Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Memphis Tigers' Nick King to Transfer

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2015 at 10:45 AM

I loved Nick King the first time I saw him in a Memphis Tiger uniform. Less than six months after being named a Parade All-American at East High School, King came off the bench and scored 13 points in 15 minutes in the Tigers' 2013-14 season-opening win over Austin Peay. Five days later, King was the lone bright spot in a flogging the Tigers took at Oklahoma State: 23 points in 15 minutes (eight of 12 from the field). I saw another King — Hall of Famer Bernard — in the way Nick King found ways to score from multiple locations, in traffic, near the rim. King would carry the homegrown torch at the U of M, one proudly held before by Larry Finch, Andre Turner, Elliot Perry, Penny Hardaway, and so many others.

Turns out King will carry that torch from afar. The U of M announced this morning that King and fellow sophomore Pookie Powell will transfer. (Powell's reduced role late in the season — behind junior Kedren Johnson — makes the point guard's departure less surprising than King's. The irony is that point guard will remain a bigger question mark for the Tigers next season than the forward spot King occupied.)

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After averaging 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds as a freshman, King's numbers improved to 7.2 and 4.8 this past season, though his field-goal percentage plummeted from 52 percent to 40. He was hampered by an ankle injury that lingered, costing him four games and countless minutes of full health on the floor. King has never been a lock-down defender, and the weakened ankle didn't help his mobility on either end of the floor. He started only seven games and averaged fewer than 19 minutes in the 24 games in which he played.

King's transfer will increase turbulence for Tiger coach Josh Pastner, one more case of a coach bringing "elite talent" to campus . . . and losing his grip prematurely. (King and Adonis Thomas would be interesting panelists in this discussion.) King seemed to be given every chance to assume a leadership role this winter. Along with Austin Nichols and Shaq Goodwin, King appeared on promotional posters and the cover of the team's media guide, a premium spotlight for a college player who entered the season without a single start.

King started the first five games of the season, but alarms went off when he failed to score in 25 minutes against Stephen F. Austin (a Tiger loss) on December 2nd. How long would it take for King to impact games — positively — for the Tigers? As Pastner moved (again) to a more guard-centric starting lineup, King found himself on the bench. I actually thought King and Kuran Iverson could give the Tigers the best reserve unit in the American Athletic Conference. What a silly notion that seems now.

King and Powell will have to sit out the 2015-16 season, and they cannot transfer to another AAC school. King may or may not be missed by Tiger fans, as the incoming Lawson brothers will surely absorb the void in minutes left behind. You get the feeling King's departure will be linked to Pastner's story, whether the coach regains his footing and leads the Tigers back to the NCAA tournament, or leaves (for Arizona State?) before yet another talented recruit proves to be an uncomfortable fit on his roster.

I still think Nick King will light up a college scoreboard. It'll be interesting to see which colors he's wearing when he does so.

photo by Larry Kuzniewski

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tiger Season Ends With a Whimper

Posted By on Tue, Mar 17, 2015 at 9:18 AM

“It’s just been one of those years.” — Josh Pastner, February 28, 2015

When you look back at the 1999-2000 Memphis Tigers — the last team to miss both the NCAA and NIT tournaments — it’s striking to consider the talent interim coach Johnny Jones had at his disposal. Three starters for that team — Marcus Moody, Kelly Wise, and Earl Barron — are in the program’s 1,000-point club. Wise and Barron were central figures in the first two seasons with John Calipari at the helm (seasons that ended in the NIT, but at Madison Square Garden, and with the championship trophy in 2002). Barron is currently a member of the Phoenix Suns, for crying out loud.

Yet 1999-2000 — in this part of the college basketball universe — was just one of those years, the Tigers finishing 15-16, a fan base wondering if Larry Finch took a program’s magic with him when he was fired three years earlier.

Josh Pastner

Many Tiger fans will look back to November 12, 2014, and call it the date this season died, when the University of Memphis took the floor for an exhibition game with Christian Brothers University . . . and lost. Sure, Memphis coach Josh Pastner was experimenting with an unfamiliar roster. And sure, the Buccaneers have nothing to lose and a city’s attention to gain whenever they take the floor at FedExForum. This was a lightning strike bound to happen some November. Just happened to be the one when most Memphians got their first look at Kedren Johnson, Trahson Burrell, and Calvin Godfrey. There’s stumbling out of the gate, and then there’s going belly up before ever entering the gate.

