Thursday, November 30, 2017

UAB 71, Tigers 56

Posted By on Thu, Nov 30, 2017 at 9:03 PM

The last time UAB beat Memphis on a basketball court, the teams were fellow members of Conference USA and Tiger football star DeAngelo Williams was awaiting the NFL draft. Eleven years later — after more than 8,000 rushing yards for Williams as a pro — the Blazers handled the Tigers Thursday night in what's come to be called the Bartow Classic.

The Tigers fell behind early in Birmingham, 12-1, and didn't convert their third field goal until more than 12 minutes had been played. Nate Darling hit three early three-pointers to give UAB a 22-6 lead midway through the first half and the Tigers were never able to reduce the margin below 10 points. The victory is UAB's first over Memphis since March 2, 2006, and ends a 16-game winning streak for the Tigers.

Now 3-2, Memphis was led by junior point guard Jeremiah Martin with 18 points. Junior forward Kyvon Davenport was the only other Tiger in double figures with 14. The loss ended a three-game winning streak for the U of M.

Chris Cokley scored 18 points and Darling finished with 14 for UAB as the Blazers improved to 5-3 on the season.

Memphis returns to FedExForum Saturday to play Mercer. Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m., shortly after Memphis plays UCF in Orlando in the American Athletic Conference football championship.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Six Tigers Named All-AAC

Posted By on Wed, Nov 29, 2017 at 11:35 AM

No fewer than six members of the 2017 Memphis Tiger football team were named first-team all-league Wednesday by the American Athletic Conference.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

Senior linebacker Genard Avery received recognition a second straight year and is the only member of the Memphis defense on the All-AAC team. Senior wide receiver Anthony Miller — now the holder of virtually every receiving record in the Memphis book — earned first-team honors after being named second-team All-AAC as a junior. Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson was named first-team, somewhat oddly, along with UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton (who was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year). Ferguson has thrown 32 touchdown passes this season, matching his program record of a year ago. Ferguson and Milton will face each other this Saturday when the Tigers and Knights play for the AAC title in Orlando.

Two members of the Tiger offensive line — senior guard Gabe Kuhn and junior tackle Trevon Tate — earned first-team honors. The Memphis offensive line has allowed only 11 sacks all season (sixth-fewest in the country) and is a big reason the Tigers rank second in the country (behind UCF) in scoring with an average of 47 points per game.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

In a predictable vote, sophomore kick returner Tony Pollard was named the league's Special Teams Player of the Year (along with first-team All-AAC honors). Pollard returned four kickoffs for touchdowns this season and has six in his two-year career, just one shy of the FBS record.

Freshman cornerback T.J. Carter was named the AAC's Rookie of the Year. He leads Memphis with four interceptions.

The 16th-ranked Tigers (10-1) play 12th-ranked UCF (11-0) Saturday in the AAC championship. The game will be played in Orlando and kick off at 11 a.m. locally. ABC will broadcast the game nationally.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Bigger Than a Bowl

Posted By on Mon, Nov 27, 2017 at 10:16 AM

The University of Memphis has fielded a football team for 105 years, much longer than the school has been called the University of Memphis. Coach Clyde Wilson oversaw a 1-2-1 season in 1912, the Tigers’ lone win coming against Bolton Agricultural College. You can raise a compelling barstool debate with the following question: Would the 1912 Tigers beat Larry Porter’s 2010 outfit? (The latter went 1-11 and was outscored 478-173.)

Things have gotten much better for the U of M on the gridiron. This Saturday in Orlando, the Tigers will play the biggest, most significant game in the history of the program when they face UCF in the American Athletic Conference championship game. It’s big for what it represents on its own: the first time Memphis has played in a game structured to determine a conference champion. But it’s monumental for this long-suffering program for what would come with a Tiger win.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

There are no fewer than 40 bowl games in college football. The sport’s postseason now includes teams with losing records playing in heavily sponsored events on neutral fields, each of these games televised nationally. (That TV programming, it should be understood, is why the games exist. Live sports provide the only stage where TV commercials still reach a full audience and, my god, the commercial breaks in a football game . . .) But there are precisely seven bowl games that still matter: the AutoZone Liberty Bowl (played here in Memphis since 1965) and what’s now called the New Year’s Six (the Rose Bowl, Orange, Cotton, Sugar, Fiesta, and Peach). Two of the New Year’s Six bowls make up the relatively new national semifinals, with this season’s semis being played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena California, and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

Here’s the kicker: If Memphis beats the Knights this Saturday, the Tigers will earn the lone “Group of Five” berth in the New Year’s Six and play in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day. The odds of landing such a spot are tremendously long. Teams from the so-called Power Five leagues – the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 — fill 11 of the 12 New Year’s Six slots (and are virtually assured of the four national semifinal berths). This leaves 62 teams from the likes of the Mid-American Conference, Conference USA, and yes, the AAC vying for a single, solitary chance to play on college football’s (almost) biggest platform. The 16th-ranked Memphis Tigers will earn that single, solitary slot if they can win their 11th game (and eighth straight) this Saturday.

