Monday, March 12, 2018

Memo to Penny Hardaway

Posted By on Mon, Mar 12, 2018 at 8:46 AM


TO: Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway

FROM: your hometown

RE: the new gig

It will never get better than right now, Penny. Soak it in. Absorb the energy of a region still astounded by the breathtaking basketball skills of a player who mixed Magic, Bird, and Michael into one spindly package of All-America sunshine over two winters in Memphis and a few more professionally as an All-NBA guard. That spontaneous outburst of affection at your opening press conference? Just wait for opening night of the 2018-19 Memphis Tiger season.

Some of us still like to consider the Pyramid "the House that Penny Built," as your two seasons there remain the pointy building's most memorable attraction, no matter the height of America's "tallest freestanding elevator." By that definition, you literally helped shape the Bluff City skyline. And you've been doing so, by other measures, long since Tiger basketball — and our NBA Grizzlies — moved into FedExForum.

Soak it in, Penny, because here come the expectations. And the more prominent a new college basketball coach's standing in a community, the higher those expectations tend to be. And this is Memphis, Penny. There were times you could look down at the rim as you dunked a basketball. Well, the bar just got higher.
  • NBAE/Getty Images
  • All-NBA. Twice.

A college basketball coach must do three things well to keep his job: recruit, win games, and sell tickets. Not that long ago, Josh Pastner was hired to coach the Tigers precisely because of his precocious recruiting talent. And man, did he recruit. Remember when Austin Nichols and Nick King were both destined to join you as All-America Tigers? (Well, King became one. At Middle Tennessee.) Attracting highly ranked talent got Pastner only so far, though. He didn't win enough games over his last two seasons and, worse, people stopped buying season tickets, quit showing up for Tiger games at FedExForum.

Your predecessor, Tubby Smith, won 60 percent of his games as the Tiger coach, but sold even fewer tickets than Pastner. The man has a national championship on his resume, but he seems to have lost whatever touch he had as a recruiter, and Memphis is no juco basketball town. Now Smith will be paid by the University of Memphis not to coach the Tigers.

You can handle this, Mr. Hardaway. Surely you can. Pennies may be made of zinc, but you have the Midas touch anywhere near the hardwood. Team Penny. The East High Mustangs. You win games, in part, because the best players want to play for you. They want to feel some of the magic still in your veins all these years after your trip to the NBA Finals with that team in Orlando. They will come to the Tiger program to feel that magic. Oh yes, they will come.

Now about those standards, that elevated bar mentioned earlier. It's the Final Four, Penny. You must take us back to the Final Four. (And please, let us keep the banner this time.) A trip to the Sweet Sixteen would be an acceptable warm-up. (Next season, please.) But it's the Final Four or even a Penny will get devalued in Memphis. Surely you recall Larry Finch's send-off. One of two or three basketball figures who could approximate your popularity here — and the man who convinced you to stay home and become a Tiger — Finch signed his termination papers on the Pyramid concourse not quite two years after taking Memphis to the Sweet Sixteen. Only five years after coaching your first Tiger team all the way to the Elite Eight.

It's the Final Four, Penny. Nothing short.

In your 46-year lifetime, exactly two Tiger coaches have left for what can be called greener basketball pastures: Gene Bartow in 1974 and John Calipari amid scandal in 2009. And neither Bartow nor Calipari grew up in Memphis, starred in both high school and college here, then returned to help make his hometown a better place for generations to come. Pardon us for being dramatic — no this is Memphis Tiger basketball, so let's get dramatic — but welcome to your birthright. It will never get better than right now, Penny.

Or will it?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

AAC semifinals: #8 Cincinnati 70, Tigers 60

Posted By on Sat, Mar 10, 2018 at 5:13 PM

The 8th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats utilized an 18-2 run to open the second half and erase a 13-point deficit, a surge that proved devastating to the Tigers' upset hopes. With 17 points and 12 rebounds from American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Gary Clark, Cincinnati may well have ended the Tigers' season and the Memphis coaching tenure of Tubby Smith.

Having posted a record of 21-13, the Tigers will await Sunday's announcement of the 32-team National Invitation Tournament field, their only chance at postseason play. Should they not receive a bid, it will be four straight years without significant March basketball for the U of M.

The Tigers took control early in Saturday's game, fueled by the red-hot touch of freshman guard Jamal Johnson, who hit five three-pointers before halftime on his way to 17 points in the first 20 minutes. But Johnson didn't score after halftime and Kyvon Davenport was the only other Tiger to reach double-figures in the scoring column (12 points). Memphis shot a miserable 35 percent from the field for the game, missing 22 of 27 second-half shots.

