceus ran inside for five yards, setting up the game-winning pass to Miller.
Doroland Dorceus - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Doroland Dorceus

"We knew if we got man [coverage], we were going to work Anthony," said Norvell. "It was a great play call by [offensive coordinator] Chip Long. They executed. What a great ending."

Ferguson laughed when asked about his prime target. "Try and guard him," he said. "Throw the ball to Anthony . . . and try and guard him."

"You've got to have that confidence," said Miller, "that no one can stop you. I saw the linebackers stepping up, which left the middle wide open. This is one of the biggest wins of my life. Coach says big-time players make big-time plays, in big-time situations. Phil Mayhue made some huge catches. And shout-out to the O-line." Mayhue finished the game with six catches for 142 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The Tigers won despite giving up 624 yards on an astounding 101 plays by the Houston offense. This despite eight tackles behind the Houston line of scrimmage. Junior safety Jonathan Cook had 10 solo tackles to lead the Tigers and sophomore Tye Northern added nine.

The U of M ground attack accumulated 146 yards against a Cougar defense that came into the game allowing fewer than 100 per game. Overall, Memphis gained 555 yards, its third-highest total of the season.

"Early in the week," said Norvell, "we felt good about what we could do. Plans don't always look very good on game day, but our kids prepared. They studied. They had a focus. We had to be balanced. We ran the ball for 150 yards against a team that doesn't give up 100 all year. Our offensive line . . . what an incredible job."

The win improves the Tiger record to 8-4 (5-3 in the American Athletic Conference), while Houston falls to 9-3 (5-3). Memphis now awaits an invitation to its postseason game, one of eight bowls affiliated with the AAC.
Talk has centered around the Boca Raton Bowl (December 20th) and the Birmingham Bowl (December 29th), the latter where the Tigers' 2015 season ended with a loss to Auburn.

Norvell considers any bowl destination its own championship of sorts. "Every bowl game is a reward," he said. "It's an opportunity to be in that locker room one more time with that group of guys. It's going to be special. We're going to be grateful, and we're going to prepare to be victorious. We want to maximize every opportunity. When you walk in our team room, that's what you see at the top of our pyramid: finish as bowl champions. Every year."

Thursday, November 24, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 13

Posted By on Thu, Nov 24, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 75-14

Houston at Memphis
Cincinnati at Tulsa

Tulane at UConn
East Carolina at Temple
Navy at SMU

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

21 Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 23, 2016 at 8:00 AM

My favorite moment of every Tiger football season doesn't involve the pigskin. It's the line of senior players — with their families — across the Liberty Bowl field before kickoff of the season's final home game. We've reached an age where the notion of a senior college athlete is almost quaint. "What's wrong with him? Why isn't he a pro by now?"

That's silly, of course. The vast majority of college football seniors will play their final game in shoulder pads on Senior Day. For most, it's the end of a youth devoted to practices, weight rooms, film study, and training tables. And it's the last day they'll be "one of the guys" as defined in locker rooms from the lowest level of Division III right up to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. So here's to the 21 Tigers we'll salute Friday afternoon before the Houston game.

It takes a special kind of athlete — a special kind of person — to button your chinstrap every day knowing your name won't be heard on the p.a. system come Saturday. Whether it's taking hits or delivering them as a member of the scout team, these players shape the units we see in game action. And they're often the players sprinting downfield on special-teams units, establishing field position and exposing themselves to some of the sport's most violent hits. Among this year's seniors who played behind-the-scenes roles: wide receiver Drew Bishop (from St. George's Independent School), defensive lineman Latarius Brady (East High School), linebacker Lenard Harden (Ridgeway), defensive back Deandre Jordan, punter Evan Michael (Christian Brothers), long-snapper Trevor Morgan, defensive back Tye Northern, defensive back Jahmahl Pardner, quarterback Jason Stewart (two touchdown passes in relief of Riley Ferguson to help beat Cincinnati last Friday), and running back Tearris Wallace.
Jake Elliott - U OF M ATHLETICS
  • U of M Athletics
  • Jake Elliott

When B.J. Ross crumpled to the Liberty Bowl turf after taking a hit on the opening kickoff of the USF game (November 12th), we had the scariest moment of the 2016 season. After several minutes on the field, the Melbourne, Florida, native was taken off the field on a stretcher, directly to a local hospital. We received news in the press box around halftime that Ross was moving his limbs and appeared to be stabilized, a full recovery to be expected. The Tigers' loss that night was hard to take . . . until you thought of Ross on that stretcher. He'll leave the program as a reminder of just how tough football players must be to survive this brutal sport.