The 2017 Memphis Tigers are already an historic team. Senior Anthony Miller has done to the program’s receiving records what DeAngelo Williams once did to the rushing marks. Sophomore Tony Pollard has returned four kickoffs for touchdowns (and six in two seasons) after no Memphis player returned as many as two for a century-plus. Only two other Memphis teams — in 1938 and 2014 — have won 10 games in a season. No Tiger team has played a game in December ranked among the country’s top 20 teams. Ever. But there’s more to be gained.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

UCF is one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Knight quarterback McKenzie Milton is one of the few men in the sport who can sling it with Tiger QB Riley Ferguson. The Tigers average 47 points per game (second in the country) and are six points from breaking the single-season mark of 522 (set in 2015), but UCF averages 48.2 points per game. Saturday’s showdown could damage the scoreboard at Spectrum Stadium.

A colleague recently suggested that the Tigers reaching the Peach Bowl would be better than the Memphis basketball team making the Final Four. And this is worthy of an actual barstool debate. College football now has it’s own “final four,” but a program like Memphis — not “Power Five,” remember — is all but excluded from consideration. So the holy grail of postseason events for Memphis football players is, indeed, a New Year’s Six bowl game. They literally (at least for now) don’t get any bigger.

“You embrace the emotion,” said a pleased-but-not-satisfied Memphis coach Mike Norvell after last Saturday’s win over East Carolina. “But this journey is not over. The next chapter is there in front of us, and it’s gonna take every bit of preparation that we have. We’re playing a great football team. We have to go to work and put ourselves in position to be successful.”

To be bigger than a bowl game.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Tigers 76, Northern Kentucky 74

Posted By on Sat, Nov 25, 2017 at 9:55 PM

The Tigers overcame a dreadful start and a nine-point halftime deficit Saturday evening at FedExForum to beat Northern Kentucky and improve to 3-1 on the season. Jeremiah Martin and Jamal Johnson each hit free throws in the final minute to provide just enough margin and give the Tigers a second straight win over a team that played in the 2017 NCAA tournament.

Senior forward Jimario Rivers hit six of eight shots from the field and led Memphis with 17 points and seven rebounds. Kyvon Davenport added 16 points (seven of ten from the field), Martin 15, and Johnson 12. A pair of three-pointers by Johnson with less than five minutes to play turned a 63-61 deficit into a 67-63 Memphis lead.

The Tigers shot 48 percent from the field as a team and held the Norse to 44 percent, while also winning the battle off the glass with 39 rebounds to Northern Kentucky's 30.

Lavone Holland led Northern Kentucky (4-2) with 19 points.

The Tigers travel to Birmingham for their next game where they'll renew their longtime rivalry with UAB on Thursday. Memphis has won 16 consecutive meetings with the Blazers dating back to the 2005-06 season.

#17 Tigers 70, East Carolina 13

Posted By on Sat, Nov 25, 2017 at 4:16 PM

Two days after Thanksgiving, a record-setting 2017 Memphis Tiger football team set the table for next week's American Athletic Conference championship game. With a thorough evisceration of East Carolina at a sun-splashed Liberty Bowl, the 17th-ranked Tigers improved to 10-1 on the season, completed the program's first undefeated home schedule (7-0) at the 53-year-old stadium, and will now travel to Orlando to face undefeated UCF — the only team to hand Memphis a loss this year — with a berth in a New Year's Six bowl game (the Peach, in Atlanta) at stake.
Mike Norvell - MATTHEW SMITH
  • Matthew Smith
  • Mike Norvell

"I'm extremely proud of our football team," said Tiger coach Mike Norvell, the third coach in Memphis history to oversee a 10-win season. "All week long we talked about having one focus, to come out here and finish our regular season. For our seniors, what a special occasion: the first Tiger team to ever go undefeated in this stadium. There aren't enough words to truly do justice to what [this senior class] has meant to this program, what they've meant to this community. It's been an honor to coach them. We now have the chance next week to be on a national stage in a championship game. We're going to play a great opponent, and there's a lot of work to be done, but today we're going to enjoy this one. It's a symbolic day for our program, continuing the progression."

Appropriately on Senior Day, a pair of record-breaking seniors — quarterback Riley Ferguson and wide receiver Anthony Miller — connected on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage for an 89-yard touchdown. Ferguson needed only nine pass completions to gain 299 yards through the air and throw three touchdown passes to tie his own Tiger mark (32) for the season. Miller caught only three of those passes, but for 144 yards, his touchdown tying Memphis legend Dave Casinelli for second in Tiger history with 36 for his brilliant career.

