VOL. 132 | NO. 30 | Friday, February 10, 2017
The Press Box
Tubby Gets Mad, Tigers Play Better
By Don Wade
He got their attention. After the Tigers’ dreadful 72-57 loss at UCF last weekend, coach Tubby Smith put away the diplomacy.
“We’re not defending,” he said. “We suck.”
Then, when Smith met with local media two days later, he basically called them out (Markel Crawford most of all), and said the players had to “suck it up” and get tougher.
Maybe it took a while, but finally we saw some Tubby Temper.
“When he’s fiery like that, it’s a plus for us,” said Crawford.
So naturally the Tigers would come flying out of the locker room at the first opportunity, right? Not quite.
The Tigers’ first chance to redeem themselves came Tuesday. Feb. 7 vs. Tulsa at FedExForum. Tulsa’s nickname is the Golden Hurricane and, yeah, you know where this is headed.
At game’s start Tulsa went on a 12-2 run and had things continued in this fashion, well, the game would have been a better fit for the Weather Channel than ESPNews.
But the Tigers withstood this somewhat self-imposed challenge when their early offensive sets were heavy on dribbling and light on passing. Crawford had a couple of bad shot attempts, but then stuck a jumper and was off to a 19-point night. Ultimately, the Tigers not only righted things, they coasted to a 66-44 victory playing what Smith called their best defense of the season as they converted 17 Tulsa turnovers into 23 points.
Tubby’s wife Donna even yelled a shout-out to Crawford: “Welcome back, sweetie!”
The First Lady of Tigers Basketball was, of course, referring to Crawford’s three most recent games in which he became invisible and scored a combined 10 points. Against UCF, he had been shut out.
“Honestly, I don’t know where I’ve been the last couple of games,” Crawford said.
The Memphis bench, meanwhile, has been missing most of the season. It’s something of a miracle that the Tigers are 18-7, 8-4 in the American Athletic Conference, given how little the bench has given them.
The reserves combined for a more respectable 13 points vs. Tulsa, but 10 of those points came in the first half. Senior transfer guard Christian Kessee scored seven points, which is his high for the season and now represents one-fifth of his total points as a Tiger.
And no, that’s not what anyone expected. He averaged almost 10 points per game last season at Coppin State. It was reasonable to believe his scoring average might transfer here as well.
Kessee rekindled hope by going 3 of 6 from the floor vs. Tulsa and he stepped into his shots with more confidence, just like he had been doing lately in practice.
“Get it out of the Finch (Center) and into the FedEx,” he said of bringing his shot to the game.
Does it mean Kessee will be a contributor from now on? The Tigers can only hope.
“We’re gonna need him down the stretch,” Crawford said.
We also know they will continue to need double-doubles from Dedric Lawson and near double-doubles from K.J. Lawson. They will need Jeremiah Martin to be a steady hand at point guard and Jimario Rivers to do his undersized best in the post.
They will need efficiency from reserve Craig Randall like he showed in this last game, dishing out four assists, scoring three points and making a steal in 17 minutes without committing a turnover.
But maybe, too, they will need more Tubby Temper, more future Hall-of-Famer as in-the-trenches motivator. And while Smith is neither a foot-stomper nor a sideline showman, he has been at this long enough to know when the players need a kick, when his voice needs to echo.
“There comes a point in time in the season if they don’t do it themselves, the coach has to do it,” he said.
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.