This team had its moments. Sweeping the defending national champions for a second straight season — find me another team to have accomplished this — will be the closest thing to a “legacy” the 2014-15 Tigers can claim. But those were two of only three wins (in 15 games) against teams with an RPI among the nation’s top 100. These Tigers never found a competitive punch, not one strong enough to threaten an NCAA tournament team. Not one strong enough, it turns out, to impress the NIT selection committee.

Better days are ahead, surely. There are more than 300 Division I programs that would relish having Austin Nichols as its centerpiece for the 2015-16 season. (This presumes the all-AAC forward returns for his junior season.) There are more than 300 Division I programs that would relish a McDonald’s All-American among its incoming freshman class, as the Tigers have in Dedric Lawson. Imagine Shaq Goodwin playing an entire season with the fire that helped him grab 23 rebounds in the Tigers’ first game against Temple. Imagine Johnson being in, you know, basketball condition.

A long offseason awaits, the program’s longest in 15 years. There is a faction of Tiger fans who believe Pastner is very much a part of the problem, that the still-young coach is unable to match tactics with elite counterparts, that he cannot develop players into a cohesive, threatening unit. If you measure Pastner’s value solely on the past winter, that faction would be correct. Signed through the 2016-17 season, Pastner is likely to be back, and he’ll be answering questions about this long, cold winter on the hottest days in August. There really is no offseason with this program, is there?

“You can get us now,” said Pastner after the Tigers’ final home game last month, “but with our nucleus, and what we have coming in, the future’s extremely bright.” What’s a missed postseason every 15 years?

• On March 8th, Shawne Williams became the eighth former Tiger to play in 300 NBA games. Conference USA’s Freshman of the Year in 2006, Williams is now suiting up with the Detroit Pistons, his seventh pro team since being chosen by the Indiana Pacers with the 17th pick of the 2006 draft. Among the eight Tigers with 300 NBA games under their belts, only two played as many as three seasons of college ball: Elliot Perry (4) and Vincent Askew (3). The others (and the number of seasons they were Tigers): Larry Kenon (1), Penny Hardaway (2), Lorenzen Wright (2), Derrick Rose (1), and Tyreke Evans (1). Rodney Carney played in 299 NBA games and Chris Douglas-Roberts has played in 222, though none since January when the Boston Celtics waived him.

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Friday, March 13, 2015

AAC Tourney: Temple 80, Tigers 75

Posted By on Fri, Mar 13, 2015 at 3:52 PM

For the first time in five years, the Memphis Tigers will grind their teeth through the NCAA tournament's selection show (Sunday evening) and await word — after the dance tickets have been distributed — on whether or not they've qualified for a berth in the lesser National Invitation Tournament. The Temple Owls beat the Tigers this afternoon in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament at the XL Center in Hartford. Senior forward Calvin Godfrey pulled down a missed free throw by Trahson Burrell with 27 seconds left and had a shot to tie the game at 74, but he misfired. The Owls made their obligatory free throws over the game's waning moments to secure their 23rd win of the season and a date with the tournament's top seed, SMU, tomorrow.

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The loss leaves the Tigers with a record of 18-14 and on the brink of finishing short of 20 wins for the first time in 15 years. On a positive note, the last three times Memphis has received an NIT bid, at least one game was played in Memphis.

All-AAC guard Will Cummings led Temple with 21 points and six assists, hitting 10 of 11 free throws, including four in the game's final two minutes. Forward Obi Enechionyia had a critical three-point play with 39 seconds left to give Temple a 74-71 lead after Burrell had tied things up on a short jumper. Enechionyia added two free throws to clinch the victory with 10 seconds left on the clock.

Burrell led five Tigers in double-figure scoring with 16 points. Shaq Goodwin added 15, Kedren Johnson 14, Godfrey 13, and Markel Crawford 12. Memphis received little off the bench, Avery Woodson and Nick King combining for five points on two-of-nine shooting.

The Tigers led, 32-31, at halftime and were up 52-50 with just over eight minutes to play. Temple's Jesse Morgan drained a three-pointer to give the Owls a 55-52 lead with 7:48 to play and the Owls never again trailed.

The Tigers missed 15 of 20 three-point attempts while the Owls shot 42 percent (8 for 19) from long range. Memphis took 18 more shots (73-55) and made six more field goals (31-25) than the Owls. But Temple converted 22 of 29 free throws while the U of M was merely eight for 14 from the foul line.

The loss officially ends the Tigers' quest for a fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance, a run achieved only once before (1982-86) in the proud history of the program.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Season (Almost) In the Books

Posted By on Mon, Mar 9, 2015 at 8:51 AM

Memories remain to be made by the 2014-15 Memphis Tigers, starting with this week's American Athletic Conference tournament in Hartford. The U of M will have the chance to extend its streak of 20-win seasons to 15 and make one final attempt at an unlikely fifth-straight NCAA tournament berth. (They'll have to raise the trophy Sunday for a dance ticket.)