Cincinnati improved to 29-4 with the win and will face Houston in the tournament championship game Sunday. The third-seeded Cougars upset Wichita State, 77-74.

Should the Tigers not receive an NIT bid, offseason discussion will begin with Smith's status as head coach. Despite three years remaining on his contract, Smith seems like a casualty of efforts to bring aboard Tiger legend — and current East High School coach — Penny Hardaway. Hardaway's Mustangs will be playing in the Tennessee state tournament next week. In two years at Memphis, Smith has posted a record of 40-26.

Friday, March 9, 2018

AAC Tourney: Tigers 67, Tulsa 64

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2018 at 3:42 PM

He's done this before.

Tiger guard Kareem Brewton connected on a three-pointer with one second left on the game clock to help Memphis upset Tulsa in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament Friday in Orlando. Filling in for injured point guard Jeremiah Martin, Brewton pulled off the same heroics he did in the Tigers' overtime win at Temple on January 13th. With the victory, Memphis advances to a semifinal matchup Saturday with Cincinnati, regular-season champions of the AAC.

With their seventh win in eight games, the Tigers improved to 21-12 for the season and may have inched closer to a bid in the National Invitation Tournament. Tulsa falls to 19-12 with the loss.

Memphis capitalized on miserable Tulsa shooting early to take a 25-16 lead, but turnovers allowed the Golden Hurricane to close the first half on a 9-0 run, reducing the Tiger lead to 26-25. The Tigers extended their lead to 11 (48-37) midway through the second half, but Tulsa enjoyed a 22-8 run to take a 59-56 lead with less than three minutes to play.

There were three lead changes in the final two minutes, the biggest shot for Memphis a three-pointer by Kyvon Davenport with 29 seconds left to give the Tigers a 64-63 lead. Martins Igbanu hit one of two free throws with four seconds to go to tie the game before Brewton's game-winner.

Brewton and Davenport led the Tigers with 15 points, Mike Parks added 14, and Jamal Johnson scored 12 (including three three-pointers).

Memphis lost both its meetings with 8th-ranked Cincinnati this winter, the first by 34 points in Ohio on December 31st, then by 14 points at FedExForum on January 27th. Tip-off Saturday is scheduled for noon.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

AAC Tourney: Tigers 79, USF 77

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2018 at 3:48 PM

Tubby Smith remains the head coach of the University of Memphis Tigers. At least for a day.

Amid swirling rumors that he'll be replaced at season's end by Penny Hardaway, Smith led the Tigers to a win over the USF Bulls in the opening round of the American Athletic Conference tournament in Orlando. The win comes exactly a week after the Bulls (10-22) embarrassed the Tigers, 75-51, at FedExForum.

USF reduced a nine-point halftime deficit to just three and had a chance to tie the game in the the closing seconds but Stephan Jiggetts misfired from three-point range.

Kyvon Davenport led the Tigers with a season-high 27 points (and nine rebounds) and freshman David Nickelberry came off the bench and tied his own season high with 14 points (12 of them in the first half). Kareem Brewton added 12 points in his fourth start since Jeremiah Martin's season-ending foot injury. Memphis shot a stellar 57 percent from the field and connected on eight of 17 three-point attempts.

The win gives Memphis (20-12) its first 20-win season since the 2013-14 campaign and keeps hope alive for a possible bid to the National Invitation Tournament.

The Tigers will play Tulsa in the AAC quarterfinals Friday afternoon (tip-off at 1 p.m.). The Golden Hurricane finished the regular season 19-11 and split a pair of games with Memphis, losing by nine points at FedExForum on January 6th and beating the Tigers by 13 in Oklahoma on January 20th.

Monday, March 5, 2018

AAC Tourney Preview

Posted By on Mon, Mar 5, 2018 at 10:11 AM

Here we are again.

After winning five of their last six games, the 2017-18 Memphis Tigers finished their regular season with a record of 19-12. Which is precisely the mark they posted at this stage of the 2016-17 season. The Tigers again finished fifth in the American Athletic Conference, though one win better (10-8) than they were a year ago in league play.

Last season, fifth place earned the Tigers a bye into the AAC tournament quarterfinals. With 12 teams now, the AAC only rewards a bye to four teams, so Memphis will face the USF Bulls in a first-round game Thursday in Orlando. The game will take place precisely a week after the league's cellar-dweller embarrassed the Tigers at FedExForum.

