VOL. 131 | NO. 201 | Friday, October 7, 2016
The Press Box
Have Eligibility? Give Tubby Smith a Call
By Don Wade
In a few minutes, the University of Memphis basketball team would be starting its first practice of the season. All of 10 scholarship players, two of whom were limited in the first practice because of injuries, would be on the court.
Another seven warm bodies, survivors of the initial 40 guys who showed up to try out for Tubby Smith’s first Tigers team, were back and hoping to make the roster as walk-ons.
“I guess they heard we needed help,” Smith said, even able to smile about it.
So, in the spirit of optimism, here is a name to remember: Matthew Temple. No, he is not a Memphis Tiger or a would-be Memphis Tiger. Which is too bad, really, because at 6-foot-10 this team could use him.
Temple was a walk-on for Smith at Texas Tech. And last season after another player suffered a foot injury, he started 15 games and was a valuable contributor to a Red Raiders team that reached the NCAA Tournament.
Smith understands that finding a diamond in the rough is more than a cliché or a hope-against-hope strategy. It can happen.
Still, there is no denying that Smith’s first season here should be one of tempered expectations. Not saying it will be, of course, because we all know Memphis fans start with a sense of entitlement about winning games and build from there.
But Smith has inherited a roster low on experience, talent and size. Despite this reality, he passed on the free throw handed to him when he met with media. Not only did he not complain about what he doesn’t have, he declined to categorize the situation as a rebuild.
“More of a reload,” he said, and it was hard not to imagine the coach at a sink filling up his squirt gun.
Smith went on to say the Tigers won 19 games last season while the Texas Tech program he took over had been many years without a winning season. And then he added this: “Josh Pastner left it in good shape.”
No, he didn’t, but by saying that, Smith makes clear he’s not interested in revisiting the recent past and the bad feelings that came with it. He’s taking ownership right from the jump because he’s been doing this long enough to know that when the games count, no matter what contributing factors were involved before he got here, all the wins and losses go on his record.
If there are to be 19 wins, or perhaps more this season, then sophomore forward Dedric Lawson will have much to do with that. He could well be the American Athletic Conference Preseason Player of the Year.
And he has sufficiently impressed his new coach that on this first day of practice Smith compared his ability to shoot at his height, 6-9, to both Tayshaun Prince (the version at Kentucky, not the version Memphis fans know as a Grizzly) and Dirk Nowitzki.
“That’s problem-solver right there,” Smith said.
And if the coach isn’t going to make excuses for the many flaws of this roster, then how can you blame him for imagining the best Dedric Lawson possible? There has to be hope somewhere.
The rest of the crew: Junior guard Markel Crawford returns after an up-and-down season, sophomore Jeremiah Martin will get first shot at winning the point guard job, and sophomore forward K.J. Lawson returns after an injury cut short his first season. Sophomore guard Craig Randall II and senior swingman Jake McDowell are back, too.
New faces include junior college transfer guard/forward Jimario Rivers, senior transfer guard Christian Kessee (Coppin State), freshman guard Keon Clergeot, and 6-11 senior transfer Chad Rykhoek (Baylor), who has yet to play a minute of college basketball because of assorted injuries.
No wonder, then, that Smith also made note of a TV cameraman who made a nice save when his camera nearly fell to the ground.
“Have some eligibility?” the coach asked.
He was kidding, probably.
Don Wade’s column appears 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.