Chris Roberson (Central Baptist) took over at right tackle in the Navy game after starting the first two games of the season at left guard. He's helped pave the way for a Tiger offense that is only the fourth in program history to score 400 points in a season. (He also has the best beard the U of M has seen in years.) Tight end Daniel Montiel had the daunting task of succeeding Alan Cross (now with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers). He's started every game, caught 25 passes and scored three touchdowns. Wideout Daniel Hurd (Wooddale) has been a regular part of the receiving corps, averaging 12.4 yards on 16 catches.

Six seniors have played major roles for the Tiger defense. Lineman DeMarco Montgomery has been a regular starter after not starting a single game as a junior. Defensive back Dontrell Nelson (Olive Branch) has battled injuries this year, but intercepted at least one pass each of the last three seasons. Cornerback Chauncey Lanier has been a regular starter each of the last two seasons and had an interception in this year's win over Temple.

Nose tackle Donald Pennington, safety Chris Morley, and cornerback Arthur Maulet have started every game this season. Pennington and Morley have played in at least 10 games four straight seasons. Maulet has had two interceptions, a sack, and forced two fumbles this year alone.

Whether or not he wins the Lou Groza Award, Jake Elliott has left his mark as the greatest kicker in Memphis Tiger history. With a powerful right leg and mental strength honed as a competitive tennis player, Elliott passed the great Stephen Gostkowski atop the Tiger record charts for scoring (426 points) and field goals (78). He's drilled no fewer than 10 field goals from beyond 50 yards. (Elliott's 56-yarder against USF as a freshman is the longest in Memphis history.) And Elliott has been clutch. His game-winner at Temple in 2014 gave the Tigers a third consecutive win in a streak that would eventually reach 15 games. And in the Miami Beach Bowl that same season, Elliott connected from 54 yards (the second-longest in Tiger history) to extend overtime in a game Memphis would win to earn the program's first year-end Top 25 selection. He has twice been named Special Teams Player of the Year in the AAC. With a third straight 100-point season, there's no reason to believe Elliott won't take home the hardware a third time.

The best tribute for members of this senior class, of course, is their being together for the most wins over a three-year stretch (26) in Memphis football history.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Tigers 104, McNeese State 65

Posted By on Tue, Nov 22, 2016 at 10:15 PM

The Tigers' eight-day, four-game, warm-up homestand is complete. A rotation has been established (with emerging impact players), centered around sophomore forward Dedric Lawson. Players are healthy (with Providence looming Friday at the Emerald Coast Classic). And Dedric, it appears, is merely one half of a brother act first-year coach Tubby Smith will lean on all winter.

Memphis essentially put the Cowboys away in six minutes of basketball Tuesday night, exploding to a 17-1 lead. Reserve guard Craig Randall — among those emerging players of impact — scored 11 points in the game's first 14 minutes and finished with 18 (in just 21 minutes), three shy of the career high he set merely three days ago.
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

This was still a Lawson show. Dedric became the first Tiger in 21 years to start a season with four consecutive double-doubles (20 points and 10 rebounds). His older brother, redshirt-freshman K.J. Lawson, notched his third straight double-double (13 points and 10 rebounds) and dished out seven assists with but one turnover. Each player re-entered the game late, needing a single rebound for the statistical mark. The gesture was acknowledged by Dedric: "Thanks to Coach Smith. I appreciate it. He understands goals individuals are trying to reach."

It's the larger team goals that the U of M hopes to soon have in clearer focus. Based on numbers alone, the Tigers have separated themselves from Memphis teams of recent vintage. Not since 2010 has a Tiger team begun a season 4-0. Not since 2014 has a Tiger team scored 100 points in a game. And only once before has a Tiger team handed out as many assists as it did against the Cowboys (35).