Josh Pastner

But the conclusion of a regular season provides the frame for a few memories that will stick for posterity. Here are five from the season just past that should linger.

• What's the point?
We entered the season knowing the Tiger backcourt would be . . . interesting. Having lost four senior guards, the roster was infused with new ball-handlers, one with no Division I experience (Pookie Powell), one with SEC experience at Vanderbilt, but an entire season of meals ago (Kedren Johnson). And man, did it show. The Tigers played their first seven games without a player accumulating as many as five assists. With Johnson struggling to play himself into game shape, Powell seemed to take over the duty in mid-December, averaging 6.5 assists over a six-game stretch (five of them wins). But then the sophomore's minutes gradually disappeared. Starting with the Cincinnati game on January 15th (in which he played 34 minutes), Johnson assumed the gig. His play has been up and down since. While Johnson will never be mistaken for, say, Joe Jackson, he played a major role in the team's win over the Bearcats and both victories against UConn. Makes you wonder what kind of impact he might make as a senior after a summer of conditioning.

• Last word via Twitter.
Based on his high-school credentials and physical tools, Kuran Iverson should have been at least a game-altering sixth man for this team. Instead, Iverson's Tiger legacy resides in the dust bin of castaways who prove big-name recruits aren't always the fit coaches — or fans — would like them to be. (Remember Deuce Ford?) Iverson missed the season's first five games with concussion symptoms, then became part of an early-season rotation scramble that only muddied the team's identity further. Then shortly after the new year arrived, Iverson retweeted some derogatory remarks about Josh Pastner, related to disciplinary action taken by the Tiger coach. He might as well have crafted an obituary for his Memphis basketball career. You'll next see the Hartford native wearing the uniform of the University of Rhode Island. What might have been . . . .

Austin Nichols

• Alpha Austin.
You had to wonder which player would emerge as this team's alpha dog. Entering the season, there were really just three candidates, the only players with any experience as Tigers: Shaq Goodwin, Nick King, and the 2013-14 American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year, Austin Nichols. There is no more wondering, no more debate. As impressive as the Briarcrest produce may have been as a freshman (9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game), that season can now be viewed as a tease. Maybe it was Nichols's eight-block night against Oral Roberts five days before Christmas. Maybe it was his 28 points in 35 minutes in the loss(!) to Tulane in early January. Perhaps it's the three games the Tigers almost surely would have won had Nichols not (twice) injured his right ankle: losses to Temple (at FedExForum), East Carolina on the road, and Tulsa (at FEF). Even limited to 27 games, Nichols has blocked 93 shots, a single-season total topped by only three Tigers: David Vaughn, Keith Lee (twice), and D.J. Stephens. Presuming he returns for his junior season, Nichols could become the program's fourth first-team All-America.

• Taming the dogs.
The 2013-14 Tigers went 24-7 against teams not named Connecticut. (Of course, that team also went 24-7 against opponents not destined to win the national championship.) The Huskies thoroughly declawed the Tigers on their home floor in the quarterfinals of the 2014 AAC tourney at FedExForum. Which made this season's sweep of the reigning national champs the shiniest moments of an all-too-cloudy campaign. The first win (February 19th at FEF) required the lockdown of Husky star Ryan Boatright and 38 minutes from each of three starters (Nichols, Johnson, and Markel Crawford). The second (March 5th in Storrs) required 22 points from Trahson Burrell and a bouncing, deflecting, finally-dropping shot by Shaq Goodwin with eight seconds left and Nichols home in Memphis nursing that ankle injury. These were big wins, even with UConn a shadow of its 2014 edition. The U of M desperately needs a blood-boiling conference rivalry. Based on the intensity we saw last Thursday night, we may have found it.

• Those empty seats.
I've touched on this, so pardon any redundancy, but it's an important factor in this program's continued relevance. The Tigers played the same number of games this season at FedExForum as they did in 2013-14 (18). Last season they sold 290,183 tickets, or an average of 16,121 per game. This season: 250,478 tickets for an average of 13,915. That's a drop of 14 percent in attendance and nearly 40,000 fewer tickets sold to see Markel Crawford this winter than were sold to see Chris Crawford last winter. Not since the 2006-07 season had the Tigers averaged fewer than 16,000 tickets sold per game, to say nothing of less than 15,000, or 14,000.

