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VOL. 129 | NO. 61 | Friday, March 28, 2014

 

Tigers Season Sits Somewhere Between Respectable, Not-Quite-Great

By Don Wade

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So, how best to categorize the 2013-2014 season for the Memphis Tigers basketball team?

Great? Not even coach Josh Pastner has settled on that word.

Respectable? It was much more than that. You may be tired of hearing Pastner say it, but it is true the Tigers stayed in the national rankings until the final Associated Press poll right before the NCAA Tournament.

The story on the 2013-2014 University of Memphis men’s basketball season is one of big wins, bad losses and unfulfilled postseason aspirations, much like departing senior Joe Jackson’s career.

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Good? That seems a fair word, but by itself it doesn’t quite convey the necessary complexity of the highs and lows and the conclusion of the four-year careers of homegrown guards Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford.

Maybe senior Michael Dixon Jr., who transferred from Missouri and played but one year here, said it best: “It was a good season; it just wasn’t the season we wanted it to be.”

Yes, that seems about right.

The Tigers finished 24-10, 12-6 in the first-ever American Athletic Conference race. But as senior guard Geron Johnson said in the aftermath of the No. 8 seed Tigers’ 78-60 loss to No. 1 seed Virginia in the round of 32, “We underachieved.”

Yes, they did.

Of course, Johnson also was right when he added, “We had some good wins, don’t get me wrong.”

And he’s right, they did have some good wins.

They avenged the beating they took at Oklahoma State by defeating the Cowboys on a neutral court and winning the Old Spice Classic. They beat another NCAA Tournament team in Gonzaga and they swept Louisville, which won the AAC Tournament championship and at this writing had advanced to the Sweet 16.

But for all the good wins, the enduring memory of this season might be the bad losses. Of their 10 defeats, six were by 13 or more points and another came at Houston. And there was their inability to beat either Cincinnati (0-2) or Connecticut (0-3, including the drubbing in the AAC Tournament).

Starting with the Feb. 27 loss at Houston and through the end of the season, the Tigers lost four of their final seven games and did not win consecutive games at any time in that stretch. Freshman forward Austin Nichols rejected the idea that the team became self-satisfied at any point, but did say, “Maybe we let our guard down a little bit.”

In fact, had the Tigers simply beaten Houston – like they were supposed to do – and made the AAC championship game, they probably would have earned a 6 seed. And then, who knows? Maybe they’re still playing basketball.

Then again, judging by the final humiliation, probably not. Even Virginia players were talking about the way the Memphis players were “barking” at one another. It made clear this team’s flaws went beyond shots missed and defensive assignments ignored.

Truth is, they didn’t seem much like one big happy family and sometimes it was painfully obvious that passing the ball to Dixon was never Jackson’s preferred option.

Yet you can’t write off the season or the team as wholly dysfunctional, either. There were too many comebacks. The Tigers trailed Louisville by eight with less than five minutes to play at FedExForum and went on a sizzling 15-1 run to take a 72-66 victory. And the two-point loss to Florida at Madison Square Garden, the top seed in the NCAA Tournament, still might be the best game Memphis played all season.

In many ways, the season was a one-year microcosm of Jackson’s career – always teasing and alternately delivering more than you expected and less than you presumed.

Asked after the NCAA loss if there was anything he would like to tell Memphis fans now that his career was over, Jackson said: “I’m thankful for the opportunity to play before my hometown. I know it ain’t been perfect, but I had a lot of fun. I know everything didn’t go the right way. My only regret is that we didn’t go to a Final Four.”

Or a Sweet 16, for that matter.

Jackson and Crawford played their whole careers burdened by the expectations of others, but also by themselves. That’s what happens a little bit everywhere, but maybe especially in Memphis.

Now it’s impossible for those senior guards to ever reach a Final Four. And based on the opinions of pro scouts, advancing to the NBA will be next to impossible. Which also doesn’t mean they have to be done playing basketball. It just won’t be in a place where the lights are as bright as they’ve been while playing basketball for the University of Memphis.

Fans may remember this as the season in which Pastner said he was going to “ride the four senior guards” and that those players didn’t have the horsepower to go beyond the round of 32. The players themselves may be haunted by the what-might-have-beens for a while.

But eventually, hopefully, that will pass. Years from now, they will be young men who, like those NCAA TV commercials say, have gone pro in something other than sports.

Geron Johnson, who is quite the locker room philosopher for a guy who was booted from two different junior colleges, said after the loss to UVA: “Life’s not over.”

It was a simple but powerful statement. And soon enough the seniors – from walk-on Trey Draper to graduate student David Pellom to those four guards – will understand the unspoken part of Johnson’s statement:

Life’s just getting started, no matter what label you hang on this basketball season.

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