"We started out with the right kind of energy, the right kind of focus," said Smith following the game. "They played unselfishly. We're pleased in some areas; others we have to get better."

Point guard Jeremiah Martin handed out seven assists with only one turnover, giving him totals of 29 and 7, respectively, through four games. Christian Kessee came off the bench and made his first real impact of the season with six assists and only one turnover himself. Freshman Keon Clergeot scored his first points of the season (11) in 16 productive minutes off the bench. If nothing else, these four opening games have infused a team with much-needed confidence as the schedule strengthens after Thanksgiving.

"Taking care of the basketball is critical," emphasized Smith. "The competition is going to be a lot stiffer now. Show me a team that's having a tough time winning, and I'll show you a team turning the ball over. We have some good ball-handling guards. When you can keep the ball in a guy like Jeremiah's hands . . . he was impressive."

Entering the holiday weekend, Smith expressed a few reasons to be grateful, quoting one of his father's favorite expressions: "Every day is a great day above ground." Two games over the holiday weekend (Providence followed by Virginia or Iowa) will test his team in ways it hasn't been challenged over the season's first eight days.  Such is the natural progression for a developing team.

"Preparation is the same," said Smith, "but we'll make adjustments. We'll see better athletes with Providence. I think we're ready."

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Tigers 99, Savannah State 86

Posted By on Sat, Nov 19, 2016 at 2:31 PM

Sophomore guard Craig Randall came off the bench and scored 21 points — more than double his previous career high — to lead Memphis to its third victory in six days, over another bunch of Tigers from Savannah State. The Tigers withstood several Savannah State runs fueled by long-distance shooting — the visitors made 16 of 48 shots from long range — to improve to 3-0 on the young season.

Six Tigers scored in double figures and sophomore forward Dedric Lawson became the 14th Tiger to have 20 career double-doubles. In scoring 21 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, and dishing out seven assists, Lawson fell three dimes short of the program's fourth triple-double. K.J. Lawson scored 14 points and pulled down 10 rebounds to join his younger brother in the double-double category for a second straight game.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Craig Randall

As his rotation begins to coalesce, Memphis coach Tubby Smith hopes to see more outbursts from role players like Randall. "I'm pulling for each kid to have great days," said Smith after the game. "I couldn't be happier for Craig. I'm impressed with what he's doing. We needed him to do that. I expect players to make every shot, to be honest with you. He works very hard in practice. He and Jeremiah [Martin] have been in the Finch Center religiously. It's paying off for him."

Savannah State closed within four points at halftime on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Kamil Williams. Casey Wells hit six of seven from three-point range before the break and finished the game with eight treys and a game-high 24 points.

The U of M started the second half with a 10-3 run and a Randall three-pointer gave Memphis a 67-52 lead with just under 14 minutes left to play. But Savannah State twice closed the gap within single digits, the last time at 86-77 with just under five minutes left on the clock. Memphis dominated its undersized opponent n the rebounding department, 55-33, and managed to hit free throws (18 for 25) three days after missing 10 of 12 against Milwaukee.

Jeremiah Martin continued his evolution into this team's point guard, handing out eight assists (with three turnovers) in 33 minutes. Center Chad Rykhoek scored 10 points in 16 minutes, Markel Crawford added 14, and Jimario Rivers scored 11 points off the bench. Martin emphasized the scoring by committee is a result of the culture being established for the season ahead. "We don't care about who gets the credit," said the sophomore from Mitchell High School. "We don't even look at the scorebook. If someone's ahead of you, give it up to him."

"Everybody eats," added Randall. "Regardless of who scores, everybody's gonna enjoy it. As long as we get the win, we're fine."

The Tigers will have Sunday off then one day to prepare for McNeese State (tipoff at 7 p.m. Tuesday at FedExForum). Smith acknowledged he doesn't even know the Cowboys' record, emphasizing that his teams practice the same way, with the same intent, no matter the opponent. "We've been logging a lot of minutes," he said. "Thirty-two for Dedric today, 33 for Jeremiah. The key is consistency, continuity. We've got to keep them improving, with film study when we need to. That's how we keep them focused."