The AAC tournament has not been kind to Memphis. In three of the four tourneys to date, the Tigers lost their opening game (last season to UCF by 30 points). They made a run to the tournament championship game two years ago, only to bow out against UConn in what proved to be Josh Pastner's final game as Tiger head coach.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Parks Jr.

Memphis will not play in the NCAA tournament a fourth straight season, the longest such drought in these parts since 1997-2002 (six years). And only with a run in the AAC tournament might Memphis earn a bid to the second-tier NIT. (A miss there would mean no postseason play for a fourth straight season, which hasn't happened since 1978-81.) How can the Tigers find some fun near Disney World? There are three keys, and each of them has a name (and two arms, and two legs).

1) Mike Parks Jr. — The closest thing to a true center Memphis has suited up in years (though just 6'8"), Parks was averaging 4.2 points and 3.0 rebounds after the Tigers' loss to Cincinnati on December 31st. Seventeen games later (ten of them wins), Parks's numbers are 8.1 and 4.4. Not the kind of figures that land you on draft boards, but Parks generally plays well in Tiger wins (20 points and eight boards in Sunday's win over East Carolina) and poorly in Tiger losses (two points, two rebounds, and three fouls in 12 minutes in the loss to USF on March 1st). The Tigers enjoyed two four-game winning streaks in conference play and Parks averaged 15.5 points over these eight games.

2) Kareem Brewton Jr. — Brewton found some extra life in his game after point guard Jeremiah Martin (the AAC's scoring champion) went down with a left-foot injury in the first half of the Tigers' upset of Houston on February 22nd. His 12 points and seven assists helped fuel the Tigers' win at UConn on February 25th and he scored a season-high 22 points (with six assists) in the Memphis win over ECU last weekend. Like Parks, Brewton disappeared in the loss to USF (one for ten from the field in 37 minutes). Basketball teams don't generally win in March without steady play from their point guard. For this week, at least, Kareem Brewton is the Memphis Tigers' point guard.

3) Kyvon Davenport — The third juco transfer on this list is one of just four AAC players to average as many as 12.8 points and 6.0 rebounds this season. When you factor in Martin's late-season injury, Davenport has been the steadiest player at coach Tubby Smith's disposal for 31 games. He failed to score at least 10 points only six times. If the Tigers are to advance this week, multiple players will have to make up the absence of Martin's 18.9 points per game. Davenport is the most capable option for filling that void.

Even after the dreadful loss to USF, Davenport said his team "still has something to play for." It was optimistic talk in the aftermath of a defeat that may cost this team an NIT bid. But come Thursday, Memphis does indeed have something to play for. If three players rise to their best in Orlando, a few ugly memories from a rocky winter can be erased.

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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Tigers 90, East Carolina 70

Posted By on Sun, Mar 4, 2018 at 5:52 PM

The Tigers closed out their regular season Sunday afternoon at FedExForum by gaining a measure of revenge for one of their ugliest losses of the season. Kareem Brewton scored 22 points and Mike Parks added 20 as Memphis easily handled the ECU Pirates, a month to the day after losing an overtime game in Greenville, North Carolina.

With the win, the Tigers finish the regular season with an overall record of 19-12, identical to their mark at this stage a year ago. Memphis posted a 10-8 record in the American Athletic Conference, good enough for fifth in the 12-team league. (It's the first 10-win conference season for Tiger coach Tubby Smith since his 2004-05 campaign at Kentucky.)
Tubby Smith
  • Tubby Smith

The Tigers will get another chance to avenge an ugly loss in the first round of the AAC tournament in Orlando. They'll play USF Thursday (1 p.m.), precisely a week after losing by 24 points to the Bulls at home. A win would give Memphis its first 20-win season since 2013-14 and earn a spot in the AAC quarterfinals Friday against Tulsa.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

USF 75, Tigers 51

Posted By on Thu, Mar 1, 2018 at 11:25 PM

So much for life without Jeremiah Martin. After a pair of wins without their star point guard, the Tigers suffered their worst home loss in memory Thursday night at FedExForum. The USF Bulls — 1-15 in the American Athletic Conference and number 295 (out of 351) in the RPI rankings entering the contest — led start-to-finish, taking a 22-point lead at halftime and never allowing the Tigers to close within 20 after the break. The win was the Bulls' second since Christmas and the Tigers' second-worst loss of the season as measured by scoring margin. (They lost by 34 at Cincinnati on New Year's Eve.)
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jimario Rivers

Memphis fell to 18-12 with the loss and is now 9-8 in league play. Much, if not all, of the spirit built over a four-game winning streak was broken by the beat-down at the hands of the Bulls. You could see it in a disconsolate coach Tubby Smith after the game, and hear it in the words he spoke. "I'm really disappointed in us," he said. "I obviously did something wrong in preparing for this game. We weren't ready. Physically or mentally. We went through pretty the same routines we normally go through. But I give [USF] credit. They played hard, and we didn't respond."

