Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 27, 2017 at 8:00 AM

The Memphis program's kick-return desert has been transformed into the Tony Pollard Garden of Paydirt. After going two decades without a kickoff returned for a touchdown, Memphis has watched Pollard return four(!) in the last 12 games. No other player in the history of the program (dating back to 1912) has returned as many as two kickoffs to the end zone. Pollard is only a sophomore (he redshirted in 2015). After last Saturday's win over Southern Illinois, I asked Pollard if there's an extra gear he feels (or any kind of energy surge) when he recognizes the kind of opening that yields a 90-plus-yard return. "Once I see the end zone," explained Pollard, "I try to just look at the scoreboard [video]. I want to race myself. You have to have that second gear. You want to run full speed when you catch the ball, but you have to find another gear to kick in when you get through the crowd."
Jake Elliott
  • Jake Elliott

Jake Elliott may be the most humble Tiger football player I've interviewed. Kickers are a different breed, of course. When they walk in a room, you don't think, "Football Player." When Jake Elliott walks in a room, minus his jersey and shoulder pads, you might think, "Tennis Player." And you'd be right. Elliott was an exceptional high school player in Illinois. He attributes his mental strength — the singular focus required for success as a placekicker — to his days on a tennis court. That singular focus, along with the prodigious strength of his right leg, was on display last Sunday when Elliott connected on a 61-yard field goal as time expired to give his Philadelphia Eagles a victory over the New York Giants. In just the second professional game of his career, the 22-year-old holder of virtually every U of M kicking record won a game with a kick just three yards shy of the NFL record. It was especially gratifying to see the humble "kid" I knew for four seasons in Memphis being carried off the field by players 100 pounds heavier, but light as a feather for the breathtaking moment their rookie teammate had just delivered.

This Saturday's game (finally) with UCF could get away from the Tigers. Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton is an early-season candidate for American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He leads the AAC in pass efficiency and is second with an average of 269.0 yards per game. In UCF's beating (38-10) of Maryland last week, Milton ran for 94 yards on just six carries. Based on what I've seen the last two weeks (I missed the Harvey Bowl to open the season), the Tiger defense has gaps to fill. Memphis ranks 10th in the AAC (out of 12 teams) in pass defense, allowing an average of 344.0 yards per game. They've been opportunistic, though, the two game-shifting interceptions against UCLA being the prime examples to date. The Tigers will need to force some turnovers in Orlando, it would seem, to gain a possession advantage against Milton and friends.(With defensive backs Tito Windham and Shaun Rupert nursing injuries, we'll learn a lot about depth on the Tiger D this Saturday.) But the UCF defense (second in the AAC, allowing 266.0 yards per game) must stop Riley Ferguson, Anthony Miller, Darrell Henderson, Joey Magnifico, and Patrick Taylor, to name just five offensive threats in blue. And let's remember: whenever the Knights score, they must kick off. Which means Tony Pollard Time.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Tigers 44, Southern Illinois 31

Posted By on Sun, Sep 24, 2017 at 12:07 AM

"As long as they keep kicking 'em to me, I'm gonna keep returning 'em." Memphis sophomore Tony Pollard — a proud alum of Melrose High School — said this with a smile shortly after his Tigers completed their third victory of the season Saturday night at the Liberty Bowl. And why wouldn't Pollard be smiling? His 100-yard kickoff return near the end of the third-quarter erased any momentum the Salukis thought they'd gained by closing the Tiger lead to three points (27-24). Pollard's second touchdown on a kick return this season — and the fourth of his two-year college playing career — proved to be the difference in a game tighter than many of the 41,584 fans in the stadium would have preferred.
Riley Ferguson looks downfield. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson looks downfield.

"That's one of the biggest momentum swings you can have in a game," said a relieved Tiger coach Mike Norvell. "Our entire return unit takes a lot of pride in that. When you see them get the chance to impact a game like that, it gives a huge boost to our team. There were actually a couple of returns I would have liked to see go better, but they came to the sideline, made corrections, went back out and executed."

Entering the 2016 season, no player in Memphis Tiger history had returned as many as two kickoffs for touchdowns (and 20 years had passed since the last one). Pollard's record of four now looks as unreachable as Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak. "Our guys did a good job of holding their blocks," explained Pollard, "I bounced to the outside and I just saw green grass. In a game like this, it gave us an extra boost of confidence, got us over the hump."

The Salukis presented a larger hump than your typical Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) program. SIU quarterback Sam Straub threw a pair of touchdowns as Tiger pass-rushers leveled him in the first half and the visitors enjoyed leads of 7-0, 14-7, and 21-17 at halftime. (A missed tackle along the right sideline allowed the third Saluki touchdown with just 36 seconds remaining in the second quarter.)
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

"We knew it was a 60-minute game," said Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson. "We knew they were a good team, that we couldn't take them lightly. It was about staying focused, playing better as a whole [in the second half]."

Ferguson led a four-play, 75-yard drive to open the second half, highlighted by a 55-yard pass completion to sophomore Pop Williams. Sophomore tailback Darrell Henderson scampered 14 yards for a touchdown to seize the lead back for Memphis, one the Tigers would not relinquish, thanks largely to Pollard's heroics.

"We knew this was going to be another battle," said Norvell. "They had a great game plan. All that matters is that you're one point better. One of our goals this season was to go undefeated in nonconference games, and we've done that. Our guys fought hard. There are some things we have to clean up. I keep talking about penalties. We are going to fix the personal foul penalties. I don't know how, but we're going to fix it."