Other records and milestones of note:

• The Tigers' 10 touchdowns increased their season point total to 517, the third straight season topping 500 after the program had never reached the mark before 2015. Six more points will break the record of 522 scored two seasons ago. This is the first time Memphis has scored 500 in only 11 games.
Patrick Taylor - MATTHEW SMITH
  • Matthew Smith
  • Patrick Taylor

• Sophomore Darrell Henderson carried the ball 10 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns, increasing his season rushing total to 1,045 (with an astounding average per carry of 9.1 yards). He's the first Tiger to gain 1,000 yards on the ground since Curtis Steele in 2009 and, with Miller, gives the Tigers their first team with both a 1,000-yard rusher and receiver. Alas, he was outgained Saturday by fellow sophomore Patrick Taylor, who carried the ball six times for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

• The Tigers' seventh win in a row gives this year's senior class 37 victories in four years, a program record they can increase with a win next week and/or in their bowl game.

• Sophomore Tony Pollard returned a third-quarter kickoff 100 yards for his fourth kickoff-return touchdown of the season (and sixth in two seasons). Before Pollard arrived on the U of M campus, no Tiger had returned as many as two kickoffs to the end zone.

"They've done everything we've asked of them," said Norvell. "To prepare, to not get distracted, not get caught up in anything else going on outside." Norvell will continue to publicly ignore speculation that has him taking one higher-profile job or another, preaching focus for all involved that much remains to be gained this season, for this team.

"You can get caught up in the compliments," said Norvell. "But what you see is who you are. We're going to continue to progress. We want to continue to get better as individuals. Stay humble. Stay grounded. If you don't play up to the best of your ability, people won't be complimenting you very long."

Pollard echoed his coach's sentiments, knowing the value of an AAC championship, and remembering the 40-13 beating UCF handed his team on September 30th. "We like to take each week a game at a time," said the Melrose alum. "We weren't thinking about UCF or a bowl game. We did a pretty good job of that, so now it's on to the next one."

"I'm gonna enjoy this," said Ferguson, who has played his last game at the Liberty Bowl but will quarterback the biggest game in Tiger history next Saturday. "But then I'm gonna watch some film on UCF and get ready for them. It's a big one. We've come a long way [since the UCF loss]. We've matured a lot."

Norvell spoke the words of a coach who is pleased, but not quite satisfied. "You embrace the emotion," he emphasized, "but this journey is not over. The next chapter is there in front of us, and it's gonna take every bit of preparation that we have. We're playing a great football team next Saturday. We have to go to work and put ourselves in position to be successful."

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

21 Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Nov 22, 2017 at 8:00 AM

The University of Memphis has retired six jerseys. It's reasonable to think at least one number from this year's remarkable class of seniors will make it to the banner that's now displayed under the press box at the Liberty Bowl. This Saturday's Senior Day will be unlike any other in the history of the Tiger program, as we won't be merely saying goodbye, but good luck . . . for next week's American Athletic Conference championship game, and beyond.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

We'll be left to wonder what kind of career numbers quarterback Riley Ferguson would have posted had he played four years in Memphis. (Playing time would have been challenging before he arrived, of course, as Paxton Lynch manned the position.) The Charlotte native has made the most of his two seasons, to say the least. He and Lynch are the only two Memphis signal-callers to have two 3,000-yard seasons. With 3,201 so far this season and three games to play, Ferguson could eclipse Lynch's single-season record of 3,776 (2015). His 61 career touchdown passes are more than Lynch threw in three seasons (59) and second only to Danny Wimprine's 81 on the Tiger chart. Forget the stats, though. Ferguson has been a winner, posting a record of 17-6 (so far) as an FBS quarterback.

Another two-year Tiger, cornerback Jonathan Cook, has helped stabilize the Memphis secondary since he arrived as a transfer from Garden City Community College (after two years at Alabama). Cook has started all 23 games he's suited up for and is fourth on the team this season in tackles (58). Four more transfers have played supporting roles in helping this year's team reach 17th in the current AP rankings: defensive back Caelon Harden, offensive lineman Lio Lafaele, linebacker Mannie Lowery, linebacker Darian Porter, and defensive back Christian Slaughter (five tackles in the win over UCLA).

• Fourteen of this year's seniors will leave with a special badge of honor: the most wins (36 and counting) over a four-year period in the history of the Memphis program.
  • Larry Kuzniewski

If you're betting on a number to be added to that retired-jersey banner, start with 3, the digit worn with extraordinary flare by Anthony Miller. Once a walk-on receiver from Christian Brothers High School, Miller shredded the Tiger receiving record book, and in only three seasons of action on the field (he lost his freshman year to injury after being redshirted). Miller now owns the Memphis record for receptions in a game (15), season (95 in 2016), and career (217), and receiving yards in a game (250), season (1,434 in 2016), and career (3,196). With one more touchdown, Miller will tie Dave Casinelli for second-most in Tiger history with 36. But again, forget the stats. Miller passes every sensory test of a college football star and now belongs among this program's pantheon of legends.

