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."

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