Norvell continues to experiment with his placekickers. Spencer Smith — a Ray Guy Award candidate as one of the country's best punters — connected on a pair of field goals (35 yards and 31 Yards) and freshman Riley Patterson converted a third (30 yards). The Tigers scored on each of their seven possessions in the red zone (inside the opponent's 20-yard line).

Ferguson completed 22 of 36 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. Henderson gained 71 yards on the ground and Patrick Taylor added 77 and a late touchdown to close the scoring. Wideout Anthony Miller was held to six catches for 47 yards but managed to move into second place on the Tigers' all-time receiving yardage list. (He needs 599 more yards to surpass Duke Calhoun's record.)

The victory improves Memphis to 3-0 for the second straight season, something no Tiger coach had accomplished since Zach Curlin in 1927 and 1928. Memphis opens conference play next Saturday in Orlando against UCF in a game that was rescheduled after being cancelled during Hurricane Irma's assault on Florida. (The Knights beat Maryland Saturday to improve to 2-0.) Count on this: When the Tigers are set to receive the ball, Tony Pollard will be in position to receive the kickoff.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Three Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 20, 2017 at 8:00 AM

• A nationally televised college football game is a recruiting tool. The significance of the Tigers' upset of UCLA in front of the ABC cameras last weekend should only grow with coach Mike Norvell's next recruiting class. The two biggest plays in the Memphis win were interceptions of Bruin quarterback Josh Rosen. The first was by redshirt-freshman Tim Hart, who returned his third-quarter pick 60 yards to extend the Tigers' lead to 41-31. The second was by true freshman T.J. Carter, a snag that ended a UCLA threat with the Tigers clinging to a 48-45 lead. Since the day he arrived at the U of M, Norvell has said the best players on his roster will be on the field come game day. High school players seeing freshmen star on national television are that much more inclined to consider wearing the same uniform when it comes to their own commitment.
Isaac Bruce (1992-93)
  • Isaac Bruce (1992-93)

• This has become an annual gripe (apologies), but will remain so until we see the right kind of action. There is no visible tribute at the Liberty Bowl for the six Tiger greats who have had their jerseys retired. It mystifies me. We're not talking about statues or engraved numbers under the sky boxes. How about a single banner? One that reminds Tiger fans of the names (and numbers) of those to have received the program's ultimate honor: John Bramlett (64), Isaac Bruce (83), Dave Casinelli (30), Charles Greenhill (8), Harry Schuh (79), and DeAngelo Williams (20). If this isn't a priority for Norvell or U of M athletic director Tom Bowen, I'm surprised it hasn't become one for alumni and boosters of the program. Such a banner could be created with what amounts to pocket change in a football budget. And it would lift hearts and spirits during every home game. Simply has to happen.

I can't see Southern Illinois being a trap game for the Tigers. Not this early in the season. Sandwiched between the "statement game" against UCLA and the rescheduled conference opener against UCF (September 30th), the contest won't stand out in any season wrap-ups . . . unless the Salukis pull off an upset. There was a time (as recently as 2013) when an FCS opponent would be welcomed as a nice break on the Tiger schedule, a game Memphis might, you know, win. (Memphis handled UT-Martin four years ago, one of three wins that season.) Today, it's a chance for Norvell and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey to work out kinks in their scheme, for reserves to get off the bench for a few snaps, and for a little stat-padding among the Tiger skill-position players. (Anthony Miller needs only 30 yards receiving to move into second place on the Memphis career chart.) With three of the Tigers' following four games on the road, Saturday night should be a football party at the Liberty Bowl. And no injuries, please.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Tigers 48, #25 UCLA 45

Posted By on Sat, Sep 16, 2017 at 5:28 PM

"One game cannot define a season," said Memphis football coach Mike Norvell shortly after his Tigers had beaten the 25th-ranked UCLA Bruins at the Liberty Bowl. "But one game can be remembered."

Saturday's nationally televised game featured a combined 93 points and 1,193 yards of offense, but may come to be remembered for the final 10 minutes, during which neither team managed a point. Senior receiver Phil Mayhue caught a three-yard scoring strike from senior quarterback Riley Ferguson to give Memphis a 48-45 lead with 9:56 to play. It was Ferguson's sixth touchdown pass of the day, the game's sixth lead change, and, as it turned out, the final points of the contest.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

"That was an exceptional game," said Norvell. "We talked all summer about this game being a showcase game. Memphis showed well today. Not just our football team, but the community support, every aspect of what we're trying to do. We didn't play a perfect game; there were mistakes we made. And against a really good football team. But our guys continued to push, continued to battle. I'm so proud, top to bottom." A crowd of 46,291 attended the game despite the ABC broadcast and the visiting team traveling across two time zones (with a relatively small traveling party in the stands).

The Tigers had a chance to increase their three-point lead with the ball inside the Bruin 30-yard line with just under four minutes to play. Norvell called a fake field-goal attempt, but freshman kicker Riley Patterson's pass was intercepted in the end zone. On its ensuing possession, UCLA was hit with an offensive pass-interference penalty. The Bruins' final breath was extinguished when a Josh Rosen pass on fourth down was deflected by freshman cornerback Jacobi Francis.

An All-America candidate, Rosen completed 34 of 56 passes for 463 yards and four touchdowns, but tossed a pair of critical interceptions to Tiger freshmen Tim Hart and T.J. Carter. Hart returned his 60 yards for a third-quarter touchdown and Carter's erased a fourth-quarter drive that could have given the Bruins the lead.

