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VOL. 127 | NO. 43 | Friday, March 2, 2012

Tigers Right Their Wrongs Heading Into Postseason

By Don Wade

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They assumed greatness. Assumed it as opposed to earning it and proving it.

The University of Memphis Tigers are coming together at the right time entering their regular season finale against Tulsa on Saturday, March 3, before returning home to host the Conference USA tournament at FedExForum March 7-10.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

That’s the quicksand in which this Tigers basketball season started. The college basketball world told them they were a Top 10 team and the Tigers decided they would need, oh, a few days on the beach in Hawaii to prove they were really Top Five and better than Michigan, Georgetown, even Duke.

They brazenly talked of New Orleans in March, site of the Final Four, and made it sound like the path there was the Big Easy.

They spoke of their collective talent being so overwhelming that it was like having “eight or nine starters” and point guard Joe Jackson insisted roles did not matter, that they were the Memphis Musketeers – all for one and one for all.

“I’m not gonna trip about nothin’,” Jackson vowed before the season began.

Yet before December was over, Jackson did exactly that. He was so distressed about his role on the team that he missed a game while considering a transfer.

All along the way, various players made no secret of their displeasure with playing time by striking pouty poses when pulled from games by Coach Josh Pastner.

By late February the ever-patient head coach, after watching his team sleepwalk through a loss at UTEP, was so disgusted with the collective attitude of entitlement that he took drastic measures:

He briefly locked the players out of their own locker room and didn’t allow them to practice wearing anything bearing the word “Memphis.” He permanently removed the names from the backs of their jerseys.

Whether those moves had an impact or the timing is coincidental, the Tigers have notched three straight decisive wins. The last of these was an 84-55 dismantling of a 20-win Central Florida team that beat them in Orlando by a point on Jan. 18 when Keith Clanton converted a lay-in and was fouled by senior Wesley Witherspoon with four seconds left and then hit the game-winning free throw.

“We played soft, let them get anything they wanted,” Will Barton said of that loss that never should have happened.

So the victory over UCF on Tuesday, Feb. 28, on Senior Night at FedExForum, represented the righting of a wrong. It also provided a fine sendoff for Witherspoon, who scored 15 points, grabbed seven rebounds, made four steals and handed out two assists.

The Tigers have clinched at least a piece of the regular-season Conference USA title and will carry a 22-8 (12-3) record into the last game at Tulsa, on Saturday, March 3. The stuff of greatness? Hardly. But the Tigers are checking the boxes that are supposed to be checked, meeting basic expectations, rebuilding their reputation, and advancing from there.

“We control our own destiny and we’ve clinched at least a share of first place,” Pastner said. “That can’t be taken away.”

Guard Antonio Barton’s foot injury at the end of the first half of the UCF game provided a scare. But with no fracture (a sprain and a bruise), he should be ready for the C-USA tourney, which starts here on Wednesday, March 7. Freshman Adonis Thomas (ankle surgery) has begun practicing and also is expected back by then. The Tigers will have a first-round bye and begin play on Thursday, March 8.

With their 22 wins and an RPI ranking of 18, the Tigers shouldn’t have to worry about making the NCAA Tournament field. Even without any victories over ranked teams, the Tigers have done enough to prove they are tournament-worthy. Winners of seven of their last eight, what lies before them now are great opportunities to improve positioning and perhaps get to a No. 6 seed.

“This is the time of year when you want to start clicking,” said forward Tarik Black. “Now is the perfect time.”

He’s right. And the schedule now sets up well. There is no reason the Tigers shouldn’t be able to win three straight on their home floor to capture the C-USA Conference championship. If they do that and beat Tulsa to end the regular season, they would have a 26-win resume even if they were still to lack a Top 25 ranking.

“And we’re definitely a Top 25 team,” said junior D.J. Stephens. “We just needed time to mature.”

Said Witherspoon: “We’re as good as we want to be. Sky’s the limit.”

Yes, that’s just talk. But it sounds more like confidence born of results rather than arrogance born from assumption. Their Top 10 national ranking is long gone, the names on the backs of their jerseys are long gone, and soon all that will be left is win-or-go-home competition.

“If teams take us lightly,” Will Barton said, “that would be foolish by them.”

And if the Tigers take other teams lightly, well, we’ve already seen what that looks like.

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