Count on linebacker Genard Avery earning first team All-AAC recognition. It will be the Grenada, Mississippi, native's second such honor. After accumulating 23 tackles behind the line of scrimmage over his first three seasons, Avery has 17 this year alone. He leads the Tigers with 5.5 sacks and is second on the team with 63 tackles.

Punting for a team that scores as much as the Tigers is a unique chore, and Spencer Smith has handled it exceptionally well. He earned first-team All-AAC honors as both a sophomore and junior. He's split duties this season with fellow-senior Nick Jacobs and has pinned Tiger opponents inside their own 20-yard line six times. Jacobs has 11 such kicks and has drilled five punts more than 50 yards.

Phil Mayhue and Roderick Proctor have played in the pass-catching shadow of Miller, but each has enjoyed moments as a chain-moving target for Tiger quarterbacks. Mayhue topped 600 yards in receiving in both 2015 and 2016 and is just 24 yards shy of becoming the sixth Tiger with 2,000 career yards through the air. Proctor's best season came as a sophomore when he averaged 13.4 yards on 25 catches.

Even with five seasons on campus (and 18 games as a Tiger basketball player in 2016), it feels like we didn't see as much of Sam Craft as we would have liked. The son of a former Tiger (Ray Craft played for Memphis in the 1980s), Craft brought versatility to the Tiger offense when it was finding itself under coach Justin Fuente. Despite losing his senior season to injury, Craft topped 700 yards rushing, 600 yards receiving, and 300 yards returning kickoffs for the Tigers. He could handle the roundball, too.

It's a testament to just how deep the Tiger team has become at running back that Doroland Dorceus hasn't been missed more this season. Slowed by leg injuries, Dorceus has managed only 31 carries (for 150 yards) this fall. He starred as a junior, rushing for 810 yards and nine touchdowns, and is one of only nine Tigers to top 2,000 yards on the ground for his career.

Here's hoping guard Gabe Kuhn gets consideration for All-AAC accolades. The Missouri native has started every game he's played at Memphis (48 and counting) and is a big reason the Tigers have only allowed 11 sacks this season (9th-fewest among FBS teams). Christian Johnson (Southwind High School) has made 26 starts over the last three years on the defensive line and has 9.5 career sacks. Linebacker Shareef White has made starts at linebacker each of the last three years and has four tackles-for-loss this season

Special teams aren't just Tony Pollard kickoff returns. Evan Michael (Christian Brothers) has been a steady holder on place kicks and watched his share of records fall during Jake Elliott's time in a Tiger uniform.

Every year, we bid farewell to seniors who have not often heard their name called. These, though, are the players who make up the fabric of a college program. They are on the practice field with every starter, in the film room, in the weight room, donning their pads and helmets for a game-day opportunity, whether or not their number is called. If you're at the Liberty Bowl this Saturday, make sure you're standing when defensive back Jamil Collins and running back Anthony Young (White Station) are introduced. Again, 36 wins in four years.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Tigers 63, New Orleans 52

Posted By on Tue, Nov 21, 2017 at 10:26 PM

In a game between Memphis and New Orleans, it's fitting that a man named Rivers made the biggest impact. The Tigers' senior forward — Jimario Rivers — scored a career-high 18 points and led Memphis with seven rebounds in 38 minutes of action Tuesday night at FedExForum. Rivers was the difference in what can best be described as an uneven game between teams still identifying weak spots. Memphis improved to 2-1 on the season while the Privateers fell to 0-3.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jimario Rivers

"[Our team chemistry] is in the building process," said Rivers after the game. "We're trying to build a brotherhood." Among the other nine Tigers to take the floor against New Orleans, precisely one — Jeremiah Martin — has played more than three games in a Memphis uniform. Martin and Rivers combined to score 33 of the Tigers' points, with junior transfer Kyvon Davenport the only other Tiger in double figures (10).

The Tigers jumped out to a big lead, in dramatic contrast to their opening stretch against Little Rock a week ago. But a 17-point lead (30-13) late in the first half was shaved to single digits midway through the second, forcing a few more tense possessions than the Memphis coach would prefer. "It's human nature," said Tubby Smith. "Most people have a tough time with prosperity. I tried to be positive at halftime. But I knew we're not playing [as well as we should]. We're not hitting outside shots; that puts a lot of pressure on us." Junior transfer Kareem Brewton — a junior-college All-America last season — missed five of six shots from the field and freshman sharpshooter Jamal Johnson was not sharp, missing all four of his attempts from the field.

The Tigers maintained their lead by hitting free throws, particularly in the second half (12 of 14). Martin hit all eight of his shots from the foul line. The teams combined to hit only five of 27 shots from three-point range and had more turnovers (34) than assists (29). It was ugly, early-season basketball.