A graduate of Memphis University School, Hart was especially pleased to grab some spotlight after being redshirted last year. "I've grown a lot," he said. "It's a mindset. By coming here, you put your trust in the coaches. Memphis football is at a level it's never been before. I never took a day off."
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Anthony Miller

Senior wideout Anthony Miller had his first star showing of the season, catching nine passes for 185 yards. Ferguson completed 23 of 38 passes for 398 yards and six touchdowns (tying a career high, one shy of the Memphis single-game record). Tailback Darrell Henderson galloped 80 yards on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage and finished with 105 yards on the ground.

"We knew we wanted to be balanced," said Norvell. "We played 76 snaps on offense and 91 on defense. That was a grind, and against a top-25 opponent."

Ferguson relished the victory over a high-profile opponent (and high-profile quarterback). "We have to go out and try to score every time we take the field," emphasized Ferguson. "No matter if the other team scores or punts us the ball. Every time. Nothing changes for us. We believe in our defense. Don't worry about what the score is."

As for his favorite target, Ferguson delights in what he's come to expect as normal. "[Anthony Miller] is so good. If you throw him the ball, he's gonna make a play. I love having him on any defensive back in the country. It gets the juices going, seeing Ant make a big-time play." Miller caught consecutive passes — one a 41-yard, diving catch and the other for 33 yards into the end zone — to give Memphis a 27-24 lead just before halftime.

Linebacker Austin Hall and safety Jonathan Cook led the Tiger defense, each with nine tackles and one behind the line of scrimmage. Sophomore defensive tackle Jonathan Wilson sacked Rosen in the second half after serving a suspension in the first half for a targeting penalty in the Tigers' opener against Louisiana-Monroe.

The win improves the Tigers to 2-0 after a pair of hurricane-related false starts to the season. Memphis has started each of the last three seasons 2-0, a streak unmatched since 1959-61. The Tigers will host Southern Illinois next Saturday at the Liberty Bowl in their final nonconference game of the season.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Memphis Tiger Basketball: 2017-18 Schedule

Posted By on Fri, Sep 15, 2017 at 11:52 AM

The American Athletic Conference has released its 2017-18 basketball schedule, finalizing the Memphis Tigers' slate of games for year two of the Tubby Smith era.

Fri. Nov. 10 — Alabama, Veterans Classic,  Annapolis, MD (5:30 p.m.)
Tue. Nov. 14 — Little Rock (7 p.m.)
Tue. Nov. 21 — New Orleans (7 p.m.)
Sat. Nov. 25 — Northern Kentucky (TBD)
Thur. Nov. 30 — at UAB (TBD)
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

Sat. Dec. 2 — Mercer (4 p.m.)
Tue. Dec. 5 — Samford  (7 p.m.)
Sat. Dec. 9 — Bryant (12 p.m.)
Tue. Dec. 12 — Albany  (8 p.m.)
Sat. Dec. 16 — Louisville, Gotham Classic, New York, NY (11 a.m.)
Wed. Dec. 20 — Siena (7 p.m.)
Sat. Dec. 23 — Loyola-MD (11 a.m.)
Thur. Dec. 28 — LSU (7 p.m.)
Sun. Dec. 31 — at Cincinnati (3 p.m.)

Wed. Jan. 3 — at UCF (6 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 6 — Tulsa (3 p.m.)
Tue. Jan. 9 — Tulane (6 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 13 —  at Temple (1 p.m.)
Tue. Jan. 16 — UConn (8 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 20 — at Tulsa (7 p.m.)
Sat. Jan. 27 — Cincinnati (5 p.m.)
Wed. Jan. 31 — at USF (6 p.m.)

Sat. Feb. 3 — at East Carolina (1 p.m.)
Tue. Feb. 6 — Wichita State (8 p.m.)
Sun. Feb. 11 — UCF (3 p.m.)
Wed. Feb. 14 — at SMU (8 p.m.)
Sat. Feb. 17 — at Tulane (2 p.m.)
Thur. Feb. 22 — Houston (8 p.m.)
Sun. Feb. 25 — at UConn (TBD)

Thur. Mar. 1 — USF (8 p.m.)
Sun. Mar. 4 — East Carolina (2 p.m.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 13, 2017 at 8:00 AM

There's no feel to this season. Not yet. No rhythm (if such can be felt in a sport with weekly games). The star of the Tigers' opener — two weeks ago — was Hurricane Harvey, or at least the last vicious breaths of that ravaging storm that so thoroughly drowned parts of Texas. Memphis escaped with a win over Louisiana-Monroe, but in front of no more than 10,000 drenched fans. Then last week's game at UCF was mercifully cancelled, this time a hurricane proving too much, even for a football game. So we're left with what many consider the Tigers' biggest game of the year — UCLA and a forecast of sunshine! — and very little sense of how strong this year's Memphis team might be. Quarterback Riley Ferguson and his band of talented receivers were declawed by the weather system on August 31st. Will they be ready to counterpunch a Bruin attack led by NFL-bound Josh Rosen under center, an offense that erased a 34-point lead in less than 20 minutes against Texas A & M? Sixty minutes of football at UCF — in reasonable conditions — would have suggested an answer. Until 11 a.m. Saturday morning, no one really knows, including the Memphis coaching staff. We'll have a feel for the 2017 Memphis Tigers by mid-afternoon Saturday.