As for the improved free-throw shooting, Smith chuckled and said he gave the free-throw coach a raise. He then patted himself on the back.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Tigers 34, Cincinnati 7

Posted By on Fri, Nov 18, 2016 at 10:19 PM

The Tigers clinched a third straight winning season by earning their seventh victory Friday night at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. Despite losing quarterback Riley Ferguson in the first quarter, Memphis rolled over their longtime rivals to improve to 7-4 for the season (4-3 in American Athletic Conference play).

Ferguson appeared to hit his head on the turf after being sacked on the Tigers' second series of the game. Senior Jason Stewart took over at quarterback and threw his first touchdown pass of the season, a short strike to tight end Joey Magnifico early in the second quarter.

The Tigers reached a couple of significant scoring milestones. They surpassed 400 points for the third straight season after tallying such a figure only once before (2004). And senior kicker Jake Elliott reached 100 points for his third straight season. Elliott has already broken the program records for career field goals (78) and points (426).

Curtis Akins and Chris Morley each intercepted Cincinnati quarterback Hayden Moore in the first quarter, setting up short scoring drives that gave Memphis a 13-0 lead. The Bearcats punted four times and lost a fumble in addition to the two first-half picks, contributing to a 27-0 Memphis lead at the break.

Stewart hit Anthony Miller for a 22-yard touchdown early in the third quarter and the only remaining score came on a Moore-to-Devin Gray pass less than two minutes into the fourth quarter. The Bearcat touchdown ended a streak of 39 Cincinnati drives without reaching pay dirt.

Stewart completed 13 of 15 passes for 138 yards and the two touchdowns. Tailback Doroland Dorceus ran for 66 yards and scored two touchdowns, giving him 24 in his Memphis career (fourth in Tiger history). The Memphis defense held Cincinnati to 242 yards for the game as the Bearcats fell to 3-8 on the season (1-6 in AAC play).

The victory establishes a new high for any three-year period in Tiger football history. Memphis has now won 26 games since the beginning of the 2014 season.

Next for the U of M will be Senior Day, the regular season finale against Houston next Friday at the Liberty Bowl. (Kickoff time for the game will be determined late Saturday night.) The Cougars are coming off a huge upset of 3rd-ranked Louisville Thursday night.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 12

Posted By on Thu, Nov 17, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 69-13

Louisville at Houston

Memphis at Cincinnati

Tulsa at UCF
Navy at East Carolina
UConn at Boston College
Temple at Tulane

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tigers 68, Milwaukee 54

Posted By on Wed, Nov 16, 2016 at 10:13 PM

It's come to be called "the sophomore jump." A dramatic improvement in play between a college basketball player's freshman and sophomore seasons. Based on the first two games of the 2016-17 season, "the sophomore jump" may be central to the Memphis Tigers' success.

Point guard Jeremiah Martin and small forward K.J. Lawson (classified as a redshirt freshman, but like Martin, in his second season at the Division I level) may as well be considered new additions to coach Tubby Smith's roster, their play significantly better than at any time a year ago. Martin dished out eight assists against the Panthers without committing a turnover, blocked three shots, made three steals, and hit three of his five field-goal attempts in 37 minutes of action. The older Lawson brother had 11 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, and two blocks in 31 minutes, not quite over-shadowing Dedric Lawson, who notched his second double-double (23 points and 10 boards) in as many games.

After spotting the Panthers a 7-0 lead, the Tigers roared back, burying seven three-pointers in the game's first 15 minutes (two each from Markel Crawford, Dedric Lawson, and Craig Randall). The U of M enjoyed a 14-point lead (38-24) at halftime, allowed Milwaukee to close within seven (48-41) midway through the second half, then finished with a 20-13 push to the buzzer. (The game was played in less than an hour and 40 minutes.)

Smith noted Martin's growth, and not only as measured by his stat line. "He's earned his teammates' respect," said the coach, "because of how hard he works. He's asked, 'What do I need to do? I'm all in.' He's a student of the game." As for the 37 minutes in Game Two, Smith said Martin is likely the best conditioned athlete on the team.

Crawford also played 37 minutes and Dedric Lawson 38. In tightening his bench this early in the season, Smith acknowledged newcomers like center Chad Rykhoek (16 minutes tonight, no points) and Christian Kessee (5, 0) are still adjusting to the pace of this level. When asked if he's concerned about heavy minutes for his starters, Smith smiled and said, "They love playing basketball. I'm not worried."

