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VOL. 132 | NO. 217 | Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Tigers Eager to Prove the Skeptics Wrong

By Don Wade

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The question was pretty direct: “Jimario, what do you think is the biggest question facing this team?”

Said Jimario Rivers, even more to the point: “Probably, how many games we’ll win.”

Yes, that’s it. Last season, when Dedric and K.J. Lawson and Markel Crawford were all part of the University of Memphis basketball program and the top three scorers – the Lawson brothers also were the leading rebounders – Memphis went 19-13. Finished fifth in the American Athletic Conference at 9-9. Did not go to the NCAA Tournament, or even the NIT.

Jimario Rivers (pictured) and Jeremiah Martin are the only returning scholarship players for the Tigers this season. They like their team’s depth and dismiss predictions of the team’s finish in the American Athletic Conference this season as just opinions. (Daily News File)

This year, Tubby Smith’s second team has eight new scholarship players. The only returning scholarship players are Rivers and point guard Jeremiah Martin, now the leading returning scorer after averaging 10.3 points.

At AAC Media Days, coaches – not media, not fans – picked the Tigers to finish ninth in the conference this season. If that happens, they won’t even approach .500 in the league or 19 wins overall.

A sobering thought on the eve of the Thursday, Nov. 2, exhibition game against LeMoyne-Owen College at FedExForum. The start of the season – Nov. 10 vs. Alabama in the Veteran’s Classic in Annapolis, Maryland – is just around the bend. And the Crimson Tide, you should know, show up in multiple preseason Top 25 projections.

“It’s getting more serious every day,” Martin said of the Tigers’ preparations for the season.

In a recent closed scrimmage with North Carolina, the Tigers lost by just six points. Encouraging, on the face of it. But Smith and Rivers both referenced the team’s poor free-throw shooting and, well, inaccurate shooting overall.

A team with so many new faces, with so many players trying to make the jump from junior college or high school to Division 1, can’t refuse free points at the line. Or miss wide open jumpers when teams go into a zone defense.

Over the last decade or so, the Tigers at times – OK, mostly under John Calipari – had teams with such massive athletic talent they could overcome the rather basic problem of putting the ball in the basket from the free-throw line. At least until they couldn’t: see the NCAA title game loss to Kansas that the NCAA says never happened.

Jeremiah Martin (pictured) and Jimario Rivers are the only returning scholarship players for the Tigers this season. They like their team’s depth and dismiss predictions of the team’s finish in the American Athletic Conference this season as just opinions. (Daily News File)

For this team, of course, the worry isn’t that such poor shooting could deprive it of a championship of any kind, but rather that it could prevent true competitiveness. That said, Smith almost gushes about the shooting prowess of freshman Jamal Johnson even as the coach worries how much Johnson might give up on the other end of the court.

Asked if he was nervous leading up to the start of the season, Smith said: “Every time you go out there it’s a mystery because you’re dealing with human beings. You want them to be consistent in their effort.”

And to make good choices, which apparently was a problem in the scrimmage with the Tar Heels.

“We took some tough shots,” Smith said. “By that I mean, we took some bad shots and quick shots.”

Another interesting question and answer: Could this year’s team, both Martin and Rivers were asked, beat last year’s team?

They said yes, but when put on the spot like that, what else could they say? They cited more depth this year, which in a way might be true. But it also seems likely that this year’s starting lineup will have less firepower than last year’s did.

The AAC coaches seem to agree. Hence, the ninth-place prediction.

Yet, we haven’t seen them play yet. Maybe Kareem Brewton will be a speedy, scoring perimeter player. Maybe some combination of Kyvon Davenport, Victor Enoh and Mike Parks will provide the required needed interior presence. Maybe swingman David Nickelberry really will be versatile enough to play with any combination of players.

Maybe the sum of this season’s team will prove greater than the best individual parts of last year’s team.

“It’ not a big deal,” Martin said of the ninth-place prediction. “It’s just other people’s opinions.”

Smith’s job is to overcome those opinions, mold this group into overachievers. It’s something he has done before, at places such as Minnesota and Texas Tech. Tiger fans are beyond eager to see him do it again.

“We’re still learning who can do what and what offense fits this group,” Smith said. “I have a good feel for what each individual player is capable of. Now, can we get them all to sacrifice and play for the good of the team?

“That’s the challenge. That’s where coaching comes in.”

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