"Our guys, I have to give them a compliment for the maturity they've shown," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell during his weekly press conference Monday. "They've handled a lot of different things and quite a good deal of adversity here early when it comes to the schedule and their routine. They're definitely looking forward to this Saturday."

When I think of Memphis-UCLA I think of basketball. The Tigers have played in three Final Fours and faced the Bruins in two of them. Most famously, Bill Walton became a household name in the 1973 championship game, beating what remains the most famous team in Memphis sports history, one led by Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, and Larry Kenon. Thirty-five years later, the U of M (with Derrick Rose) whipped UCLA (with Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook) in San Antonio.

The Tigers and Bruins have only played once before on the gridiron, a 42-35 UCLA win in Los Angeles in 2014. That was the Tigers' second game of the season, Paxton Lynch's second start at quarterback, and the first real indication that a corner might be turned for the Tiger program. Memphis had a chance in the fourth quarter to knock off the country's 11th-ranked team. There seemed to be a renewal of hope two weeks later when Memphis handled Middle Tennessee at the Liberty Bowl. They went on to win eight of their last ten games and earn a ranking of 25 in the final AP poll. Here's hoping this week's game deepens the association of these two schools on the football field.

• AAC commissioner Mike Aresco likes describing his league — and the programs that comprise it — as "Power Six." The implication is that the AAC deserves equal standing with the likes of the SEC, Big 10, and Pac-12 . . . the fabled "Power Five" that centers college football. Since the Tiger program's revival in 2014, Memphis has played seven games against Power Five teams and won three of them. Two of those victories came against Kansas, though, one of the weakest programs in the classification.The 2015 upset of Ole Miss was historic (it extended a Tiger winning streak to an astounding 13 games). The four Power Five losses during this period: UCLA, Auburn (in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl), and Ole Miss twice. A win over UCLA — as televised live by the ABC cameras — would be a significant step in the right direction for Mike Norvell and this program. And it would give a little more credence to the notion of a "Power Six" league.

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Three Thoughts on Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Wed, Sep 6, 2017 at 9:58 AM

• Football games should not be played in hurricane conditions. My wife and I were stuck in the Philadelphia airport last Thursday as the lingering – and quite damaging — effects of Hurricane Harvey virtually shut down Memphis International Airport. Despite the weather being too violent for airplanes to land, the game between Memphis and Louisiana-Monroe at the Liberty Bowl played on. Who can we blame for such madness? The players? (Guffaw.) Coaches? (Chuckle.) U of M athletic director Tom Bowen? (Barely 10,000 fans — devoted and somewhat careless — showed up for the event. Not the kind of number that keeps an A.D. employed.) No, we have to, as always, follow the money . . . to CBS Sports. The cable network had a time slot sold, live football being one of the few remaining bankable ventures in mass media. Sponsors and advertisers craved the programming they supported, so the Tigers and Warhawks took the field. What a sad start to a promising season for Memphis. With more than 22,000 season tickets sold, at least 12,000 devoted Tiger fans chose to stay home, tickets in hand. (The brutal irony: These fans surely watched the CBS Sports telecast at home, at least if their electricity stayed on.)

And this brings us to the Memphis-UCF game in Orlando, moved up a day to Friday with the hope of minimizing the exposure to Hurricane Irma. As I write (Wednesday), the forecast is for thunderstorms Friday, meaning it's likely the Tigers will have a second straight "bad-weather game" to endure. Football's a brutal sport in the best of conditions. When (or if) games are played in violent weather needs to be examined more carefully, with the wellbeing of players and fans taking priority over broadcast schedules.

No American Athletic Conference foe should motivate the Tigers any more than UCF. Dating back to their time as members of Conference USA, the Tigers have lost nine games in a row to the Knights. (The only Memphis win in this series happened in 1990, when UCF was a Division I-AA program.) Most of the losses haven't been all that close. (UCF won the last meeting in 2013, 24-17 at the Liberty Bowl.) The Tigers haven't scored as many as 25 points in any of the nine losses. The Knights put 61 points on the scoreboard in their season-opening win over Florida International. Perhaps a sloppy track will turn the game into a run-first confrontation, which could benefit Doroland Dorceus, Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor and friends.

"We understand the importance of this game," said Memphis coach Mike Norvell at his weekly press conference on Labor Day. "This is a game that we have spent a lot of time on this summer as a staff, making sure that we had our advanced scouting and work, preparing for this opportunity."

Should the Tigers beat UCF, it will be the third straight season Memphis has started (at least) 2-0. You have to go back to the JFK administration (and latter part of the Eisenhower era) to find a similar such streak for this program: 1959-61. This would be quite an achievement for players like Dorceus, Anthony Miller, and Genard Avery who have been key members of the team for at least three seasons.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Three (Preseason) Thoughts on Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Aug 28, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Let's get right to a prediction, not exactly my specialty. (I had Memphians needing flashlights for the solar eclipse last week.) The Tigers will enjoy their fourth consecutive winning season, not insignificant for a program that last saw such a streak during a period Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter occupied the White House (1973-77). But how many Ws can this team collect?
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell
With no SEC team on the schedule, and no USF (favorites to win the American Athletic Conference title), Memphis has a favorable path to at least eight wins. I see four primary speed bumps on the schedule. The first comes at UCF on September 9th. No AAC rival has dominated the Tigers more than the Knights, who won nine consecutive meetings between 2005 and 2013 (when the teams last played). The game will be in Orlando, only steepening the Tigers' challenge. Then There's UCLA at the Liberty Bowl the following week (the only Power Five team on the U of M schedule). Navy comes to town with its vexing triple option on October 14th. Then the Tigers travel to Tulsa on November 3rd to face a team that beat them handily (59-30) last year in Memphis. Should the Tigers take two of these four games, I see a 9-3 regular season. If they win only one of them, more likely 8-4. (There's bound to be a "trap game" among those the Tigers will be favored to win.)

