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VOL. 132 | NO. 49 | Thursday, March 9, 2017

Tigers Facing Tall Order in AAC Tournament

By Don Wade

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Leven and Mary Williams had come to FedExForum last week for Senior Night. They wanted to see their beloved University of Memphis Tigers one more time and, who knows, maybe see Dedric Lawson play at home for the last time.

Tigers coach Tubby Smith looks on during his team’s Senior Night victory over Tulane. Smith says making a run during the AAC Tournament will require unselfishness on offense and defending the 3-point line better. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

About an hour before tip-off, before the U of M would defeat Tulane and send seniors including Jake McDowell – son of former Tiger Hank McDowell – off in style, Leven and Mary were saying hi and getting some autographs on the concourse from several former players.

Leven and Mary are season-ticket holders. In their early 70s. Old enough to remember so many trips to the NCAA Tournament and the NIT under coaches Gene Bartow, Dana Kirk and Larry Finch, and to more recent vintages that excelled under John Calipari, and both overachieved and underachieved for Josh Pastner.

This season’s edition of the Tigers faces a stiff challenge in the first American Athletic Conference Tournament under Tubby Smith. Memphis opens play on Friday, March 10, at 1 p.m. as a 5 seed vs. 4 seed Central Florida in Hartford, Conn. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Dedric Lawson is just a sophomore, but his Senior Night game vs. Tulane in FedExForum may have been his last home appearance. Lawson says he will weigh his options about whether to turn pro after the Tigers’ season is completed.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Wouldn’t it be great to just win the tournament?” Mary said, knowing that’s the only path for the Tigers (19-12, 9-9) to reach the NCAA Tournament Promised Land.

“It’d be great to win 20 games,” Leven said, sounding a more realistic tone.

“We’ve enjoyed this season,” Mary added.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Leven.

Of course, this was two days before that 103-62 loss at SMU – the program’s worst defeat in 70 years. Before the odds shifted heavily toward Memphis missing the postseason entirely for a third straight season.

And all of this in the midst of Pastner, now coach at Georgia Tech, winning AAC Coach of the Year honors on the strength of an 8-10 league record and upset wins that included taking down mighty North Carolina.

“We wish him well, too,” Leven said.

“That’s very generous,” said Mary.

No doubt, the last couple of seasons were rough on everyone as Pastner’s job security was a constant point of speculation. The crowds at FedExForum have not been anything like they were in the best years under Calipari, which tends to be the metric for all comparisons.

Antonio Anderson, now an assistant coach at Division 2 Franklin Pierce in New Hampshire, played on one Sweet 16 team, two Elite Eight teams, and the 2007-2008 team that reached the NCAA Finals.

“These fans love winning,” Anderson said as he signed autographs for fans on Senior Night. “We gave them four years of expectations of national title or nothing. And they want that back. And they deserve that.”

Dexter Reed played for the Tigers in the 1970s. People still want his autograph, too. But he is also every bit as much a fan as Leven and Mary Williams.

“I go to all the games,” he said. “I never laid off from the time I stopped playing. Calipari was the most fun time. From the time we went through with Coach (Wayne) Yates having to leave to Dana Kirk, to Larry (Finch), to Tic (Price) to Calipari to Josh, and what we’re doing now, I hit ’em all.

“When only 24 teams were going (to NCAAs), we were going,” Reed continued. “That’s what the fans see and, you know, we got an old crowd. And 24 teams were going to the NIT in New York. For both those tournaments to expand like they have, they just don’t think there’s a reason why we should not be in the tournament.”

Tubby Smith inherited a thin roster. Forward Dedric Lawson averaged almost 20 points and about 10 rebounds a game and was an All-AAC First Team selection this week. Brother K.J. Lawson, also a forward, and who was third in the league in rebounding, was an All-Rookie Team choice. But depth has been almost non-existent. There has not been a true center with enough size and strength to take pressure off the Brothers Lawson.

And UCF’s 7-foot-6 center, Tacko Fall, is a skyscraper of a challenge in the first tourney game.

“Try to attack him and play under him,” Smith said of the Tigers’ strategy. “You certainly can’t go over him.”

The game is also a match-up of teams headed in opposite directions. The Knights are on a five-game winning streak and knocked off Cincinnati when they were No. 15 in the country.

The Tigers have lost five of their last six games and when not getting routed have blown leads or endured scoring droughts of almost biblical proportions.

For Dedric Lawson, a loss on Friday could mean the end of his collegiate career. He says he will sit down after the season, talk with his mother and Smith, and work the “process.” His father, Keelon Lawson, is on staff as director of player development.

If Dedric decides to turn pro, brother K.J. and his father likely depart as well. And there have been rampant rumors about redshirt junior guard Markel Crawford transferring if Dedric leaves.

“It’s up to him and his family,” Smith said. “I’ll give my opinion when (that opportunity) presents itself. I appreciate him handling it the way he has.”

The way Dedric Lawson wants to handle things in the short-term is to win Friday so as to play again on Saturday, win again to play on Sunday, and one more time to experience the NCAA Tournament.

“My mindset is to go to Hartford and try to win the whole thing,” he said before the Tigers’ last practice at the Finch Center. “A lot of teams make great runs at this time. Play for it all. Do your best.”

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