"You gotta read the defense," emphasized Smith. "It takes patience. Takes poise. It's pretty easy to guard when you just dribble in one spot."

The Privateers' top scorer, Travin Thibodeaux, was limited to eight points, in part due to foul trouble that allowed him to play only 22 minutes. Makur Puou led New Orleans with 11 points and nine rebounds.

"Our defense was okay," said Smith. "It was outstanding in the first half. But you can't allow 56-percent shooting like we did in the second. It was bad. But we are getting better."

The Tigers return to the FedExForum floor Saturday when they host Northern Kentucky. Tip-off is scheduled for 5 p.m.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

#18 Tigers 66, SMU 45

Posted By on Sat, Nov 18, 2017 at 5:20 PM

American Athletic Conference West Division champions.

The 2017 Memphis Tigers — ranked 18th in the AP poll and climbing — still have a lot to play for this season. But however the next two weeks unfold — whether or not they achieve what not long ago would have been considered beyond reach — the Tiger program has a shiny new piece of hardware for which to be extra thankful this holiday season. In erasing an early 10-0 deficit and beating the SMU Mustangs Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers extended their winning streak to six games and, for the first time, clinched a berth in a league-championship game. (The AAC title game will be December 2nd, location still to be determined.) Memphis improved its overall record to 9-1 (6-1 in the AAC) behind an offense just about as balanced as they come: 333 yards rushing and 331 yards receiving.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

"I'm so very proud of our football team," said Tiger coach Mike Norvell. "To play with the energy and passion they did against a very good SMU team . . . they were relentless all day long. We did something to make Mother Nature not like us a whole lot, but even through that . . . the mindset, the attitude. No adversity was going to distract this football team."

Severe weather moved into the area early in the fourth quarter and, with lightning within eight miles of the stadium, the game was delayed for 57 minutes. The Mustangs, down 52-38 at the time of the delay, failed to convert on third down when play was resumed and punted to the Tiger 48-yard-line. On the Tigers' first post-delay snap, sophomore tailback Darrell Henderson sprinted though the line and 52 yards later secured the contest. It was the sixth of seven rushing touchdowns for the Tigers (tying a program record), but only Henderson's second-longest of the game. The Batesville native galloped 70 yards with 10:17 to play before halftime to give Memphis its first 14-point lead of the game.

Two of the top-10 scoring teams in the country, the Tigers and Mustangs took turns reaching the end zone on eight consecutive possessions — three of the scores coming in the second quarter, four in the third, and one in the fourth — growing the score (the Tigers led throughout the stretch) from 24-10 to 52-38. Not until the lengthy delay and Henderson's 52-yard jaunt did Memphis gain what could be called comfortable separation.
Darrell Henderson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Darrell Henderson

"That's what I wanted to see with the character of this team," said Norvell. "Going 1 and 0 this week. With everything they've done before today, they had a chance to hoist a trophy. And that was a goal we established when we started. We wanted to go undefeated in the West Division, and we accomplished that today. To see them celebrate together, and knowing how hard they worked and prepared is pretty special. I'm honored to be their coach. The journey's not done. We just afforded ourselves one more opportunity."

The Memphis defense presented just enough resistance, senior linebacker Genard Avery leading the way with three tackles behind the line of scrimmage. (He now has 17 such stops this season.) But this was a game for offensive stars. And the Tigers had their share:

• Senior wide receiver Anthony Miller caught eight passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns, breaking Duke Calhoun's Memphis career record for receptions (he's up to 217) and surpassing 1,000 yards for the season, which makes him the only Tiger in history to accumulate such a total twice. Miller's two scores give him 35 career touchdowns, one shy of Dave Casinelli for second in Memphis history.

• Sophomore tailback Patrick Taylor carried the ball 18 times for 114 yards and scored his 10th and 11th touchdowns of the season.

• Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson completed 21 of 27 passes for 320 yards (surpassing 3,000 yards for the season), tossed two touchdown passes, and ran for three more, the first time, Ferguson says, he's ever scored three rushing touchdowns in a game. ("He's been telling me about a move for two years," chuckled Norvell, "and I finally got to see it.")

• Henderson's lengthy runs added up to 147 yards on the ground and now put him within range of a 1,000-yard season with 923. "Our line did an amazing job today," said Henderson, "giving me big seams to run through." When asked if he's ever been caught from behind on a lengthy sprint to the end zone, Henderson smiled slightly, tilted his head, and said, "Nooo."

Ferguson knows there's more to achieve. A win next week over East Carolina would give the program only its third 10-win season (and second in the last four years). A win in the AAC Championship (over UCF or USF) would likely earn the Tigers a coveted trip to a "New Year's Six" bowl game (the Peach in Atlanta). Every win gives more meaning to the next week's game. "We don't worry about rankings, or what our record is," said Ferguson. "We're trying to go out each week and be the best Memphis Tiger football team we can be, and if we do that, things work out, like they have been."