The Tigers could chip away, if only marginally, at the SEC's headline dominance in the Mid-South. Among the four programs that have large followings in this corner of SEC Country — Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Tennessee — only one received any votes in the AP Top 25, and UT is at number 25. (I'm excluding Alabama in this consideration, as the Crimson Tide is a category of its own.) Ironically, Memphis doesn't play any of the "big four," so misses a chance to steal a headline the old-fashioned way. But with Riley Ferguson, Anthony Miller, Doroland Dorceus, and friends sharing end-zone hugs on a regular basis, look for Memphis to capture a few new eyes in 2017. Maybe even a few in orange (or maroon) ball caps.

My apologies in advance for missing Thursday night's opener. It takes a major event to keep me from the Liberty Bowl on game day, particularly the start of such a promising season. But I'm delivering my firstborn daughter to her own college campus on Wednesday. As I track the Tigers through the 2017 campaign, I'll also have an eye on the Wesleyan Cardinals in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). Attending college football games is a good way to stay young inside. Raising a bright and talented daughter and checking her into her dorm room is a good way to remember the college experience is a marker on our personal timelines. So keep my seat in the press box warm for the UCLA game. And please excuse my absence this week.

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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Three (Quick) Thoughts on the Lawsons' Exodus

Posted By on Wed, Apr 5, 2017 at 3:53 PM

Tubby Smith has to make the University of Memphis basketball program his, and that wasn't going to happen with Keelon Lawson sitting on his bench. The Lawson family wasn't a problem of choice for Smith — Josh Pastner brought all three aboard — but it became Smith's problem the day he took the Tiger job. The most important person for Smith to keep happy last winter was his director of player development. Not athletic director Tom Bowen, not Tiger boosters (there are still lots of them), not Tiger fans in the least. Smith had to keep Keelon Lawson happy if he had any chance of retaining the services of Keelon's two sons, one of them supremely talented. That's no position for a decision-maker to find himself.

When the Tigers' season spiraled downward over the team's last nine games, no one was happy. And in this town, when the Tiger basketball program goes sour, fingers get pointed and names get called. Smith is the easiest (and first) target, of course, and he's paid handsomely for his ability to absorb criticism like he has since mid-February. But the Lawsons weren't happy either. To K.J.'s credit, he acknowledged what a poor loser he is during a late-season press conference, saying a loss always feels "like someone died." The atmosphere at FedExForum (and certainly the Finch Center) became hot with tension. The quickest way out (for one party) is to move on. That was Keelon Lawson's choice, and one he made for his sons.

Business with family is dangerous. Basketball with family is much the same. And when basketball is business, forget about it. (I keep coming back to images of Cosa Nostra in this affair. One Michael Corleone line after another. "It's not personal, Coach Smith ... ") Keelon Lawson's sons are a business venture for him. He recognizes demand for their talents, and projects a certain value for their services. Part of his deal with Pastner was a well-paying job in exchange for Dedric and K.J. (and the inside track on Jonathan and Chandler). I haven't asked Tubby Smith the question straight up, but I'm guessing the head coach's big-picture view of the Tiger program doesn't necessarily include what's best for Keelon Lawson, short-term or long-term. Perhaps Keelon came to see this truth. Perhaps Smith told him, either directly or by the way he managed the program. Trouble is, the "business" of Tiger basketball clashed with the "business" of Lawson family basketball. No fishing trip for Fredo, but this made for an ugly split nonetheless.

• There's no drama like Memphis basketball drama. At his season-ending press conference last week, Smith let slip the word "rivalries." He wasn't clear if he meant internal (within the locker room) rivalries, or external (throughout the Memphis community). What does it matter? This town can be its own worst enemy when it comes to cultivating (read: selling) its talent pool of basketball players. Say the wrong thing to a certain high school (or AAU) coach, and the Tiger coach has new enemies for the duration of his time at the helm. Favors are sought. Preferences are expressed. And yes, rivalries surface between coaches and players from different high schools. (Andre Turner once told me how astonished he was at how quickly former rivals became brothers wearing the Tiger uniform together. That's a credit to Turner's teams — and the Little General's leadership skills — but hardly a given for every generation of local players.) Smith would be wise to assess his recruiting priorities within the city of Memphis. John Calipari — unfair standard or not – showed Tiger basketball could be sold to fans and boosters even with a roster of "outsiders." If it reduces rivalry and drama within his program, Smith should schedule more long-distance recruiting trips.

Dedric and K.J. Lawson Leaving Tiger Basketball Program

Posted By on Wed, Apr 5, 2017 at 11:49 AM

K.J. (left) and Dedric Lawson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • K.J. (left) and Dedric Lawson
Former Memphis Tiger beat writer Jason Smith — now a midday radio host at ESPN Radio 92.9 — read the following letter over the air Wednesday morning, indicating both Dedric Lawson (currently a sophomore) and and his brother K.J. (a redshirt freshman) will depart the U of M basketball program.

