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VOL. 128 | NO. 251 | Friday, December 27, 2013

 

Examining the Tigers Entering January

By DON WADE

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The 17th-ranked Tigers came through the first 10 games of the season – the first chapter, if you will – with an 8-2 record overall and a 1-2 record against ranked opponents. They suffered a lopsided loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., beat the Cowboys on a neutral court, and had what NCAA bracket analysts would term a “good loss” by two points to Florida at Madison Square Garden.

So with just one non-conference game left on Saturday, Dec. 28, against Jackson State before beginning American Athletic Conference play, let’s ask – and attempt to answer – a few questions.

Is the Tigers’ national ranking a good indication of where they stack up with the rest of the college basketball world?

Sophomore Shaq Goodwin, center, has helped Memphis develop a presence near the rim. He is leading the team in rebounds, with 6.5 per game. 

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Yes. They aren’t a Top 10 team, at least not yet. They don’t have a lottery pick player to carry them. But they have depth at guard and loads of athleticism. Anyone who didn’t know about the athleticism found out with the spectacular play against Southeast Missouri State that landed atop ESPN’s highlight rankings.

Guard Michael Dixon heaved an outlet pass over his head. Guard Geron Johnson ran it down, whipped a behind-his-back pass to guard Chris Crawford, who in turn threw a lob that forward Shaq Goodwin slam-dunked. Just one play, yes, and the type of play that often goes awry and drives coaches nuts. But also a play that neatly wrapped the Tigers’ talent into one package with a big showy bow on top.

Beyond that, coming back to beat OSU in the Old Spice Classic and rallying from a first-half 12-point deficit against Florida has given this University of Memphis team legitimacy.

“The country knows we can play with anybody,” Johnson said. “They didn’t know at first, but they know.”

Going forward, will the Tigers press more or less?

Less. At least less than what coach Josh Pastner envisioned at the season’s start. That was one of the lessons from the first OSU game.

“There will be different times when we need it,” Pastner said, noting that the press helped the Tigers beat SEMO, 77-65, as they came up with 13 steals and forced the Redhawks into 19 turnovers. “The press is still going to be good for us, but not a full 40 minutes.”

What do we make of the Tigers’ frontcourt?

So far, sophomore Shaq Goodwin (13.6 points and team-leading 6.5 rebounds) is assuring that the Tigers have a real presence near the rim. Goodwin scored 20 points with eight rebounds against SEMO and, in Johnson’s words, “played like a monster.”

More impressive was the way the Gators and coach Billy Donovan approached Goodwin.

“Think about it,” Pastner said, “Shaq Goodwin was double-teamed hard (by Florida). That’s a great respect factor. That’s how far he’s come.”

Freshman forward Austin Nichols has shown great promise and has plus-offensive skills. But he’s still in the process of adjusting to physical play and there will be matchups that simply do not suit him at this stage of his development. Against SEMO, Nichols had no rebounds in 14 minutes and fifth-year senior forward David Pellom grabbed just one in 23 minutes, though he scored eight points with three assists and two steals.

“Pitiful,” Pellom said of his one rebound.

This is why Pastner speaks so much about needing the guards to rebound well. And it’s essential when the Tigers go with a three-guard or four-guard lineup.

Forward Nick King also may be a factor here. He only played nine minutes against SEMO, but they were high-energy minutes and he’s ultra-athletic.

Will 3-point shooting ultimately hurt the Tigers’ season?

Maybe that’s a premature question before league play has even started. Then again, they have shot less than 33 percent from 3-point range in five of their first 10 games. They were 2 of 17 (11.8 percent) against the Redhawks and in the first OSU game they were 2 of 13 (15.4 percent).

Given their team speed and ability to score in transition, it’s reasonable to ask if they need to dial back the 3-point shooting. But so far, that’s not something the coach and players want to hear. Even though Jackson is shooting 20.8 percent from behind the arc (5 of 24) and Johnson 20 percent (4 of 20). Dixon’s 38.2 percent (13 of 34) leads the team and Crawford, who is notoriously hot or cold, is at 35.7 percent (20 of 56). Dixon’s shot selection in general has been questionable and Pastner admitted, “There’s times when he drives me a little crazy.”

“I think we’re taking good shots,” Johnson said. “It’s just not our time. When our time comes, we’ll hit 3-point shots.”

If not, they will shoot themselves out of otherwise winnable games.

What will the Tigers’ record be in the American?

With home-and-home games against No. 6 Louisville and No. 15 Connecticut, plus Cincinnati, we know the Tigers are not going through this league schedule unscathed.

Let’s say 14-4 and a second-place finish behind Louisville. Peyton Siva, a Detroit Pistons rookie and a guard on last year’s national championship Cardinals team, said the Tigers will find there’s a value to going through this grind.

“It’ll help them out a lot because it’ll give them a better look at competition heading into the NCAA Tournament,” Siva said. “That’s what helped us out in the Big East (last season).”

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