The Tigers had more turnovers (10) than field goals (8) at halftime. Forward Payton Banks hit four of six three-point attempts in the first half to help the Bulls gain separation. More often than not, Tiger defenders dropped under screens as opposed to fighting over them to crowd USF's long-distance shooters. Banks finished with a game-high 19 points, a total matched by reserve forward Malik Martin, who connected on eight of ten field-goal attempts.

The Tigers couldn't find their shooting touch from anywhere on the court. They missed 10 of 18 free-throw attempts and 16 of 19 three-point shots. Kareem Brewon — Martin's replacement at point guard — missed nine of ten shots from the field. Brewton, Jamal Johnson, and Raynere Thornton missed all 11 of their combined three-point attempts. (Thornton had hit nine of 11 treys in the Tigers' last two wins to earn the AAC's Player of the Week honors.) Junior forward Kyvon Davenport led Memphis with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Senior forward Jimario Rivers scored 11 points in his penultimate game at FedExForum.

"Some guys looked at this game as an easy win," acknowledged Rivers. "Look at their record. But that's something we can't do. It's a matter of us focusing."

"We gave them too many uncontested shots," added Davenport. "We definitely played bad, but it's nothing to hang your head about. We still have something to play for."

About all the Tigers have left to play for is an AAC tournament championship, and the unlikely NCAA tournament bid such a run would provide. Thursday's loss all but eliminates the Tigers' chances of a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.

"You gotta guard against prosperity," said Smith. "You have to appeal to their pride, of getting better every day. You gotta practice harder, to get mentally ready, tougher. They out-toughed us. They made shots early, and we had no answer."

A lopsided, disjointed regular season will come to a close Sunday when East Carolina visits FedExForum. The lowly Pirates beat Memphis in overtime on February 3rd.

"I hope this got their attention," said Smith. "Hopefully a new vision, a new spirit. It's going to be tough. I'm at a loss. We tried to duplicate how we won those games [during the streak]. But we didn't have energy. They were better than we were in every facet of the game."

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tigers 83, UConn 79

Posted By on Sun, Feb 25, 2018 at 5:34 PM

Playing their first game since point guard Jeremiah Martin's season ended, the Tigers extended their winning streak to four games with their fifth road win of the season in Storrs, Connecticut. Memphis took control with a 28-8 run over the last nine minutes of the first half, boosted by the three-point shooting of freshman Jamal Johnson and junior Malik Rhodes. The Tigers withstood an extended Husky rally over the game's final eight minutes, one that saw their lead shrink from 22 points to four.

The win improves the Tigers' overall record to 18-11 and Memphis now occupies sole possession of fifth place in the 12-team American Athletic Conference with a 9-7 mark. UConn falls to 13-16 (6-10 in the AAC) with its second loss to the Tigers this season.

Johnson and Mike Parks led the Tigers with 18 points each, Johnson hitting four three-pointers and tying his season high in the scoring column. Junior Raynere Thornton came off the bench and added 16 points, hitting five of six shots from three-point range (after making four of five long-distance attempts in the Tigers' win over Houston last Thursday). Taking over the point-guard chores from Martin, Kareem Brewton contributed 12 points and seven assists.

Jalen Adams led the Huskies with 25 points and Christian Vital added 19.

The Tigers combined to make 11 three-pointers, their second-most this season and most in AAC play.

Memphis will have a chance to reach 20 wins for the first time since the 2013-14 season when they host the AAC's two weakest teams in early March. USF visits this Thursday, followed by a tilt with East Carolina on March 4th. The Pirates beat Memphis in North Carolina on February 3rd.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Tigers 91, #23 Houston 85

Posted By on Thu, Feb 22, 2018 at 11:59 PM

Unlikely. Unscripted. Unexpected. And purely gratifying.

With their star point guard being fitted for a walking boot, the Memphis Tigers erased a nine-point deficit over the game's final 16 minutes and upset the 23rd-ranked Houston Cougars Thursday night at FedExForum. Junior swingman Raynere Thornton came off the bench and scored a season-high 21 points (four of five from three-point range) in just 19 minutes of playing time to lead the way along with senior forward Jimario Rivers, who scored a career-high 21 points of his own. The two players combined to hit 17 of 18 free throws, every one of them critical in the biggest win in two years under coach Tubby Smith.