"Dedric and I, along with our family would like to first thank The University of Memphis, the Men's Basketball program, Coach Tubby Smith and Staff and above all Tiger Nation, for giving us the opportunity to play for the Our Home Team. We are born and raised in Memphis, love the city with all of our hearts; however, we must do what is best for our future, our dreams, and our family, so we plan to transfer from the university.

While we have enjoyed our tenure here, the time has come for us to explore some new opportunities. It is for that reason that we are asking for a release from The University of Memphis Men's Basketball program. We both understand and are aware of the rules and regulations regarding this decision, and we are prepared to fully comply with them. We would like to wish the school's basketball program nothing but the best, in all of its future endeavors.

Thank you to our family, the University of Memp
his, our coaches past and present, teammates and Tigers fans for all your support."

— Dedric and K.J. Lawson

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Tubby Smith: "Learning Experience"

Posted By on Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 3:12 PM

University of Memphis basketball coach Tubby Smith met with local media Tuesday afternoon to tie a bow on the 2016-17 season. Some highlights.

"We're excited about the future. Please that we won 19 games this year. We had our ups and downs, and certainly didn't finish the season the way we wanted to. Through it all, I thought our players gave it all they had. We had great support from fans. It's always a process; it takes time to instill certain things we need to have done in the program, to sustain the type of success we expect and this program deserves.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

"A team that we beat [South Carolina] is playing in the Final Four. We'd like to be that team next year. We're positioned, with so many players returning . . . we need to add players to that [group] in the late signing period. We have to continue to improve and sell our program to our fan base.

"There are a lot things we have question marks about. We expect everybody to be back unless we hear something different; so far we haven't. I know many people are interested in what Dedric Lawson is going to do. We've talked briefly, and nothing has been decided. Whatever he and his parents decide, I'm going to support them. He's been a major part of this program. He had an excellent season; I'm really proud of what he's accomplished.

"We need to shore up our bench play. We didn't have the kind of players coming off the bench who would give us the energy we need. We have three scholarships available in this late signing period, and maybe more.

"In interviewing our players at the end, they really felt they hit a wall. And that's my fault. Guys played a lot of minutes. Starters averaged over 35 minutes a game. I knew that would be an issue, a concern. I think the people we've already signed will be a big help.

"This season has been a learning experience. It's always difficult for players to adjust to a new staff. Look at a guy like Jimario Rivers, with three coaches in three years. There was going to be a learning curve, and not just for the players."

Are you surprised that Craig Randall chose to transfer?
"I'm never surprised at anything young men decide to do. It was concerns about playing time. You have to earn every minute you get. I wish him the best. He averaged the sixth-most minutes on the team. We'll miss him; he had some big games for us."

In recruiting, are you looking to fill positions or best player available?
"We're involved with a lot of junior college players at this point. We need some experience, guys who are physically ready. We're looking for guys who fit our system, our style of play. We need to fill a guard spot with Craig leaving. We need some size, interior play. A lot depends on what Dedric decides."

Is there a time you need to know Dedric's decision so it won't put you in a recruiting bind?
"He's got until April 23rd, I think, for early entry. It's not the best scenario for coaches. But we want to give our student-athletes a chance to test the waters, find out where they are."

Do you advise players, one way or the other?
"When they ask me. I'd love to have [Dedric] back."

Has Dedric asked for your thoughts?
"To some degree. It's still early. He can call the NBA office. You put in that entry form and they'll give you feedback. The NBA has a committee for players and possibilities with NBA teams."

In watching the teams at the South Regional last weekend, there appears to be a gap with the Memphis program. How far away is the Tiger program?
"Look at South Carolina. If you get a group that buys into what you're doing. It's a process, and you've got to have patience. How far are we away? You've got to have players. That's why we're looking at junior college players. You're probably not going to find a high school player who can [impact immediately]."

What kind of NBA player do you think Dedric Lawson will be?
"I think he's a long-term NBA player. There are things he need to get better at: footwork, outside shooting."

You mentioned some distractions at the end of the season. What can be done to eliminate them?
"We have a multifaceted media. And with so many local players on your team . . . . I need to do a better job of engaging all the entities involved in our student-athletes' lives. Relatives, coaches, everybody. There are a lot of people pulling and talking. You have to embrace it, and get all those people on board. I didn't do a good job with that. It takes about two or three years; to really get to know the community. We're reaching out, doing what we can within the rules. This is a hotbed of talent. We expect to be playing this time of year in the future."

What more can you do personally to promote this team?
"It always helps to go to postseason play. We have to let people know how energized we are. That's why I was away last week, flying around the country. In order to be competitive. And we need to upgrade our schedule, find ways to excite the fans. We play Louisville and Alabama next season, but on neutral sites. We need to get some home-and-home series on the schedule. I was at [the South Regional] last Friday. We want that kind of excitement for every game."

Friday, March 10, 2017

AAC Tournament: UCF 84, Tigers 54

Posted By on Fri, Mar 10, 2017 at 3:37 PM

The Tigers' 2016-17 season finally hit rock bottom at the American Athletic Conference tournament in Hartford Friday afternoon. After taking an early 10-7 lead, the Tigers yielded a 23-2 run to the UCF Knights and fell behind by 17 (43-26) at halftime. Matters didn't improve in the second half, and UCF secured a spot in Saturday's semifinals (against SMU).