The Tigers host the Pirates (3-8 after beating Cincinnati Saturday) next Saturday at the Liberty Bowl. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Tigers 70, Little Rock 62

Posted By on Tue, Nov 14, 2017 at 10:16 PM

There was a time — not that long ago – when the Tiger basketball team's home opener seemed to rescue the city of Memphis from football season. Tuesday night, it seemed like much of the hoops fan base stayed home for this week's College Football Playoff rankings update. (The Tigers moved up a notch to 21 after their bye week.)
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

The home team played its first 10 minutes against Little Rock as though the players were counting empty seats. (Announced attendance: 7,224. Actual attendance: less than that.) The Tigers missed 10 of their first 12 shots from the field and found themselves down 21-7 after 12 minutes. They turned the ball over 10 times before handing out two assists. They had four shots blocked before connecting on four field goals.

Then Jeremiah Martin came to the rescue. The junior point guard from Mitchell High School scored every Tiger point on a 10-2 Memphis run late in the first half on his way to a career-high of 26. The Tigers didn't take the lead until junior forward Kyvon Davenport converted a leaner inside with 5:22 to play for a 55-53 advantage. The junior-college transfer — one of three to start for Memphis — hit a three-pointer from the top of the key on the Tigers' next possession to stretch the lead to five (58-53) and the Tigers never trailed again.

"I felt like if I got going, the whole team would get going," said Martin. "We're hard on each other, every day in practice. Malik [Rhodes] and I go at each other as point guards. I knew he'd be ready." Playing 22 minutes off the bench, Rhodes scored nine points and dished out four assists. "We woke up," said Rhodes. "We turned it up. We saw Jeremiah pick it up and he's our leader."

After the brutal start, the Tigers managed to stabilize despite still identifying the moving parts that will impact coach Tubby Smith's second season in Memphis. After 10 turnovers in the game's first 10 minutes, the Tigers only had one miscue over the game's final 30. After shooting 31 percent in the first half, the Tigers hit 52 percent of their shots in the second. Just enough to even their record at 1-1 and give Smith some positive film with which to teach.
Kyvon Davenport - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Kyvon Davenport

"I'm proud of how our guys competed," said Smith, "especially down 14 or 15 like that early in the game. You can collapse. But we showed some toughness. We weren't being very aggressive early. We were having a tough time defending them, one-on-one. We took some bad shots, but that had something to do with their length. Our zone slowed them down some."

Smith needs leadership in this transitional year, and he hopes he saw one in jersey number 3 Tuesday night. "He didn't play well in Annapolis [last Friday]," said Smith. "Nobody played well. We talked about leadership, what I need from him. Taking him off the ball helped. Malik did a good job of orchestrating the offense. I'm glad [Jeremiah] responded the way he did. He kept the team together; kept me together, too."

The Trojans (now 0-2) were led in the scoring column by Jaizec Lottie with 12 points. Wadley Mompremier scored seven points, grabbed seven rebounds, and blocked four shots in 24 minutes off the bench.

The Tigers return to action on November 21st when New Orleans visits FedExForum.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Nov 13, 2017 at 9:35 AM

• How significant to the Memphis program is Saturday's game against SMU at the Liberty Bowl? For the first time — ever — the Tigers will play a game for a berth in a conference championship. We've read and heard lots of "1 and 0" talk since Mike Norvell took the helm two years ago. (This actually preceded him, as Justin Fuente was a master of emphasizing each week as its own mini-season.) But the first goal for any college team is to win its league crown. Memphis tied for the AAC regular-season championship (with two other teams) in 2014, but the AAC didn't add a 12th team — and a championship game — until a year later. Conference USA held a championship the last eight seasons Memphis was a part of the league (2005-12), but the Tigers never finished a season atop their division. This is a big deal for the U of M.

The 18th-ranked Tigers actually get two chances to clinch the AAC West Division by virtue of a tiebreaker they hold over Houston (thanks to beating the Cougars last month). But if their aim is to climb the rankings and to be in the mix for the "Group of Five" berth in the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day, the Tigers need to handle the Mustangs this week. SMU has lost consecutive games (to UCF and Navy) but features an offense that ranks third in the AAC in scoring (39.6 points per game) and fourth in total offense (497.1 yards per game). Memphis, of course, ranks even higher in both categories (42.3 and 502.9). There's nothing wrong with a mid-day shootout the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Rest assured, after a bye week, the Tigers understand all there is to gain.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

Enjoy Anthony Miller's last two games at the Liberty Bowl. We won't see another player like Miller in a while. The former walk-on(!) from Christian Brothers High School has already become the first Tiger to accumulate 3,000 career receiving yards. His fourth catch Saturday will break Duke Calhoun's Memphis career receptions record (212). With 95 yards, Miller will become the first Tiger to have two 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Three more touchdowns would tie Miller with Dave Casinelli for second-most (36) in Memphis history. He's accumulated these numbers with the help of two of the program's finest quarterbacks (Paxton Lynch and Riley Ferguson), but Miller should be the next — and seventh — Tiger to see his number retired. (The man whose records Miller has broken — Isaac Bruce — is already a member of this exclusive club.)