The Tigers will have what Smith calls "a film day" and "a free throw" day before taking the floor at FedExForum Saturday (against Savannah State). The Tigers missed 10 of 12 free throws Wednesday night, and when Smith — starting his 26th year as a head coach — said he's never seen such poor foul shooting, it was impossible to tell if he was joking. (Milwaukee made every free throw, but only took three.)

Memphis shot 46 percent from the field and held the Panthers to 40 percent. Crawford joined the Lawson brothers in double-figure scoring with 15 points. Cody Wichmann led Milwaukee with 18 points on six three-pointers.

The Tigers' 2-0 start is the program's first since the 2012-13 season. "They really get along," said Smith. "They're coming together as a family, and I like to see that. Winning helps."

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 16, 2016 at 8:00 AM

• Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen requested a "formal review of several plays" from the USF loss last Saturday (as described in a U of M press release). The pass-interference non-call on the Tigers' final offensive play — Bulls cornerback Deatrick Nichols had Anthony Miller's right arm like a father escorting his daughter down the aisle — warrants a review. It was egregious. And it cost the Tigers an opportunity to tie and possibly (with a two-point conversion) win the game.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

But here's the thing: football. There are so many missed calls — both made incorrectly and not made at all — every Saturday, every Sunday, every day 22 men collide 150 times in three hours. Keeping order is the equivalent of tracking a single sock in a washing machine. Missed calls — game-changing at times — are part of the ingredients we accept when served a dish of American football. There's no conspiracy against your favorite team. The Tigers have benefited (and will benefit) from missed calls. Last Saturday's loss was simply an opponent's "turn" with the advantage in this department. Honestly, why not create a stat, like third-down conversions: How many questionable calls in each team's favor? It would have been fun to see the Tigers attempt a two-point conversion to win last week's game. Quinton Flowers from the 25-yard line in overtime? Not so much.

• In their six wins, the Tigers have allowed an average of 335.5 yards. In their four losses, 607.7. In only one of its wins has the U of M given up more than 350 yards (Temple put up 531). There's an obvious component weighing these figures: the quality of the Tigers' opponents. Ole Miss, Navy, Tulsa, and USF are supremely more talented, particularly on offense, than the likes of Kansas, Bowling Green, and Tulane. Nonetheless an average of more than 600 yards allowed in Tiger defeats. Sorry for the broken record in this space, but the program must find more speed and strength on the defensive side of things to compete for an AAC championship. Three of the top four tackle totals against USF were by Memphis defensive backs (Jonathan Cook, Chris Morley, and Arthur Maulet). That's not conducive to stopping drives.

• It feels strange typing this, but Friday's game in Cincinnati should be a gimme for Memphis. These aren't the Bearcats of yesteryear (or last year). Next-to-last in the AAC in scoring (20.6 points per game), seventh in total defense (one slot behind Memphis), losers of five of their last six games. In its last three losses, Cincinnati has scored a total of 19 points against Temple, BYU, and UCF. Common opponents? The Bearcats were blown out by USF (45-20) and lost to Temple (34-13). It still feels like a rivalry game, these two programs having clashed as members of Conference USA and before that, the Metro. Memphis should treat the game with the importance it holds: A victory would clinch a third consecutive winning season.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tigers 94, UT-RGV 75

Posted By on Mon, Nov 14, 2016 at 10:42 PM

A Lawson shall lead them. But which one?
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • K.J. Lawson

The Tubby Smith era officially opened Monday night at FedExForum, and sophomore Dedric Lawson — the American Athletic Conference's preseason co-Player of the Year — contributed 19 points and 15 rebounds, figures to be expected from the team's centerpiece this season. But Dedric's older brother, K.J., stole some opening-night thunder by scoring a team-high 25 points in just 15 minutes of playing time. Classified as a redshirt freshman after missing 24 games with a foot injury last season, K.J. Lawson hit eight of his ten shots, pulled down eight rebounds, and even handed out four assists (no turnovers) in a performance his new coach claims is merely a teaser.

"K.J. is not close to what he's capable of being," said Smith after securing the 558th win of his Hall of Fame-bound career. "When you make shots, it helps, and no turnovers. He was excellent."