Memphis improves to 17-11 with the victory and 8-7 in the American Athletic Conference while Houston's five-game winning streak ends, leaving the Cougars with a 21-6 record (11-4 in the AAC). Rob Gray led Houston with 30 points.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jimario Rivers

"It was a great win for us," said Smith after the game, having changed his shirt following a postgame locker-room drenching. "I can't say enough about our kids. They raised their level of play, raised their level of intensity. Especially after Jeremiah [Martin] went down. Walking out at halftime, I said, 'We're gonna win this one for you.' We had outstanding effort throughout the lineup. Most complete game we've had all year long."

Memphis point guard Jeremiah Martin — the AAC's top scorer — limped off the court with 5:16 left to play in the first half. He turned an ankle with his team down 31-24 and would not return to action. (Martin scored nine points, dropping his average from 19.3 to 18.9.) The injury, it turned out, only added to the dramatic effect of the Tigers' first win over an AP-ranked opponent under Smith. (Memphis beat Final Four-bound South Carolina in December 2016, but the Gamecocks were ranked only in the coaches' poll.)

Playing before a louder-than-they-looked crowd (announced attendance: 6,536), the Tigers stayed within competitive distance through halftime (down 43-39), but looked to be a beaten team when the Cougars surged early in the second half to a 58-49 lead. But a pair of Thornton free throws at the 10:52 mark put the Tigers in front (63-62). Back-to-back three-pointers by Thornton and junior guard Malik Rhodes put Memphis up by six (74-68) with 7:11 to play. The three points were the first for Rhodes since his return from a two-game suspension for a violation of team policy.

The Cougars closed within four points with a minute to play, but Thornton and Rhodes each hit a pair of free throws in the final minute to secure the win. The Tigers outscored Houston 42-27 over the game's final 15:40 to clinch an 18th consecutive winning season for the program.

"Jeremiah's a great player, but when he went down, we fought for one another," said Rivers. "We tried to get as many stops as we could. If we moved the ball on offense, we knew we could score."

Smith said the key to Thornton's long-distance shooting touch is an age-old tip: look at the rim, not the ball. "I've been putting up more shots after practice," said Thornton. "Building my confidence."

Rhodes was especially pleased to join a postgame press conference, even if it meant discussing his recent punishment. "My teammates have been there for me, from the day I got suspended," he said. "They told me I just have to keep proving myself. That three felt good."

"I hope it inspires them to listen," emphasized Smith. "They did a good job of following the game plan. That's the toughest thing for them, staying focused for an extended period of time. They did that tonight. You've got to play with emotion, but without being emotional. That's been a real challenge for us. Act like you've been here before. You're supposed to make that three. You're supposed to make that stop. That's what we taught you to do."

The Tigers' three remaining regular-season games are against teams below them in the AAC standings. Pay no attention to underdogs and favorites, at least not with Smith in the room. "I expect them to be better," said Smith. "This is certainly going to build confidence. It's gonna build confidence in me, that I can play Malik Rhodes. That Raynere Thornton is making shots. They can get the job done when they're put in a position to do it.

"They won't be looking past tomorrow. They just won't. They'll want to, but I won't let it happen. I've been in this business 45 years. I'm secure in who I am, and I'm pretty damn successful at what I do."

The Tigers travel to Connecticut for their next game, where they'll face the Huskies this Sunday. They'll finish the regular season by hosting USF on March 1st and East Carolina on March 4th.

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Tigers 68, Tulane 63

Posted By on Sat, Feb 17, 2018 at 4:17 PM

It appears one game was all the American Athletic Conference's top scorer needed to regain his form. Tiger point guard Jeremiah Martin returned to the starting lineup after missing his team's win at SMU earlier this week (nursing a hip injury) and led all scorers with 22 points to help Memphis even its AAC record at 7-7 and improve to 16-11 overall.

The Tigers withstood a late 16-8 run by the Green Wave that closed the Memphis lead to three points (66-63) with 11 seconds left to play. But freshman guard Jamal Johnson drained a pair of free throws for the game's final points, enough for the Tigers' first road winning streak of the season. (Memphis is now 4-7 away from FedExForum.)

Mike Parks scored 15 points and Kyvon Davenport added 10 (including an emphatic put-back dunk in the game's final minute) to support the Tiger cause. Memphis shot 54 percent from the field and held Tulane to 39 percent. Jordan Cornish and Melvin Frazier each scored 16 points for the Green Wave. Tulane is the first and only AAC team Memphis has swept this season, the Tigers also having won the teams' first meeting in January.

