A Season for More

Grizzlies, Tigers look to reach new heights in 2012-2013

Monday, October 29, 2012, Vol. 127, No. 211

Last season, the Grizzlies made the playoffs and even earned home-court advantage for their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Last season, the Tigers made the NCAA Tournament after winning the regular season and tournament Conference USA championships.

Last season …

Guarantees nothing about this season.

Memphis players cheer their teammates to victory over Marshall during the championship game of the Conference USA tournament at FedExForum earlier this year. How far can the Tigers go this season? That will be determined by a solid group of returning players and some key freshmen, who combine to give Josh Pastner his best roster yet. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol is a key member of the team’s “core” group along with Mike Conley, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph. The team looks to avenge last season’s disappointing playoff loss to the Clippers. (AP Photo: Danny Johnston)

Still, by any objective standard, the Tigers and Grizzlies had successful 2011-2012 seasons. Yet it’s also true that each could have done, maybe even should have done, more.

“We owe the fans one,” Grizzlies center Marc Gasol said as the team started training camp. “We do.”

No argument here. The Grizzlies had a 27-point second-half lead in Game 1 of their first-round Western Conference playoff series against the Clippers. They lost that game, 99-98 at home, and also dropped Game 7 at FedExForum.

Opportunity earned, opportunity squandered.

The University of Memphis earned an automatic NCAA bid by winning the C-USA Tournament in dominating fashion at FedExForum. But when the tournament committee handed out seedings, they plainly told the Tigers and coach Josh Pastner they were not impressed.

With no Top 25 victories, the Tigers were given an 8 seed and drew No. 9 seed Saint Louis, coached by the accomplished Rick Majerus. The Billikens made the Tigers play their slow-down game and won 61-54.

“Tough match-up,” Pastner said as the Tigers started practice for this season.

“A horrible end to the season,” said junior Tarik Black.

And now both teams are set to embark on this season’s journey. Players and coaches from both teams talk of “looking good on paper,” an almost throwback phrase given that today many fans have only checked rosters, standings and statistics on their laptops and cell phones.

Wherever they keep tabs on their teams, they are bound to have probing questions. Here are a few answers, what you need to know heading into the season.

Every team wants a good start, but which team needs a good start worse – Tigers or Grizzlies?

Last season the Grizzlies and every other NBA team played a shortened season and compacted schedule because of a lockout. Early games were uneven, rough. And as guard Mike Conley said recently, “It’s nice to look at the schedule and see space between games.”

So it’s a smoother start already. And with an 82-game schedule, an 0-4 stumble from the gate or a 2-6 start doesn’t have to ruin the Grizz’s season.

For the Tigers, however, who are No. 16 in the coaches’ preseason poll, a good start is essential and a great start could be a season-changer. Memphis plays in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas in late November.

They first play Virginia Commonwealth, which would be ranked 27th in the poll, and their next game will be against either No. 8 Duke or Minnesota. The stacked tournament field also includes No. 2 Louisville and No. 17 Missouri.

Pastner says the early games matter so much because “bottom line, the conference is not going to get the credit it deserves.”

Point guard Joe Jackson is even blunter about the early schedule, which also includes a Dec. 15 home game against Louisville and a Jan. 4 trip to Knoxville to play the Vols.

“That’s gonna tell it all,” Jackson said of the pre-conference schedule.

Who has more pressure to have a great season – the Tigers’ Adonis Thomas or the Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay?

Both are supremely talented small forwards and had Thomas not suffered an ankle injury last season as a freshman he would have been a first-round NBA pick and probably playing against Gay this season.

“Sometimes I played the four and that’s not the position I’ll play in the NBA,” Thomas said. “This year they (the pro scouts) will see me more on the wing, at my natural position.”

Thomas needs a big year for his draft status. The Tigers need a breakout season from him for their NCAA seeding. Thomas impressed with his outside shooting stroke and won the Memphis Madness 3-point shooting contest. Yet Pastner makes clear that the team needs many other things from Thomas.

“Rebounding, assists, defense … I told him, I don’t want you living and dying with the jump shot,” Pastner said.

Thomas adds leadership to that list, noting that’s another thing the NBA scouts will want to see in the talented sophomore.

Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, while well aware of Gay’s ability to score, also wants more from his most dynamic player.

“Rudy has playmaking ability, he can rebound, he can defend the best player on the court,” Hollins said.

Gay says he wants to do more, too, but with Gasol and Zach Randolph in the paint, he knows he doesn’t have to always carry the load.

“I don’t have to be the man every night,” Gay said.

Maybe not, but in the postseason his game must reach another level.

Who are the new players most likely to make a huge impact?