The Tigers matched the up-tempo pace of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, though the opening minutes looked like the opening minutes of a season, Memphis committing six turnovers in the first six minutes. But with the Lawsons combining for 25 points and junior guard Markel Crawford hitting four of five shots from the field, the Tigers took a 51-40 lead to halftime.

Memphis extended the lead to 24 (73-49) eight minutes into the second half, spurred in part by the play of point guard Jeremiah Martin. The sophomore from Mitchell High School followed a three-pointer with a dunk in transition (on a feed from K.J. Lawson), and looked like the developing floor leader Smith expects him to be for this team.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

"He's leading the right way," emphasized Smith. "And he's as competitive as there is." Martin finished the contest with 13 points, six assists (four turnovers), and four steals. The point total topped his high last year as a freshman (11).

As for his statistical outburst, K.J. Lawson emphasized the mental toughness needed to fit Smith's system, to take what an opponent allows (in terms of shot selection), and to never give in. "One thing I always have is confidence," he said. "Coach Smith creates chaos in practice, so when we come to a game, it's like we've already been here before."

Nick Dixon led the Vaqueros with 28 points off the bench. UTRGV shot 38 percent for the game, compared with the Tigers' 48 percent. Memphis struggled from the foul line, missing 14 of 35 shots.

Nine players saw at least 14 minutes of action for the Tigers, as Smith is aiming to manage minutes during a stretch that has the Tigers playing four games in nine days (all at FEF). Memphis returns to the floor Wednesday night when Milwaukee comes to town.

Tiger Hoops: 2016-17 Wish List

Posted By on Mon, Nov 14, 2016 at 8:00 AM

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. (Has that settled in?) Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency. Never have the words anything's possible rung more true.

With the Memphis Tigers opening their 2016-17 season tonight at FedExForum (welcome, Texas-Rio Grand Valley), here's a short wish list for a program on the rebound from two postseason-free campaigns. And remember: anything's possible.

Avoid ugly losses. However bad things appeared for Josh Pastner and the 2015-16 Tigers, a home loss to East Carolina last January made it clear something was wrong with the water. Later losses at Tulane and USF firmly placed Memphis in the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference. The Tigers split with each of these teams, making the defeats all the more maddening. Had the U of M swept each of these less-than-stellar clubs, a 19-win season becomes a 22-win campaign with at least an NIT bid in the mix. The Tigers have been picked to finish fifth in the AAC, and this seems about right. Handle the bottom-feeders.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

Let Dedric Lawson shine. This starts with keeping the AAC's preseason co-Player of the Year healthy. Some pulse rates increased at FEF last week when Lawson had to briefly leave the floor after what appeared to be a lower-leg injury. He returned and proceeded to finish the game with (ho-hum) 11 points and 13 rebounds. You have to believe Lawson will be in good hands under the watch of Tubby Smith. Over-use on a team that desperately needs him to perform could be deadly. Proper use, though, could make him the kind of impact player that earns All-America votes. And, not incidentally, attention in the NBA draft.

A surprise stand-out. This team will need at least one under-the-radar player to become a significant member of the rotation. (Remember D.J. Stephens? You surely remember the junior and senior; highly unlikely you noticed the freshman or sophomore version.) Chad Rykhoek has the size to make a big difference, particularly at the defensive end. Jimario Rivers, likewise, could make the Memphis defense more formidable. Would a steady and productive Jeremiah Martin at point guard be considered a surprise? Expectations and needs are one thing (and Martin's role is critical for the Tiger offense). Performance is another metric entirely.

89 three-pointers by Christian Kessee. This would give the senior transfer one more than he had last season at Coppin State, and 12 more than the Tigers' top gun last season (the departed Avery Woodson hit 77, 32 more than any teammate). Dedric Lawson's life will be miserable if the Tigers don't establish an outside-shooting threat. Markel Crawford is not going to learn to be a sharp-shooter as a redshirt-junior. Martin hit six of 20 shots from downtown last season, K.J. Lawson just two of nine before being sidelined by injury. I wouldn't be surprised if Kessee finishes second (or even first) on this team in minutes played. His marksmanship is that important.

