Depending on your perspective, it was lavish praise that spoke to the Tigers’ potential still there for the realizing and great NCAA Tournament victories still there for the taking.
Or, depending on your perspective, it was an unintentional indictment of a college basketball team that so far has majored in underachievement and of a basketball equation where the sum is always less than its individual parts.
After the Tigers had beaten Oral Roberts, 72-57, in a Dec. 28 game that was not as close as the score might suggest, there was much head shaking and genuine expressions of amazement in the hallway outside the losing locker room at FedExForum.
“They’re all physical. They have jumping jacks,” said ORU center Damen Bell-Holter, who still had a good night with 18 points and 14 rebounds. “(D.J.) Stephens is a freak athlete and Shaq (Goodwin), as a freshman, does a good job carving space.”
Said guard D.J. Jackson, speaking to the job the Tigers’ Geron Johnson did shutting down 21-points-per-game scorer Warren Niles (two points on 1-for-11 shooting): “He might be one of the best defensive players in the country. It’s just the body – the size, the strength, the speed. That kid’s the total package.”
And finally this from coach Scott Sutton: “We’ve played a bunch of good teams the past 10 years (including Oklahoma and No. 3 Arizona this season), and I’m not sure we’ve played a team as deep with so many athletic players as Memphis.”
The Memphis Tigers, including guard Joe Jackson, are looking for the right gear to get the season on track to reach the team’s potential.
(Photo: AP Photo/Lance Murphey)
Yet does anyone feel confident about the kind of performance the Tigers will give in their Jan. 4 game at the University of Tennessee?
Memphis ended 2012 on a three-game winning streak, rebounding from a tough loss at home to No. 6 Louisville to beat Lipscomb, 62-56, ORU and Loyola (Md.), 78-64.
“If everything’s clicking, I feel like the (margin) should be 20, 25 points,” said Tigers guard Chris Crawford.
Except this team refuses to take the easy path to anything. In fact, if they used MapQuest, they undoubtedly would choose the route requiring the most miles and hours to reach their destination.
“We’re still going through adversity as a team,” Crawford said after the Loyola game. “We just have to stay together as a team, like we’ve been doing. A win is a win.”
True. A win is a win. Unfortunately, a loss is a loss. The Tigers’ losses are to Virginia Commonwealth, to now No. 9 Minnesota, and to Louisville. So coach Josh Pastner is still looking for his first victory over a ranked team. The Tigers have an RPI of 95, according to cbssports.com, and a 119 strength-of-schedule rating. They need victories over Tennessee, Harvard and Xavier to start pushing the RPI lower.
On the other hand, besides the positives mentioned by the ORU contingent, there are others: Joe Jackson is playing very well, with 14 assists and just three turnovers in his last three games, 22 points against Loyola, and a season-high 23 against Louisville.
Stephens is a dunking and shot-blocking “warrior,” to use Pastner’s word; Goodwin is a promising player; guard Antonio Barton has had 26 total points off the bench in his last two games; Johnson is a difference-maker on toughness and tenacity alone; and freshman Damien Wilson is now contributing in limited minutes.
But problems remain: as a team, the Tigers average 36.2 rebounds per game (141st in the country). They shoot 33 percent from 3-point range (197th in the country). Their supposed best player, Adonis Thomas, has scored seven or fewer points in four of the last five games and got shut out on the boards in 20 minutes vs. Loyola. He’s now 5-for-31 from 3-point range (16 percent) and often he’s tentative when shooting or making a move toward the basket.
“I can’t speak for him, but when you’re frustrated or hesitant to do stuff, your mind is just not in the game,” Goodwin said.
Crawford’s shooting also remains an issue – just 13-of-47 (28 percent) from 3-point range – and against Loyola he focused on defense and took but one shot in 31 minutes. Tarik Black has missed the last two games due to a groin injury.
“We are a much-improved team,” Pastner said, in what has become an echo the last few weeks. “And once everything clicks with Adonis, we can be extremely scary.”
When, and if, their sum becomes at least as good as their individual parts.