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VOL. 9 | NO. 43 | Saturday, October 22, 2016

Resetting the Bar

Grizzlies, Tigers, have high hopes and high hurdles

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David Fizdale is a first-time NBA head coach. Tubby Smith is a college coach with a Hall-of-Fame resume.

In Memphis, on the eve of the 2016-2017 NBA and college basketball seasons, they also share this in common: They are leaders that are worlds apart from their most immediate predecessors. Their mere presence, before the season even tips off, has changed the hopes, dreams and expectations for the city’s hoops fans.

“I’m excited,” said Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley. “He’s excited. You can feel the energy he’s bringing. It’s good to change things now and then and have a new voice.”

No, that wasn’t Conley speaking of Fizdale, but rather Smith as successor to Josh Pastner as head coach at the University of Memphis.

But Conley’s words would fit for Fizdale, too.

“He’s not a typical first-time head coach,” Conley said.

Nor is this a typical season in Hoops City. Fans are ready, maybe past ready, for a change of culture and an improvement in results.

The new coaches are restoring hope and the fans are daring to dream. They’re embracing escalating expectations for the coaches and their teams – even as every basketball fan’s wish is inevitably muted by the disappointing realities of the recent past.

OF HOPE AND HEALTH

The Grizzlies made the playoffs for a franchise-record sixth straight time last season, but they were chronically injured and used an NBA-record 28 players. Center Marc Gasol broke a bone in his foot and had to have surgery. Conley was shut down because of Achilles pain. And on and on it went.

They hobbled into the postseason with a 42-40 record, got swept in the first round by San Antonio, and soon afterward the Grizzlies were firing coach Dave Joerger – respected for his tactical acumen, but not so much his ability to relate to the front office or many of his players – and he was signing on to coach the hot-mess Sacramento Kings.

The Grizzlies then turned to Fizdale, a well-respected assistant in Miami under Erik Spoelstra who was there for Heat championships with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

The Tigers, in the seventh season under Pastner, now 39, failed to make the postseason for a second consecutive year after four straight NCAA trips. Worse, though, the mood toward the program turned dour and attendance declined to the point the U of M was in danger of losing all of an annual payment from the Grizzlies, per terms of the agreement to play at FedExForum.

The most memorable stat from the Tigers last season: $10.6 million, what the university would have owed Pastner had it fired him.

Pastner’s leaving for Georgia Tech saved the school some money, the embattled coach some grief, and cleared a path to bring in Smith from Texas Tech. Upon arrival, speaking at his introductory news conference Smith, who won a national championship at Kentucky, was as optimistic as the new guy should be.

“Sky’s the limit,” he said of the Memphis program.

By the time he was meeting with media before an open practice a couple of weeks ago, he was auditioning seven surviving players from a pool of 40-would be walk-ons and saying, “We’re in a situation where we need some bodies.”

Not that Smith lost his optimism – he didn’t – but there was also no hiding the challenge in front of this team.

The Grizzlies can relate. For their season turns on the health of their key players. Chandler Parsons, the largest free agent signee in franchise history (four years and $94 million) has not played in the preseason as he works to come back from a second knee surgery.

“It’s tough to say a timeline,” Parsons said as training camp opened, and no timeline has been offered since. “My goal is to play as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, Gasol came out of the team’s fifth preseason game with soreness in the same foot that had surgery. Official team diagnosis: bone bruise and nothing to be worried about.

General reaction from the fan base: AHHGGG! No! Not Again!

“We’ve had injuries and we know that,” Conley said, taking a big-picture view toward the upcoming season. “But that’s why we’ve invested so much time in our bodies and the Grizzlies have invested in more trainers, more physical therapists to help usher us through this transition when guys are having to fight through things.

“It’s a lot different. You feel like you have every resource you need,” Conley said. “Whether it’s a massage therapist at whatever time during the afternoon or night, they’ll be there to come to your house to see you get your body worked on.”

Massage house calls?

“Massage house calls,” Conley said. “We’re gonna have own physical therapist, massage therapist, travel with us. So it’s pretty cool.”

And, well, pretty necessary.

TWO COACHES, TWO REASONS TO BELIEVE

Memphis Deputy Athletic Director Mark Alnutt has not met David Fizdale, but he has watched and listened as Fizdale has spoken about community service and character, participated in a forum at the National Civil Rights Museum, and been so much more than a guy who has to be wondering where the wins will come from if Gasol, Conley, Parsons, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen can’t stay healthy.