• Earn a big win, anywhere. The Tigers don't have what you'd call an imposing schedule. Only one team in the preseason AP Top 20 is sure to face Memphis: 18th-ranked UConn on January 5th (at FEF) and February 16th (at Storrs). The Tigers could face 8th-ranked Virginia — with one Austin Nichols — on November 26th, but this depends on how the bracket unfolds at the Emerald Coast Classic. So the Tigers' big win (loosely defined now) may depend on the AAC standings. If Cincinnati is at or near the top of the league when Memphis travels to Ohio on February 23rd, a Tiger upset would be huge. (The Bearcats don't come to Memphis this season.) Same goes for Houston, and the Cougars visit FedExForum on February 26th (a Sunday afternoon tip-off). Memphis swept the defending national champs in both 2013-14 (Louisville) and 2014-15 (UConn). The program is thirsty for an attention-grabbing upset.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

USF 49, Tigers 42

Posted By on Sat, Nov 12, 2016 at 11:12 PM

On a chilly November night at the Liberty Bowl, the Memphis Tigers were victimized by a bouquet of Flowers.

Entering Saturday's game, USF quarterback Quinton Flowers had compiled the kind of numbers — 1,941 passing yards, 921 rushing yards, and 27 combined touchdowns — that would have him leading Heisman Trophy projections if he played in a Power Five conference. Merely starring in the American Athletic Conference, though, Flowers continues to compile the numbers — and stupefy defenses — without any false illusions about a trip to New York City in December. Against Memphis, he passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 210 yards with three more scores. Flowers's season totals now exceed 2,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing, and 30 touchdowns with two regular-season games still to play. His Bulls improved to 8-2 on the season and are in contention for the AAC's East Division title with a 5-1 league record.
Quinton Flowers - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Quinton Flowers
The numbers are one thing, but the plays Flowers makes — in traffic and through space — distinguish him like few dual-threat quarterbacks in the land. With the scored tied at 42 and less than five minutes to play, Flowers twice converted third-down plays through sheer athleticism. On the first, from the Tiger 49-yard line, Flowers escaped a heavy Memphis pass rush and galloped around right end for the five necessary yards, and then some. Three plays later, needing eight yards to extend the drive, Flowers completed a pass with Tiger linebacker Austin Hall wrapped around his legs. The 22-yard, game-winning  touchdown run that soon followed seemed casual in comparison.

"There were a bunch of plays where we had people in place," noted Tiger coach Mike Norvell. "But then the missed tackles. You've got a guy with freakish abilities, to be honest. There were numerous plays, including the last touchdown, when we had guys on him, and he found a way to escape. He's done that to a lot of people. That doesn't make it any better for it to happen against us."

After falling behind 14-0 midway through the first quarter, the Tigers fought back steadily, and took the lead — twice — in the third quarter. After a 36-yard run by tailback Patrick Taylor, U of M quarterback Riley Ferguson hit Daniel Hurd for a seven-yard touchdown on the Tigers' first possession of the second half, giving the Tigers a 24-21 lead. Anthony Miller then recovered an onside kick at the USF 49-yard line, but the momentum shift died when Ferguson threw an interception (by Deatrick Nichols) at the 19. The Bulls responded with a quick drive culminating in a (ho-hum) Flowers 12-yard run. But Ferguson found tight end Daniel Montiel from the one on the ensuing drive to give the Tigers a 31-28 lead.

Three precious points slipped away late in the third quarter when Memphis kicker Jake Elliott pulled a 50-yard field-goal attempt slightly left, leaving the score 35-34 in USF's favor.

Following a Marlon Mack touchdown (42-34, USF), Tony Pollard returned the kickoff to the Tiger 43-yard line. On the next snap, Ferguson found Miller in stride for a 57-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion (Ferguson to Phil Mayhue) knotted things at 42, setting up Flowers's game-winning heroics.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

Memphis had one last chance — three, really — to tie the game at 49, but three Ferguson passes fell incomplete from the Bulls three-yard line, the last one deflecting off Miller's hands as he was tightly covered. (Perhaps too tightly. Miller claimed after the game that his arm was grabbed as he jumped for the ball.)