The loss is the worst in league-tournament play in Memphis history, this being the 48th such event in which the U of M has played. Combined with the 41-point blowout at SMU last Saturday, the loss — the Tigers' seventh in their final nine games — will leave as sour a taste as any season-ender in memory. It also means the Tigers (19-13) have gone three straight seasons without reaching the 20-win plateau for the first time since a four-year drought from 1996-97 to 1999-2000.

Senior guard Matt Williams led the Knights with 19 points as UCF shot 54 percent from the field. The Tigers made only 19 of 60 shots (32 percent) and were a putrid four for 17 from three-point range. All-league forward Dedric Lawson led Memphis with 12 points in what could well be his final college game. Jeremiah Martin added 11 points and K.J. Lawson (the AAC's Rookie of the Year) scored 10.

Monday, March 6, 2017

2016-17 Memphis Tigers: Right and Wrong

Posted By on Mon, Mar 6, 2017 at 11:19 AM

The Tigers' 2016-17 season will probably end this week in Hartford, at the American Athletic Conference tournament. (Memphis faces UCF Friday afternoon in a quarterfinal matchup.) Barring a run to the final, an NIT bid is unlikely for a team that lost six of its last eight regular-season games and suffered what amounted to a lesson in the sport from SMU in last Saturday's 41-point evisceration.

The first year of the Tubby Smith era hasn't been all gloom, though. Hardly. As with most seasons, some things went right, others wrong. Here's a slightly premature season recap.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Dedric Lawson

• RIGHT: Dedric Lawson

He doesn't star in the ACC or Big Ten, but let it be said: Dedric Lawson has had one of the best individual seasons in the country, and one of the most memorable in the rich history of Memphis Tiger basketball. The 19-year-old sophomore led the AAC in rebounding (9.9 per game) and finished second in scoring (19.4 points per game). He finished fourth in the league in blocked shots (2.1) and even ranked 13th in assists (3.3). He has created a category of one at the U of M as a 500-300-100 player: 500 points, 300 rebounds, and 100 assists in the same season. The sport will be cheated if Dedric Lawson never plays in an NCAA tournament game, a scenario that today looks probable.

• WRONG: Distance shooting
This proved to be the most predictable shortcoming for a team that had a few. The Tigers' short bench? It wouldn't have been as short had Christian Kessee (23 percent) or Craig Randall (29 percent) seized the role of three-point marksman. The team's starting guards weren't much better, Jeremiah Martin shooting 28 percent from three-point land and Markel Crawford 34 percent. Overall, the Tigers finished last in the AAC with a long-distance mark of 30 percent. Which makes Dedric Lawson's season all the more remarkable. Teams could sag (and double-team Lawson) freely, knowing there was virtually no threat from the Tiger perimeter. And three-point shooting was the lone area Dedric Lawson didn't master (27 percent).
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

•RIGHT: Tubby's touch

The Tigers new coach was "new" only as measured by his tenure in Memphis. He brought a professorial aura to the Memphis program the day he was introduced (April 14, 2016) at FedExForum. And he didn't promise more than he could deliver. "We have our priorities and our goals," he told me last November. "They're pretty high, but they're realistic." On his way to the Tiger bench before every home game, Smith would shake hands with the game-day stat crew. Every home game. It's the kind of thing a coach does at the start of the season (maybe) as a formality. For 18 games? This was genuine Tubby, who brings more to the Memphis program than a win total will ever reflect.

• WRONG: Senior rookies
Chad Rykhoek and Christian Kessee were brought in to make a difference in the one year they could suit up as Tigers. The injury-plagued Rykhoek went down with an ugly ankle injury in the Tigers' 11th game. Kessee simply never found the marksmanship he displayed in the 2015-16 season at Coppin State, when he buried 88 three-pointers and made 39 percent of his shots from long range. These two were swing variables for the Tiger roster, and they swung the wrong way.

• RIGHT: Jeremiah Martin = Point Guard
Whether it was Smith's influence or an exceptional developmental leap over the course of one summer, Martin became a new player last fall, at least compared with the one we saw average 2.7 points and barely an assist per game in limited play as a freshman. Martin has averaged 4.5 assists this season and ranks fifth in the AAC in  assist/turnover ratio at 2.3. It's scary to imagine Martin making the same proportional improvement next season as a junior. Safe to say, the Memphis point guard position is secured for two more years.

•WRONG: More empty seats
In 18 home games, the Tigers managed to sell 10,000 tickets just seven times. The season high was 12,381 for the Houston game on February 26th. If all 12,381 fans showed up to see that loss to the Cougars, there were still more than 5,000 empty seats yawning at the action on the floor. The elbow room at FedExForum can no longer be blamed on a fan base protesting Josh Pastner's presence. But the statement those empty seats are making remains the most troubling component for the big picture of Tiger basketball. This season's team suited up a certifiable star in Dedric Lawson and was coached by a man destined for the Hall of Fame. Not enough. Perhaps some families have steered their season-ticket budget toward football. The continued success of the Grizzlies — in the same building, during the same winter months — has surely impacted the economics of U of M hoops. Whatever the factors, athletic director Tom Bowen and Smith need to consider how to improve the atmosphere of college basketball at Memphis. (A wild thought: The next time Savannah State comes to town, play the game at the Elma Roane Fieldhouse. A packed crowd of 2,500 can bring more than an empty-looking 9,000 in an NBA arena.)
Markel Crawford - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Markel Crawford

• RIGHT: Markel Crawford and K.J. Lawson

Remember Crawford's 28 points in the win over South Carolina? How about the 30 he put up against USF in mid-January? On these nights, the Tigers were a two-star team, and looked like AAC title contenders. As for the older (though freshman) Lawson brother, K.J. had a game at Houston in January that would make his brother proud: 28 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists. In the Tigers' win over East Carolina, he had 12 points and 19 rebounds (more than Dedric has ever pulled down in a single game). If K.J. was "the other" Lawson, he was quite a bonus for this team, finishing third in the AAC in rebounding (8.3).

