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VOL. 126 | NO. 221 | Friday, November 11, 2011

Expectations High as Tigers Look to Build on Success

By Don Wade

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After the University of Memphis Tigers’ first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Arizona, guard Joe Jackson might have fired up the grill and tossed his team warm-up onto the flames.

Excitement is building as the University of Memphis men’s basketball team prepares to begin the 2011-2012 season. The Tigers easily beat LeMoyne-Owen College, 119-67, in their first exhibition last week. Memphis opens the season Nov. 15 against Belmont.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Whether he actually did this or just likes the imagery of saying “I burned my team warm-up,” the point is the same: he needed closure on last season.

Yet as the Tigers focus on the promising 2011-2012 campaign, they also are rekindling memories of mistakes from the recent past. At any given moment, you might find Jackson and his teammates huddled around a flat screen watching their less-than-flattering performances from last season, which included six losses in a mediocre Conference USA.

“Young team, young team,” said sophomore guard Will Barton. “We took plays off.”

Not that they realized it at the time.

“The decisions we made were so elementary,” said Jackson, a sophomore who is looking hard at his own game, given that he had more turnovers (115) than assists (109). “Everybody tried, tried hard. We just didn’t understand what to look for.”

Last year’s team rallied to win the C-USA Tournament title game and the NCAA berth that came with it, then pushed Arizona to the brink in their one and only NCAA Tournament game and finished with a 25-10 record.

Expectations were miraculously met, though not exceeded.

This season, Josh Pastner’s third as head coach, more is expected. And not just by the big blue masses. Internally, there is an air of anticipation, a sense that something special is near.

“We do look at other teams and we know that Duke, North Carolina … those teams can be great,” said freshman swingman and McDonald’s All-American Adonis Thomas. “We just want to show Memphis can be a great team.”

The Tigers are ranked No. 9 in the coaches’ preseason poll, No. 11 in the AP poll, and anything less than a trip to the Sweet 16 will be a disappointment. Which is at it should be when the team mantra is that they have so much talent that it’s “like we have eight or nine starters.”

Fair question: Will this selfless attitude hold when the season starts Tuesday, Nov. 15, against Belmont at FedExForum?

Jackson says yes, or in his words, “I’m not gonna trip about nothin’.”

As for Pastner, he may be the most obsessively optimistic coach in America, but even he is not immune from a coach’s fears. For him, the worst-case scenario plays out like this: His young team – and the Tigers are still young, though no longer the third-youngest team in the country – puts too much emphasis on scoring; the players forget that superior athleticism wreaks the most havoc on defense and in turn establishes an offensive tempo that renders opponents desperate.

“The whole basis of our defense is ball pressure because of our quickness,” Pastner said. “My No. 1 thing is taking the 3 out of the game.”

Why? Because the 3-point shot remains the great equalizer, the best chance for a significantly less talented team to upset a more talented team. Last season, the Tigers beat Tulane by only five points when they allowed the Green Wave to shoot 9-of-18 from 3-point range. Although the Tigers blew out LeMoyne-Owen in the first exhibition game this season, 119-67, even the overmatched Magicians didn’t immediately disappear.

“That’s why LeMoyne-Owen was staying with us (early), the 3-point shot,” Pastner said, again adding, “Our whole identity has to be our defense.”

A key ingredient to consistently strong defense is depth/versatility and the Tigers have it. Junior college transfer Stan Simpson, 6-foot-10 and 232 pounds, impressed in his debut against a small LeMoyne-Owen team with 14 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks, but the clue came in Pastner’s comments after the game.

“I felt that Stan could help us if he played hard, which he did tonight,” the coach said.

Rebounding is an issue. Last season as a freshman, 6-8 Tarik Black led the Tigers with 5.0 rebounds per game. True, the Tigers play bigger than they are because of their athleticism, but if they can improve in this area they will be well on their way to being the defensive team Pastner seeks because they will get their blocks and their steals.

Offensively, only Will Barton averaged double figures (12.3 points per game), with Jackson (9.9), Black (9.1) and swingman Wesley Witherspoon (9.0) next in line. Add guards Antonio Barton (8.2 ppg), Charles Carmouche (7.4), Chris Crawford (6.6) and the freshman Thomas, and Pastner has enough scoring options to hold everyone accountable for his defense.

Soon, the Tigers start figuring out the best ways to mix and match the various parts as the experiment known as the regular season gets under way. And stern tests wait in November’s Maui Classic.

“We’re not going to be a perfect team going into the Belmont game,” Pastner said.

No, but perfection isn’t the operative word.

Said Black: “It’s about progress.”

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