And speaking of retired Tiger numbers, there is now a banner at the Liberty Bowl displaying the honored numbers of Bruce, Casinelli, John Bramlett, Charles Greenhill, Harry Schuh, and DeAngelo Williams. It's directly under the press box, as though a local scribe had been clamoring for just such a display. It's a small, but significant step toward further making the oversized Liberty Bowl a college program's home stadium.

• With the Tennessee and Florida jobs now open, Norvell's name is going to be discussed amid rumored hires. He's earned this with a pair of stellar seasons in Memphis, and the buzz will only get louder if Arkansas parts ways with Bret Bielema. But for the next six weeks — certainly the next three — Tiger fans need to find a way to embrace the "now" and not fret over a decision they really cannot control. Focus is a job skill, and in the conversations I've had with Norvell over the last two years, he displays the focus of a trauma surgeon. I don't see him allowing his job status to weigh on the performance (and fate) of his 2017 Memphis team. I can't imagine compartmentalizing the wooing of other programs, but this is where Norvell's focus will be most critical. The Tigers may or may not win the AAC championship. They may or may not achieve the unthinkable and play in a "New Year's Six" bowl game. But I don't think Norvell's job status will impact either scenario. Let the chatter happen. And prepare for a "1 and 0" week.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

Alabama 82, Tigers 70

Posted By on Fri, Nov 10, 2017 at 8:06 PM

There's irony in the Memphis Tigers opening their 2017-18 basketball season Friday night in the Veterans Classic at Annapolis, Maryland. When you look at Tiger coach Tubby Smith's roster, you count precisely two players who can be considered "veterans." And between them, guard Jeremiah Martin and forward Jimario Rivers have three years of experience at the Division I level.

It showed.

Memphis survived an unsightly first half — missing all six of its three-point attempts and nine of 21 free throws — and trailed by only two points (38-36) after 20 minutes. But the Tigers were unable to capitalize on 20 fouls called against a Crimson Tide team playing without two starters (forward Braxton Key and heralded freshman Collin Sexton, the latter suspended one game for involvement in the FBI's ongoing investigation of bribery and fraud in college basketball). A Rivers dunk tied the game at 40 with just over two minutes played in the second half, but Alabama seized control over the game's last 18 minutes.

Three Tide three-pointers over a two-minute stretch gave Alabama a 55-47 lead with 12:30 to play and Memphis would not close the margin. Dazon Ingram led the Tide with 20 points, four teammates joining him in double figures on the scoreboard. Alabama hit 11 three pointers, while the Tigers didn't hit their first until midway through the second half and finished the game a dreadful two of 17 from long distance.

Kyvon Davenport (one of five junior-college transfers to see action for Memphis) led the Tigers with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Kareem Brewton (like Davenport, a 2016-17 JUCO All-America) added 13 points and led Memphis with four assists. Martin, Rivers, and freshman Jamal Johnson added 10 points each for the Tigers.

The Tigers return to Memphis for their home opener next Tuesday when Little Rock visits FedExForum. The only way to gain veteran status is by playing games. Consider one now on the resume for a rookie-laden Memphis team.

Monday, November 6, 2017

2017-18 Tiger Basketball: First Impressions

Posted By on Mon, Nov 6, 2017 at 9:29 AM

The 2017-18 Memphis Tiger basketball season tips off this Friday in Annapolis, Maryland, where Tubby Smith's squad will face Alabama in the Veterans Classic. There's only so much we can glean from 40 minutes of exhibition basketball against a Division II foe, but here are a few early observations, taken largely from last Thursday's win over LeMoyne-Owen at FedEx Forum.

• Among the several rookies on Smith's roster, three appear bound for heavy minutes and should impact how well (or poorly) the upcoming season goes. Kyvon Davenport is a big man (by college standards) with soft hands, a prototype that thrives at this level. Furthermore, he moves well and appears to have an outside touch with his shot (he drained one of two three-point attempts in the exhibition and hit six of nine from the field overall). Like Davenport, guard Kareem Brewton was a first-team JUCO All-America in 2016-17. Brewton drained a trey to open the scoring against the Magicians and went on to score 11 points and hand out nine assists (with only two turnovers) in 25 minutes on the floor. Then there's freshman Jamal Johnson. It only seems like a decade since the Tigers had a consistent, pure shooter from long distance. Johnson hit four of seven three-point attempts and scored 14 points in 19 minutes last Thursday. If the Tigers merely realize an approximation of that off-the-bench impact from Johnson, the team will be a lengthy stride ahead of last year's group.
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