The Grizzlies made some offseason moves. Getting Dwight Howard wasn’t one of them.

“I’d have taken him,” Hollins said with a smile.

What they did get was an experienced backup point guard in Jerryd Bayless and a shooting guard with outside shooting touch in Wayne Ellington. Rookie guard Tony Wroten has impressed with his athleticism, but it is Bayless and Ellington who are being counted upon to fill long-time voids.

“That’s what I do best,” Ellington said of knocking down shots. “I’m not afraid to say it.”

If Bayless proves capable, Conley will finally get normal rest and that may allow him to be the same offensive threat in the second half of games that he has been in the first half of games.

For the Tigers, all eyes are on junior college transfer Geron Johnson. Under the best-case scenario, Johnson pushes Chris Crawford at shooting guard and takes his starting spot sooner rather than later. Johnson was considered perhaps the best juco talent in the country.

But Johnson also had off-the-court troubles, being booted from two junior colleges and even being arrested for attempted burglary while in high school. Pastner has him on a daily curfew. For his part, Johnson says he has turned the page on his past through “prayer” and he predicts he and Jackson will mesh beautifully on the court.

Freshman power forward Shaq Goodwin, of Atlanta, may play football for the Tigers next season, but for now Pastner wants to see a football-like mentality in the post.

“Shaq definitely can help us on the glass,” Pastner said.

Goodwin said he has gone from 275 pounds to 260 and credits the Tigers’ Frank Matrisciano, the “Life Changer,” for “trimming the fat.” Ferrakohn Hall is the returning starter, but that status is far from assured as Pastner seems to take extra delight this preseason in saying all starting jobs are open.

What are the goals?

Although in less robust terms than in the last two seasons, the Tigers still speak of aiming for the Final Four and they won’t say a national title is out of the realm.

“That’s good to shoot for,” Jackson said, “but I don’t want to get into that right now. Take it one day at a time.”

Said the Grizz’s Conley: “Our expectations are as high or higher for ourselves as what everyone else expects from us.”

What are the potential problems?

Aside from injuries, a new season always means a new identity must be formed and maintained.

The most cynical Grizzlies observers still question if Gay and Randolph can play together over the long haul, a notion Gay called “insulting.”

Hollins has to figure out rotations with the addition of Bayless and Ellington. When Darrell Arthur returns from injury in a few weeks another adjustment will have to be made.

The starters had to play big minutes last season, but this year the challenge may be keeping everyone happy if Hollins determines he can spread time more evenly. Tony Allen is well aware of the fact there are times Hollins simply does not trust him to make good decisions. That storyline could take on more of a life if Hollins gains even more confidence in Quincy Pondexter and Ellington.

The best Tigers players are probably almost as focused on the NBA as the Grizzlies are. If Thomas, Jackson, Black and Johnson believe that outsized team success will bring the exposure they want, the Tigers should be fine.

But there was a reason Pastner took the players’ names off their jerseys last season. Selfishness, if not always visible, was never far from the surface. Will Barton, last season’s best player, never figured out how to make other players better.

Black, Jackson and Thomas all talk about needing to provide leadership, with Black saying, “I have to have the courage to speak up” and hold people accountable.

If the Tigers struggle with their chemistry early and don’t beat some good opponents, they could dissolve into a team that has to win the C-USA Tournament just to make the NCAA field.

What does a dream season look like?

The Grizzlies rally from a 27-point deficit at Los Angeles and beat the Clippers in Game 1 of their playoff series and go on to sweep. Catching an overconfident Lakers team in the second round, they win in seven games when Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant fight over the ball in the final seconds of Game 7.

Having reached their first Western Conference Finals, All-Star Rudy Gay outscores Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant in five of seven games and the Grizz advance to the NBA Finals to play the defending champion Miami Heat.

The Tigers reach the finals of the tournament in the Bahamas, beating Duke on the way and pushing Louisville. Then on Dec. 15 at home, they get revenge on their old rival.

They run through the rest of the regular season with one convincing victory after another, becoming a strong rebounding team. Thomas looks like a high lottery pick and the TV pundits say Jackson, Johnson and Crawford give the Tigers a three-headed monster in the backcourt.

The NCAA Tournament Committee rewards the Tigers with a 3 seed and they advance to the Elite Eight where they play an underachieving 2 seed from Kentucky coached by John Calipari. They beat the Wildcats by a single point when Calipari’s team fails to foul the Tigers with a few seconds remaining and Crawford hits a ridiculously long 3-pointer. Afterward, Calipari says he told the players to foul and he doesn’t understand why they didn’t.

The Tigers return to the Final Four and the banner never has to be taken down.