Every special season has critical mileposts along the way. The Tigers’ first came in Stillwater, Okla., where, again, they weren’t up to the challenge of a ranked opponent in Oklahoma State. Thus, the Tigers and their coach returned to harsh criticism in Memphis and waited for the next opportunity.
It came in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., on a neutral court, where the University of Memphis defeated OSU and re-opened the conversation:
Hey, maybe this Tigers team will be different after all?
Which us brought us to the No. 15 Tigers’ game with No. 16 Florida on Tuesday, Dec. 17, in the Jimmy V Classic in Madison Square Garden.
As purely an exercise in only-one-team-can-win competition, the Tigers were on the low end of a 77-75 score. But beyond that, the Tigers’ performance validated that a special season is indeed possible.
A special night was as close as a driving layup at game’s end from Joe Jackson that was, as the saying goes, a “good look,” but that didn’t quite bring the desired result.
Still, if you watched the last few minutes of this game, you saw the Tigers display rock-steady composure. Jackson and Chris Crawford looked like the seniors they are, grown up from the starry-eyed freshmen who were part of a Tigers team – coach Josh Pastner’s second – that lost by 13 to Kansas at MSG early in the 2010-11 season.
Crawford’s take on what happened then: “They made a run and we never got over it.”
Crawford’s take on how they responded against Florida, after falling 12 points behind in the first half: “We didn’t let it soak in on us.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan had praise for the Tigers, too.
“They have a chance to have a heckuva year,” he said.
And for Jackson: “That kid is a helluva player.”
Throughout Pastner’s tenure, there have been many A.D. – After Defeat – press conferences in which the coach was spinning as fast as he can. But the day after losing to Florida on the national stage, there was no need to spin, no need to play Pollyanna.
“Last night was a high-level basketball game, sort of like a Sweet 16 game,” Pastner said.
“That game will help us,” Pastner added.
Senior forward David Pellom, who scored 12 points off the bench in just 16 minutes and was important to keeping Memphis in it in the first half, may exaggerate a bit when he says this game will be like “every” game in the American Athletic Conference. The league has its bottom-feeders.
But the overall point is legit. There are big-boy teams like Louisville and Connecticut and worthy opponents, including Cincinnati, beyond that. The Tigers made just eight turnovers against the Gators and knocked down 83.3 percent of their free throws (15-for-18). Replicate those two stats and Memphis will be very tough to beat in any game it plays.
Now, if there are questions in the aftermath of the Florida game – and there have to be a few – they are these:
• Can the Tigers employ the four-guard lineup, which also featured seniors Geron Johnson and Michael Dixon, this much? Sometimes, yes. The Tigers get an athletic mismatch with Johnson or Crawford playing the four. Crawford hit 4 of 7 threes against the Gators.
• Will Pastner keep the rotation short, essentially playing the four guards, Pellom and big men Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols? Yes and no. Just about everybody with a scholarship should see time Saturday, Dec. 21 at FedExForum against Southeast Missouri State. But in big games, time will have to be earned.
• Should there be concern about the rebounding disparity? Florida won the boards 37-26. It bears watching, certainly, but when you play a four-guard lineup you make certain tradeoffs. Giving up a larger share of the glass is part of the deal.
Oh, and just so there’s no confusion, neither Pastner nor the players were attempting to triumph a two-point loss as a moral victory.
“Everyone’s got a little sour taste in their mouth,” Pellom said. “No one likes to lose.”
And they can hardly wait for the next opportunity to win.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.