The problem? This is not an exciting team. That does not mean they aren't worthy of support. I'd argue this team has some fight in it — dare we call it "grit"? — that some of its recent predecessors did not. But it simply has not energized a prodigious fan base. I heard the word "boring" more often this season than I have since Rip Scherer's offense took the field at the Liberty Bowl. As brilliant as Nichols may be in the post, the jury's out on whether or not he can sell tickets. The team's best long-range shooter — Avery Woodson — would surely come off the bench for a Final Four contender. Perhaps this season was an anomaly, and the arrival of the Lawson brothers for 2015-16 will spark a quick revival. But the U of M has a ticket-selling campaign unlike many it's ever coordinated: "We want you back."

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Cincinnati 77, Tigers 65

Posted By on Sun, Mar 8, 2015 at 1:19 PM

The Tigers were down 17-2 before most Memphians had reset their clocks for Daylight Savings Time. Taking the floor in Cincinnati at 10 a.m. according to their body clocks, the Tigers saved some face by closing within 10 points in the second half. But the Bearcats retained control throughout to earn the third seed in the upcoming American Athletic Conference tournament (opening Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut). The loss leaves Memphis with a final regular-season record of 18-13 (10-8 in AAC play).

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Octavius Ellis led Cincinnati with 19 points and 12 rebounds to help avenge the Bearcats' loss at FedExForum last January. Farad Cobb added 16 points and Jermaine Sanders 12 as Cincinnati hit six three pointers and shot 23 of 29 from the free-throw line. The win improves the Bearcats' record to 22-9 and 13-5 in the AAC.

Playing their second straight game without star forward Austin Nichols, the Tigers had to fire from long distance in trying to close the large scoring gap. They missed 13 of their 17 three-point attempts. Ironically, Memphis made more total field goals (26) than did Cincinnati (24). The Tigers were nine for 15 from the charity stripe.

Shaq Goodwin had a strong second half and scored a game-high 22 points. Senior Calvin Godfrey (starting in place of Nichols) was the only other Tiger in double figures with 14. Memphis coach Josh Pastner played essentially a seven-man rotation, with Nick King (six points) and Markel Crawford (seven points) the only reserves to get significant playing time.

The Tigers will next play Temple (22-9, 13-5) in the AAC quarterfinals on Friday, the game scheduled to tip off at 1 p.m. central time. The Owls beat Memphis on a buzzer-beater February 7th at FedExForum, the game in which Nichols initially injured his right ankle. Memphis will need to win three games in three days at the AAC tourney to earn a fifth-straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tigers 54, Connecticut 53

Posted By on Thu, Mar 5, 2015 at 10:44 PM

It's the biggest win of the season (at least so far). When Shaq Goodwin's 10-foot jumper fell through (finally), and Ryan Boatright's off-balance attempt at the buzzer did not, the Tigers secured their 18th win of the season, a sweep of the defending national champions, and hope for the fifth and final bye in next week's American Athletic Conference tournament (to be played, of course, in Connecticut).

Memphis had no business winning tonight's game in Storrs. The Tigers played without star forward Austin Nichols, sidelined (again) with a right-ankle injury. The Huskies honored their seniors before the game, including Boatright, the AAC's top scorer. The home team shot 22 free throws to the visitors' two. (The visitors' two!) But thanks to a breakout performance by junior forward Trahson Burrell and 28-percent shooting from the field by UConn, Memphis was able to end a two-game losing streak and improve to 10-7 in AAC play this winter. Burrell scored a season-high 22 points, the last four coming after he left the game briefly with what appeared could have been a serious, yes, ankle injury.

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The Tigers dominated early with long-distance marksmanship from Burrell and Kedren Johnson, taking a 22-9 lead midway through the opening half. But after Calvin Godfrey was charged with a flagrant-2 foul on the Huskies' Rodney Purvis, UConn finished the opening period on a 10-2 run to tie the game at 26.

Neither team gained separation in the second half despite the growing free-throw disparity in UConn's favor. Goodwin drew his fourth foul with more than 14 minutes to play but dodged a fifth long enough to deliver his game-ending heroics. The game-winning play was preceded by a UConn shot-clock violation, forced in part by a Burrell block. The 54 points are the fewest Memphis has scored in a victory this season.

Johnson contributed 10 points, eight rebounds, and six assists, while Godfrey scored eight points and pulled down 10 rebounds.

If the Tigers beat Cincinnati (in Ohio) Sunday in their regular-season finale, they'll secure that valued bye in next week's AAC tourney. Should they lose to the Bearcats, they'll need Temple to beat UConn in Philadelphia for the bye. Both Memphis (18-12) and UConn (17-12) need to win the AAC tourney to earn an NCAA tournament berth.

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