The Tigers return to FedExForum Thursday night where they'll host Houston. The Cougars improved to 20-5 last Thursday with an upset of 5th-ranked Cincinnati. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Tigers 70, SMU 67

Posted By on Wed, Feb 14, 2018 at 10:15 PM

Playing without the American Athletic Conference's leading scorer, the Tigers ended a three-game losing streak Wednesday night at Moody Coliseum in Dallas. Four of the five Memphis starters — including point guard Jeremiah Martin's replacement, Kareem Brewton — scored in double figures to help the Tigers improve to 15-11 for the season and 6-7 in the AAC.

The Mustangs took the floor without the AAC's second-leading scorer, Shake Milton, and battled to the final play of the game, a midcourt heave by Jahmal McMurray that fell inches short of tying the contest. McMurray scored 33 points and hit nine of 19 shots from three-point range. Exposing a distinct Tiger weakness, SMU hit 14 three-pointers, but nonetheless lost for the fifth time in six games to fall to 15-11 (5-8 in the AAC).

Junior forward Kyvon Davenport hit a driving layup as the shot clock expired with 11 seconds left to give the Tigers a 69-65 lead. After SMU scored following an offensive rebound, freshman guard Jamal Johnson hit one of two free throws before McMurray's desperation toss.

Memphis hit nine of 20 three-point attempts, its most in a game since December 9th. Center Mike Parks led in the scoring column with 17 points, followed by Brewton (16), Davenport (13), Raynere Thornton (12 off the bench), and Johnson (10).

The victory is a small measure of revenge for the Tigers. In the 2016-17 regular-season finale, Memphis absorbed a 41-point beating at Moody, among the worst losses in the history of the program.

The Tigers will get a chance to even their league record Saturday when they travel to Tulane to face the Green Wave. Memphis won the first meeting between the teams, 96-89, on January 9th.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

2018 Memphis Tigers football schedule

Posted By on Tue, Feb 13, 2018 at 10:38 AM

• September 1 — MERCER
• September 8 — at Navy*
Memphis coach Mike Norvell has gone 18-8 in two seasons on the Tiger sideline. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Memphis coach Mike Norvell has gone 18-8 in two seasons on the Tiger sideline.

• September 14 — GEORGIA STATE
• September 22 — SOUTH ALABAMA
• September 28 (Friday) — at Tulane*

• October 6 — CONNECTICUT*
• October 13 — UCF*
• October 20 — at Missouri

• November 3 — at East Carolina*
• November 10 — TULSA*
• November 16 (Friday) — at SMU*
• November 23 (Friday) — HOUSTON*

* AAC game

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Tubby's Trials

Posted By on Mon, Feb 12, 2018 at 9:30 AM

No college basketball team can hide a shortage of talent. Creative coaching can mask shortcomings — and even expose those of an opponent — enough to win a few games a team probably shouldn't. But over the course of 30 games? Talent prevails. Always.

The 2017-18 Memphis Tigers were unmasked, you might say, in a pair of recent losses (part of a tailspin that's included five defeats in six games). First came the embarrassing overtime loss at East Carolina, in which the poorest-shooting team in the country buried 11 three-pointers over Memphis defenders. Three days later at FedExForum, Tiger starters managed to score a total of five field goals against Wichita State. Two completely unrelated components of basketball: a poor defensive team can shoot the lights out, or a poor shooting team can play lockdown defense. But over the course of two games in four days, the University of Memphis displayed the kind of shortages no NCAA tournament team will display in combination.

Even during times of struggle, recent Tiger teams have had a backbone defender, be it a rim protector (like D.J. Stephens) or a gum-sniffing perimeter weapon (like Markel Crawford or Geron Johnson). The current Tigers have neither, and it's been costly. In the East Carolina loss, Pirate guard Shawn Williams hit six of ten three-point attempts and scored 30 points to key his team's win. Williams averages 10.8 points per game and is shooting 34 percent from long range. In the Wichita State game, Shocker guard Austin Reaves lit up the Tigers, hitting five of nine three-point attempts and scoring 22 points. Reaves averages 8.2 points per game. In old basketball movies, a coach gets up during one of these outbursts and assigns a player to find out what flavor of gum the marksman is chewing. Tubby Smith does not have that player in his arsenal.

