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VOL. 126 | NO. 226 | Friday, November 18, 2011

Tigers Ace First Test, Take Talents to Maui

By Don Wade

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Every season has a first game. But this was not a perfunctory tip to an ordinary season. This one felt different, felt like the first act of a play that could have the ultimate, dramatic, ending.

Memphis Tigers forward Wesley Witherspoon (11) and guard Will Barton (5) attempt to block out Belmont Bruins forward Blake Jenkins (2) during the game at the FedExForum. Memphis defeated the Belmont Bruins 97-81.  
(Photo: Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE)

Months from now, no one will remember all the particulars from the University of Memphis’ 97-81 victory over Belmont on Tuesday, Nov. 15. People will forget that Will Barton, Wesley Witherspoon and Joe Jackson all went for at least 20 points, that the game started at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday (to accommodate ESPN) and that outside FedExForum it was a gray, rainy day.

But any University of Memphis fan who was there to see the curtain rise on the season likely will remember this: The Tigers wore white throwback uniforms celebrating the 1972-1973 team that reached the NCAA championship game under Gene Bartow and with Larry Finch, Ronnie Robinson, et al.

Foreshadowing, that’s the word everyone hopes to be using come March. Meantime, what a way to start.

“We passed test one,” said Tiger senior guard Charles Carmouche.

The next test, on Monday, Nov. 21, pits the No. 10 Tigers against 17th-ranked Michigan in the EA Sports Maui Invitational. Then a game on Tuesday against Duke or Tennessee, followed by another game on Wednesday.

The Tigers might play great in Hawaii or they might lay an egg, but they’re not even considering the latter.

“We want to go out there and win it,” Jackson said. “I get tired of people talking about the Dukes and other teams.”

And there are other teams sure to get their attention and then some: Kansas, Georgetown, UCLA and, of course, media darling Duke, which beat Belmont by a single point four days before the Memphis game.

“Belmont could have beaten Duke, probably should have beaten Duke,” said Tigers coach Josh Pastner. “(This) gave us a legit team we played, a barometer of where we’re at.”

Belmont won 30 games last season and was an NCAA Tournament team. Overmatched athletically against the Tigers, the Bruins nonetheless played hard enough to hang around for most of the game. Though Belmont was renowned for their 3-point shooting, the Tigers’ held them to 6-for-20 shooting from behind the arc and played at a pace the Bruins could only imagine.

Gritty as they were, the Bruins could not stop the Tigers from shooting 58.6 percent from the field or from hitting 7-of-14 from 3-point range.

“When they shoot like that, they’re hard to guard,” said Belmont’s Kerron Johnson. “It’s gonna be hard for anybody in the country to guard them.”

Said Belmont guard Ian Clark, a Germantown High graduate, “They did exactly what we didn’t want them to do, which was get out and run and get easy baskets.”

The sheer team speed of the Tigers was one of the takeaways. For all the times Pastner has said Jackson doesn’t need to be Superman, Jackson ran the point at a speed befitting a man in a cape. He had seven assists to just two turnovers and fast as he was, he was just as controlled.

Pastner said the difference in Jackson from his freshman season to now is that he has learned to “engage the defense, but not marry it” – meaning he runs to a certain spot, waits to commit before shooting or passing, makes his read and then the play.

“Not only is he making the read, but he’s making the pass so they can catch it in rhythm,” Pastner said.

No doubt, Tiger foes will take notice of the full-speed alley-oop pass Jackson threw Tarik Black in perfect rhythm. Plays like that, the “very elite” play of Witherspoon (to quote Pastner), the balanced scoring and the promising second-half performance of freshman Adonis Thomas were all impressive.

So was the final score given that Belmont out-rebounded the Tigers 42-29 and the Tigers shot just 64.7 percent from the free-throw line.

“It shows how dangerous we really are,” Barton said.

You will get no argument from Belmont’s Johnson, who proclaimed the Tigers “top three (in the country), at least.”

And Carmouche is confident enough right now to say, “I think we’re the best team in the country, to be honest.”

Premature though that may be, it was the kind of opening game that made it easy to envision the Tigers in those 1972-1973 uniforms with a lot more at stake. But even Barton put the brakes on looking too far down the road.

“Just one game,” he said, “we’re not going to get too big about it.”

Besides, immediately ahead is a great opportunity to do some real work toward NCAA seeding.

“It’s not a vacation for us,” Black said. “Hawaii’s beautiful and all, don’t get me wrong, but right now we’re all about business.”

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