This is Jeremiah Martin's team, whether or not the junior point guard wants it. Martin took on playmaking duties as a sophomore, for a new coach, on a team with basically a five-man "rotation." And he thrived, averaging 10.3 points and 4.4 assists with an assist-to-turnover ration better than two-to-one. Can he further develop, now with other ball-handlers (including Malik Rhodes) behind him? Martin would be a legitimate weapon (and all-conference candidate) if he could find the mark from three-point range. (He shot 28 percent from long distance last season.) With Johnson, Davenport, and Brewton in the mix, Martin's lone shortcoming may not be as evident this winter. And the Tigers will have an even better point guard.

The Tigers are bigger, but how much? Among the ten Tigers who played at least 10 minutes in the exhibition, six are at least 6'6" . . . but none taller than 6'8". Will this team rebound (long a hallmark of Smith-coached clubs)? Senior Jimario Rivers is all effort in the paint, but averaged just 3.5 boards in 22 minutes as a junior. (Some of this is due to Dedric Lawson cleaning the glass so well. Won't be an issue this season.) Mike Parks (6'8") started the exhibition, played 23 minutes . . . and grabbed two rebounds. Freshman Victor Enoh (6'7") came off the bench and pulled down six rebounds in 11 minutes. Davenport led the way with seven boards. Watch this area closely. The Tigers won't stay in games with the likes of Cincinnati or Wichita State if they're not ending an opponent's possession after one shot.

The Tiger fan base remains in "wait-and-see" mode. There were not 5,000 people in the stands last Thursday night. Not close. I've seen exhibition games at FedExForum with more than 10,000 fans cheering a meaningless contest. After three years of postseason-free basketball, the Tiger program will either turn toward a new, brighter future this season . . . or further darken what's become a gloomy mini-era. I'm not sure the home schedule will help. Memphis opens against Little Rock on November 14th then faces New Orleans a week later. A game against Northern Kentucky will be played the same day (November 25th) the Tiger football team — a Top 20 program now — hosts East Carolina in its regular-season finale. Then there are four home games over an 11-day stretch of early December with teams only moms and the hoop-addicted can love: Mercer, Samford, Bryant, and Albany. A tilt with Louisville (in Madison Square Garden) on December 16th will really be this squad's opening game. Visits from the Bearcats (January 27th) and Shockers (February 6th) will say much about the program's following in what can now safely be called Grizzly Country.

I recently sat down for a visit with Tubby Smith. We discussed his first season in Memphis, a turbulent offseason, and the campaign ahead (to win Tiger hearts and minds). Check it out in this week's print edition of the Flyer.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

#22 Tigers 41, Tulsa 14

Posted By on Fri, Nov 3, 2017 at 10:34 PM

After trading touchdowns with Tulsa over the game's first 18 minutes, the 22nd-ranked Memphis Tigers pulled away for one of their easier wins of the season Friday night in Oklahoma. Senior quarterback Riley Ferguson completed 27 of 39 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns (giving him 27 for the season) to give Memphis its fifth straight win and improve the Tigers' record to 8-1 and 5-1 in American Athletic Conference play. Tulsa drops to 2-8 (1-5).

The victory sets up a chance for Memphis to clinch the AAC's West Division with a win against SMU on November 18th at the Liberty Bowl. (The Tigers have a bye next week.)

Ferguson connected with sophomore running back Darrell Henderson for a 17-yard touchdown to open the scoring on the Tigers' second possession of the game. Another sophomore, Tony Pollard, carried a short reception 59 yards into the end zone between a pair of Golden Hurricane scoring drives as the teams played to a 14-14 tie midway through the second quarter. But an 18-yard strike from Ferguson to senior wideout Anthony Miller made it 21-14, Tigers, with 6:49 to play before halftime and Memphis never looked back. With 46 receiving yards, Miller became the first player in Tiger history to pass 3,000 career yards through the air.

Sophomore Patrick Taylor scored on a fourth-down, one-yard plunge after a six-minute drive to give the Tigers a 28-14 lead in the third quarter. The Tigers' fifth touchdown came on a Ferguson-to-Damonte Coxie touchdown pass of nine yards in the fourth quarter. Freshman kicker Riley Patterson converted a pair of field goals to help give the Tigers their sixth 40-point game of the season.

The Memphis defense held Tulsa to 145 yards rushing, more than 100 yards under the Golden Hurricane's average. Henderson led the Tiger ground game with 123 yards. The Tigers outgained Tulsa, 525 total yards to 302. Nine different Tiger receivers gained yardage via the passing game, topped by senior Phil Mayhue with four catches for 74 yards.

With the victory, Memphis clinched a fourth straight eight-win season, a streak matched only once before in the program's history (1960-63).

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