You'd like to think that defense is easier to teach a college player than offensive skills (it is), but the Tigers' struggle against long-distance shooting isn't improving. Alabama buried 11 treys in the Tigers' opening name last November. Louisville and Siena each hit 14 in back-to-back games in December. Tulane hit 14 and Temple 12 in games Memphis won this year. Among flaws to suffer in modern college basketball, an inability to defend three-point shooting is as close to fatal as they come.

If only the Tigers' woes could be left on the defensive end of the floor. In that loss at East Carolina — in overtime, remember — one or two key plays would have turned the contest in the Tigers' favor. It was a lousy day for the Memphis bench to take a snooze. Coach Tubby Smith sent five reserves to the floor. They combined to play 45 individual minutes and contributed exactly four field goals. Three days later, those reserves awoke and scored 40 of the Tigers' 65 points in the Wichita State loss. This time, though, the starters disappeared, five players combining to score five field goals. If you're Tubby Smith, to whom do you turn when a run is required?

Consider the season stat line of one Tiger, a player who has started the last 18 games: 6.2 points per game, 2.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 32-percent field-goal percentage (30-percent from three-point range), 25.8 minutes per game (third on the team). Perhaps it's unfair to pick on freshman Jamal Johnson, but in some respects, he personifies the Tigers' defective roster. He's a growing, developing talent. In no way, though, is Johnson a starter for a team with NCAA tournament aspirations. Far too much still to learn. (Particularly if pregame scuffles are part of his repertoire, as reported after Sunday's loss to UCF.)

Following the UCF loss, I asked Smith for an impression of his team's collective mentality as the season spirals downward, if players can somehow remain focused on improving this late in the campaign. "When things aren't going good, negative thoughts come in," he said. "Why is Coach not playing me? Why are we doing this? It's . . . why. I'm sure they're talking among themselves, and about a lot of different things."

Smith has asked for patience from a notoriously impatient fan base. He's expressed — quite openly — that the right people are in place, and the program is on the right path. Smith's mantra for the present and future of Memphis Tiger basketball: It takes time.

"We passed the ball better today than we have in a few games," Smith noted Sunday. "We did some good things. But in the clutch, you have to be willing to sacrifice. And team defense . . . we haven't had it all year long. A lot of guys, that's not what they did [before arriving here]. You better trap hard. You better box out hard. Or you're going to get intimidated. That physicality is something we've lacked most of the season. To change that mentality, we probably need to do more physical drills."

Memphis hasn't had a losing season since 1999-2000, when the Tigers went 15-16 under interim coach Johnny Jones. The current team is 14-11 with six regular-season games to play before the American Athletic Conference tournament in Orlando. Two more wins would clinch a .500 record, and that's reality for University of Memphis basketball in 2018. Forget the Sweet 16, much less the Final Four. Even the NIT seems beyond reach. Scrap, fight, get more physical, coalesce as a group, and a break-even record could happen. From there . . . deep breaths and a thorough evaluation of how patient a program of this stature can be.

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

UCF 68, Tigers 64

Posted By on Sun, Feb 11, 2018 at 6:42 PM

The UCF Knights came to Memphis Sunday without their towering center, Tacko Fall, who is sidelined the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. But they had more than enough B.J. Taylor to make up the difference. (A preseason all-conference pick, Taylor missed the teams' first meeting on January 3rd with an injury of his own.) Taylor scored 22 points — 16 after halftime — and hit a key shot with less than a minute to play that provided the winning margin in the Knights' very first victory on Memphis soil. (UCF had been 0-14 in the Bluff City, including 0-11 at FedExForum.)

The win halts a recent skid for UCF, one that saw the Knights lose five of seven games, including a pair to American Athletic Conference titan Cincinnati. UCF is now 15-9 for the season and 6-6 in the AAC.
Kyvon Davenport - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Kyvon Davenport

As for the Tigers, consider their skid active. Memphis has lost five of six games to fall to 14-11 and 5-7 in league play. The Tigers are now 2-9 in the month of February over two seasons under coach Tubby Smith.

"It's a disappointing loss," said Smith. "You've got to commend Central Florida. They came here ready. When you're on the road, you've got to make shots, and they did that most of the game. The three-point shot did us in, and they beat us in the paint." UCF shot 53 percent from the field and outscored the Tigers 42-28 inside.

The score remained tight throughout the contest with 12 ties and 13 lead changes. UCF took a 32-30 lead at halftime on a put-back layup, but the Tigers took a lead (41-40) with just over 15 minutes to play on a pair of free throws by Kyvon Davenport. The Knights pulled away with an 11-4 run over a six-minute stretch, one that transformed the score from 50-50 at the 10:00 mark to 61-54 with 3:52 left to play. Taylor sparked the burst, along with forward A.J. Davis, who scored 20 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and hit nine of ten shots from the field.