“When you have a true interest (in the community), there’s a certain amount of buy-in,” Alnutt said. “It’s not a situation where he’s just here to coach basketball, but to be a part of the community. It elicits such a great response.”

Alnutt does know Tubby Smith.

“True mentor,” said Alnutt. “And you look at his track record, he’s been successful everywhere he’s been.”

From Tulsa to Georgia to Kentucky, from Minnesota to Texas Tech and, everyone hopes, Memphis.

Smith, of course, inherits a young and thin roster. He doesn’t have a Core Four. He has sophomore Dedric Lawson, some other, modest returning players, and new players that are so many question marks running around in high-tops.

So if Lawson is anything short of a strong contender for American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, it figures to be a long year. Smith has compared his ability to shoot as a big man to Dirk Nowitzki. And that’s nice, but it’s a lot to say.

“All the weight is on his shoulders,” sophomore point guard Jeremiah Martin said of Lawson. “But I feel like he can handle it.”

Conley has the pressure of signing a $153 million max contract – the richest in NBA history.

“I think I’ll just be more assertive and more aggressive, knowing I have more opportunities,” in Fizdale’s up-temp offense, Conley said. “You won’t see me trying to go behind the back a trillion times and all these step-back deep threes – that’s just not how I play.”

Fizdale, for his part, is putting much emphasis on the notion that all players can improve their games – not just the younger ones.

“Whatever a guy is weak at, we develop it,” Fizdale said. “The thing that happens to older players in this league is people think that’s who they are and that’s it. I just don’t agree with that.”

In both camps there is the notion that the new coach – whether it is the 42-year-old Fizdale or the 65-year-old Smith – can “coach up” the troops.

“Coach has come in with the mindset that no matter what comes out of his mouth, he’s teaching,” said redshirt Tigers junior Markel Crawford.

Fizdale has Gasol and Randolph shooting threes – the coach wants a minimum of four 3-shot attempts from Gasol each game – and in practice he has even had Allen play a little point guard.

So, yes, anything is possible. At least moment by moment.

“You can feel the vibe,” said Randolph, who even accepted being moved to the second unit. “You can feel it in the air.”

AIM HIGH, YOU JUST MIGHT HIT SOMETHING

A positive vibe is a great thing and the Grizzlies and Tigers both seem to have it here in the dreamy preseason.

But as the games start, opponents provide resistance and this season’s realities begin to form.

The Tigers went 19-15 last season as Dedric Lawson led the team in scoring (15.8 points per game) and rebounding (9.3 per game). But beyond Lawson, there is little returning production. Brother K.J. missed most of the season with an injury (it’s a Memphis thing) and while showing flashes of potential, also displayed a recurring tendency to force up shots at the expense of team play.

Can Smith correct that?

Can Smith get some mileage out of transfers such as 6-11 senior center Chad Rykhoek, whose first game this season will be the first of his college career because of injuries?

What is really possible?

“One of biggest things is we gotta win the American Athletic Conference,” Crawford said. “Then make the NCAAs and make a run. No promises, but I think we’ll be a real good team.”

It’s an ambitious set of goals. But then Smith is here because he took Texas Tech to the NCAAs last season when no one believed that possible; Smith was named Big 12 Coach of the Year.

While the Tigers will have to navigate a conference that last season sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament, none had a seed higher than 8. The league would appear to lack a juggernaut.

Not so the NBA’s Western Conference, home of the predicted-NBA champion Golden State Warriors and new addition Kevin Durant. As though Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green needed the help.

“We gotta worry about ourselves, be the best team we can be,” said Gasol, who openly says his goal is to lead his team to the NBA Finals. “If we do that, I feel confident about our chances against anybody. If we are 100 percent committed to this team, I like our chances. There’s no one team in the NBA I worry about. The only team I worry about is ourselves.”

But to be sure, this team is in a different place, and viewed in a different way, than the best Heat teams Fizdale knew so well.

The Grizzlies are neither feared nor deemed worthy of much national TV time.

“I told coach Fizz, he’s gonna learn, we’ve been underdogs in Memphis no matter what,” said Randolph. “We always been underdogs.”

The Tigers, too, perhaps. But it’s not a bad label for either Memphis basketball team. After all, it leaves room for growth and the happiest of surprises.

So we give the last word to that noted Memphis philosopher Tony Allen, whom upon the start of training camp said all that needed to be said:

“C’mon, let’s rock.”

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