• WRONG: Markel Crawford and K.J. Lawson
Where did they go? Crawford didn't score (in 26 minutes of action) in the loss at UCF that started the Tigers' season-ending tailspin. The junior went scoreless again at Cincinnati (in 25 minutes) in a game he was desperately needed for Memphis to upset the Bearcats. And K.J.? The word "unbridled" was invented for his approach at times. That game when he pulled down 19 rebounds? Seven of them were offensive, a few certainly resulting from his own misfires as K.J. missed 18 of the 23 shots he took against the Pirates. He was a combined three-for-fifteen from the field in consecutive losses to Temple and UConn. (But then scored 20 to keep the Tigers in the game against Houston on February 26th.)

• RIGHT: 19 wins (so far)
Let's end on a high note, with a dose of perspective. Tulane has played 30 games this season and won six. South Florida finished 1-17 in AAC play. The reviled (in some corners) Pastner earned ACC Coach of the Year honors for guiding Georgia Tech to 17 wins and an 11th-place(!) finish in that esteemed league. Expectations, you see, are everything. And whether expectations in these parts are too high ("Only 19 wins!") or too low (those empty seats at FEF), they tend to run to an extreme. Which beats the hell out of I don't care.

Enjoy this weekend's tourney and the March Madness to come. Many thanks for reading all season long.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

#14 SMU 103, Tigers 62

Posted By on Sat, Mar 4, 2017 at 5:59 PM

After his team's Saturday afternoon in Dallas, Memphis coach Tubby Smith has 40 minutes of game film to study the gap his program must close to once again contend for an American Athletic Conference championship, to say nothing of higher levels of measurable success. The SMU Mustangs may as well have been instructors to the Tiger trainees, the game decided by halftime with the home team leading by 24 (48-24).

The Tigers' regular season concludes with an overall record of 19-12 and a 9-9 mark in the AAC. The U of M has lost six of its last eight games and will limp into the AAC tournament quarterfinals for their next game Thursday night in Hartford.

The game featured a matchup of the two leading contenders for AAC Player of the Year. SMU junior Semi Ojeleye scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds while Tiger sophomore Dedric Lawson had 13 points and five rebounds. Mustang guard Sterling Brown led all scorers with 26 points as SMU became the first team to score 100 against Memphis this season.

The Mustangs shot 61 percent from the field and held the Tigers to 34 percent as they clinched the AAC's regular-season championship. They'll enter the AAC tourney as the top seed with an overall record of 27-4 and a league mark of 17-1.

Jeremiah Martin scored 12 points for Memphis and Keon Clergeot added 14 off the bench.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Tigers 92, Tulane 70

Posted By on Thu, Mar 2, 2017 at 11:40 PM

Dedric Lawson played like Thursday night was a goodbye game at FedExForum. The Tigers' home finale was, in fact, a send-off for three Memphis seniors: Jake McDowell, Chad Rykhoek, and Christian Kessee. Speculation continues, though, over the college — or professional — future for the Tigers' star sophomore, who became the first Memphis player to accumulate 500 points, 300 rebounds, and 100 assists in a single season. The younger of the team's two Lawson brothers went to the floor after taking a Tulane player's shoulder to his jaw early in the second half. He missed less than a minute of action and finished the contest with 29 points (his most in seven games), eight rebounds, and four assists.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Dedric Lawson

"[Dedric] does more for us, I'm sure, than anyone does for any other team in our league," said Tiger coach Tubby Smith after his team ended a four-game losing streak and improved to 19-11 for the season. "I'm proud of [the team] competing, especially on Senior Night. It was good to see us score some points, and get the ball up the court in transition. It started with our defensive intensity."

That defensive intensity wasn't evident during a somnolent first half in which the American Athletic Conference's cellar dwellers outscored the Tigers, 39-34. Dedric Lawson hit six of his eight shots in the period, but his teammates were a dreadful six for 24.

Smith let the players know how dreadful they looked at halftime. "I've been concerned for a while about our lack of discipline, our lack of execution," he said. "Sometimes you have to get emotional to get your point across."
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jake McDowell

The Tigers took the lead on a three-point play by Jeremiah Martin three minutes into the second half. They stretched a five-point lead to 18 over a five-minute stretch midway through the half, which allowed the team's reserves — including the ever-popular McDowell, the team's only four-year player — to take the floor and finish the home campaign with a victory. The crowd's audible affection for McDowell impressed Dedric Lawson. "That's about relationships you build," said the 19-year-old forward. "Everyone would want to feel that." McDowell played 16 minutes and scored four points, a season-high for the Christian Brothers alum.

K.J. Lawson scored 13 points and Martin added 12 as the Tigers improved to 9-8 in AAC action, with one game (Saturday at 14th-ranked SMU) left on the regular-season schedule. Tulane fell to 5-24 (2-15 in the AAC). Melvin Frazier led the Green Wave with 16 points.


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