"It's happened nearly every game [on defense]," noted Smith, "whether it's fatigue or a lack of concentration. We gotta have execution down the stretch, and we didn't. It's about defense and rebounding, and those are two areas where we're struggling."

Davenport scored a season-high 23 points to lead the Tigers and also led in the rebounding column with eight. (No other Tiger had as many as six rebounds.) Point guard Jeremiah Martin scored 17 points in 39 minutes and added four assists and three steals (three turnovers). Mike Parks scored 10 points and blocked a pair of shots.

Five days after scoring 11 points off the bench against Wichita State, Raynere Thornton was limited to a minute of playing time by what Smith described as a rib injury.

"We have to convince [the players] that there is plenty of basketball left to play," emphasized Smith. "Don't give up. We did some things better today than we did against Wichita State. I know I'll be positive. This time of year, you want to still be playing, and playing tough. We played hard today. Didn't always play smart, but we played hard."

Three of the Tigers' next four games will be on the road, starting with a visit to SMU Wednesday night. When the teams met in Dallas last March, the Mustangs won by 41 points.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

#22 Wichita State 85, Tigers 65

Posted By on Tue, Feb 6, 2018 at 11:51 PM

Fueled by a resurgent band of reserves, the Tigers found themselves within five points (51-46) of a top-25 team with a little over 10 minutes to play Tuesday night at FedExForum. Raynere Thornton, Kareem Brewton, and David Nickelberry in particular had sparked a comeback that shaved the Tigers' halftime deficit (40-29) in half. Three days after a humiliating defeat at East Carolina, Memphis had an opportunity to offset that loss and perhaps establish a springboard for the regular season's stretch run.

Alas, Wichita State surged over those final 10 minutes, enjoying a 17-4 run — with Memphis starters on the floor — to secure its 18th win of the season, improving the Shockers to 8-3 in the American Athletic Conference (18-5 overall). Austin Reaves hit five of nine shots from three-point range and led the visitors with 22 points (almost triple his average of 7.5). All-conference candidate Landry Shamet hit four of seven three-point attempts and added 20 points to help Wichita State win its first game in Memphis since 1983.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tubby Smith

The loss for Memphis — its fourth in five games — drops the Tigers to 14-10 and 5-6 in AAC competition.

"I thought our guys battled back, and did some things well," said Memphis coach Tubby Smith. "But we obviously didn't do enough well, especially from a rebounding standpoint. And a defensive standpoint. Once again, the three-point shot hurt us. But our bench was outstanding. We have some things to work with."

Three days after contributing only four field goals at East Carolina, the Tiger reserves combined to score 40 points, led by Thornton (11 points, five of six from the field in 29 minutes) and Brewton (12 points, four of seven from the field in 28 minutes). Freshman David Nickelberry played 28 minutes — his most since December 23rd — and contributed eight points, four rebounds, and two assists.

But the Tiger starters were a quiet quintet. Hampered in part by foul trouble (Kyvon Davenport, Mike Parks, and Jeremiah Martin each had three), the starters combined to score only five field goals (a third of the bench production). Martin scored 16 points, primarily by getting to the foul line, where he made 12 of 14 shots. [None of the starters attended the postgame press conference.]

"[The starters] struggled, from the beginning," said Smith. "[Wichita State] made it a point to take Jeremiah out of the game, being physical with him, making him work hard to get the ball. Mike Parks had a little foul trouble and wasn't defending like he should. Jimario Rivers wasn't going to the boards like he should."

Smith stressed rebounding to his team before the game, only to see the Shockers pull down 39 (14 offensive) to the Tigers' 28. Wichita State shot 42 percent from the field but took 19 more shots (64-45) than the Tigers.

"We're playing better teams," noted Smith, who emphasized there's much still to gain with seven regular-season games left on the schedule. "We're 5-6, and we had a chance to be 6-4 Saturday. We knew it would be a mountain to climb, beating Wichita State. I saw a ray of hope, particularly in our three freshmen."

The Tigers will host UCF Sunday, the Knights having won their previous game in Orlando on January 3rd. They'll then play three of four games away from FedExForum (two against teams Memphis has beaten: Tulane and UConn).

"I see a lot of opportunities for us to improve," emphasized Smith. "That's about as well as our bench has ever played. That's what gives me a real belief. Now I don't mind subbing."


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