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VOL. 126 | NO. 245 | Friday, December 16, 2011

Renewal of Classic Rivalry Backdrop to Tigers’ Woes

By Don Wade

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Whether Josh Pastner has a firm grasp of how to best use the tremendous athletes at his disposal is up for debate.

Billy Buford was part of the 1972-1973 University of Memphis squad that finished runner-up to UCLA in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers split the season series with Louisville that year.
(Photo Courtesy of University of Memphis Athletic Media Relations)

But the University of Memphis coach does have a good handle on the Tigers’ current situation in the wake of a 76-72 home loss to Murray State.

Expectations are not being met. Tiger Nation is restless.

“People want the Tigers to beat Murray State,” Pastner said. “We’re 5-3 right now. People want us to be 8-0.”

Actually, most Tiger fans would settle for 6-2 and an upward trend heading into the renewal of an old rivalry Saturday, Dec. 17, at Louisville. Of course, given what happened Sunday, Dec. 11, at FedExForum, the rivalry with No. 4 Louisville is a distant subplot to the larger season story, which has taken a sharp downward twist.

Losing locker rooms are universally quiet and unhappy places. That was true of the Tigers’ locker room Sunday night. But beyond that, there was a prevailing sense of bewilderment.

“I expected us to be top three in the country by now,” said sophomore guard Will Barton.

Instead, they came in second in a two-team contest with Murray State.

“They out-toughed us,” guard Joe Jackson said.

More troubling was how the coach and players agreed they didn’t play with energy.

Pastner, as always, said the loss was on him. But it was Barton who, despite matching his career high with 27 points, took responsibility for the team-wide lethargy, saying, “That’s my fault for letting my team come out flat like that.”

Fair questions: Was the early No. 8 ranking a sham? Have the Tigers been looking in the mirror and seeing delusions of grandeur? Is a major readjustment required?

“Nothing has stopped with our goals,” Pastner said. “We’re still a very good basketball team and we’re gonna get better.”

Once the Conference USA season starts in January, they will at least have the appearance of getting better because the league is awful. But what about before then, at Louisville this Saturday? At Georgetown on Dec. 22? And at home on Jan. 4 against Tennessee?

The Murray State game, while just one game, was nonetheless instructive. Pastner said the Tigers’ top three keys to the game were:

• Taking away the 3-point shot (the Racers hit 9-of-20 for 45 percent).

• Keeping the Racers off the free-throw line (they hit 21-of-29 for a 5-point advantage over the Tigers’ 16 points from the line).

• Not letting the role players beat them (Donte Poole burned them for 20 points and was 6-for-8 from 3-point range; he was averaging 13 points and two made 3-pointers per game).

To be fair, the victory did raise Murray State’s record to 10-0 and the Racers were ready to knock off the No. 21-ranked team in the country. And the Racers moved into the 24th spot in the Associated Press poll; the Tigers dropped out.

“Everybody was so locked in,” said Murray State coach Steve Prohm.

Or they were until the last two minutes when, finally, the Tigers bit with a ferocious full-court press; an 11-point lead at the 1:58 mark melted to a one-point lead with 13 seconds left. When pressing, the game was a mismatch. Poole even said he and guard Jewuan Long were cramping.

Afterward, in that quiet Tiger locker room, the players wondered how things might have gone had they pressed sooner.

“That would be smart,” guard Chris Crawford said of pressing more.

“Maybe we should have gotten after them earlier with the press,” said freshman Adonis Thomas, who had no points and no rebounds in 18 minutes. “It created a lot of turnovers.”

Pastner mostly dismissed the notion, saying it’s not possible to play that way for 40 minutes and that if a team could it would go undefeated. But if Pastner doesn’t want to embrace former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson’s famed “40 minutes of hell,” how about at least 10 or 15 minutes of heck?

When Louisville coach Rick Pitino addressed the media after his team’s drubbing of Fairleigh Dickinson last weekend, he referred to the Tigers as “one of the more athletic teams in the country.”

Wonder what press-happy Pitino would have thought of the Tigers not pressing more against athletically inferior Murray State? Thomas said from watching tape they knew the Racers only had one real ball-handler – all the more reason to press the issue.

Not that pressing will solve all that ails the Tigers, but as Will Barton said, “When we play hard and are flying around defensively we are a real good team.”

If nothing else, the press is an instant energizer and apparently represents a hardworking comfort zone for a team that like last year’s team, Barton said, is playing with “no sense of urgency.”

“We can’t be feeling down about ourselves,” Barton said, “or they’ll blow us out.”

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