All in all, this was Pac 12 football two time zones early. USF gained 679 yards on 79 plays while the Tigers racked up 608 on 81. Ferguson completed 29 of 46 passes for 331 yards. Montiel caught ten passes for 100 yards. Three different Tigers — Darrell Henderson, Taylor, and Doroland Dorceus — each ran for at least 75 yards.

Flowers aside, the star of the show was Anthony Miller. The junior wideout caught ten passes for 153 yards and in so doing, broke the great Isaac Bruce's single-season Memphis record for receiving yards (1,054 in 1993). With three games left to play, Miller has 1,077 yards. "It seems like we lose every time I break a record," said Miller after the game. "So I don't know how to feel about it really."

"I hurt for [our team]," said Norvell. "It really hurts, coming up short. But I love the guys in that locker room. We have to respond the right way. I want to thank all the veterans who came out to support us tonight. We're so grateful for their service. We're honored to play this great game; working hard to make you proud. It's a shame we came up short today."

The loss drops Memphis to 6-4 for the season (3-3 in the AAC). The Tigers travel to Cincinnati for their next game, Friday night. They'll host the regular-season finale (against Houston) on November 25th.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

AAC Picks: Week 11

Posted By on Thu, Nov 10, 2016 at 8:00 AM

SEASON: 65-12

USF at Memphis
Cincinnati at UCF
SMU at East Carolina
Tulane at Houston
Tulsa at Navy

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 9, 2016 at 8:00 AM

• With the Tigers now bowl-eligible, we can safely begin speculating about where they might play in December. As much as American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco would like to consider his league part of a a "Power 6," the AAC's bowl partnerships don't reflect such standing. Only four of the eight affiliations place an AAC team against a Power 5 program: the Armed Forces Bowl (Big 12), St. Petersburg Bowl (ACC), Military Bowl (ACC), and Birmingham Bowl (SEC). A bid to one of the other four bowls would have Memphis facing a team from the MAC, Sun Belt, or (ahem) C-USA.

As the Tigers' improving program plays in a third straight bowl game, we have the danger of the event being anti-climactic. Would playing, say, Middle Tennessee in the Boca Raton Bowl (December 20th) be a bigger game than this week's tilt with USF? Or the regular-season finale against Houston? No and heck no. But with AAC teams ahead of Memphis in the bowl pecking order (Houston, USF, and Tulsa, to name three), a decidedly non-Power 5 bowl matchup is likely on the table. Nothing an upset of USF and/or Houston couldn't help.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

• The last time he was in the Liberty Bowl, Memphis wide receiver Anthony Miller set a new Memphis single-game record with 250 receiving yards. With 924 yards for the season, the junior from Christian Brothers High School needs merely 76 to become the second Tiger to reach the 1,000-yard plateau, and 131 to break the school's 23-year-old record of 1,054, set by Isaac Bruce in 1993. Miller's 102.7 yards per game ranks third in the AAC, but his 16.2 yards-per-catch average is higher than the two receivers ahead of him (East Carolina's Zay Jones and UConn's Noel Thomas). With 2,565 yards passing, Riley Ferguson is on his way to becoming only the fourth Memphis quarterback to top 3,000 yards in a season (Danny Wimprine, Martin Hankins, Paxton Lynch). By two measures, Memphis has displayed an aerial show unlike many seen before in these parts.

USF quarterback Quinton Flowers is making a strong case for AAC Offensive Player of the Year. The junior from Miami has thrown for 1,941 yards and rushed for another 921. His 318.0 yards per game in total offense is second only to Houston's Greg Ward (356.4) in the AAC. Flowers has passed for 17 touchdowns and run for 10, while throwing only five interceptions. No surprise, then, that his Bulls enter Saturday's game at the Liberty Bowl atop the AAC in scoring (43.4 points per game) and second only to Tulsa with 502.9 yards per game. The only blemishes on USF's record are losses to Florida State (55-35) and at Temple (46-30). Memphis beat the Owls, of course, but USF handled Navy, a team that embarrassed the Tigers just three weeks ago. The Tigers have won each of the teams' three meetings since the AAC formed before the 2013 season. A victory Saturday — over a team capable of winning the league crown, and coming off a bye — would be the biggest of Mike Norvell's rookie season.

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