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VOL. 132 | NO. 229 | Friday, November 17, 2017
Don Wade

Don Wade

Memphis Basketball: A Program in Decline

By Don Wade

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They’ve only played two games. The early signing period for the class of 2018 has just passed. And yet it feels like the University of Memphis basketball program’s ceiling for this season and the foreseeable future is dropping.

Robert Woodard, a four-star prospect from Columbus, Miss., and a main target of Tigers coach Tubby Smith and his staff, committed to noted basketball powerhouse (wink, wink) Mississippi State. Alex Lomax, a four-star point guard from East High School in Memphis, committed to new American Athletic Conference member Wichita State.

Yes, a Memphis kid has chosen to go live in south-central Kansas instead of coming to the hometown university to play for a coach likely headed to the Naismith Hall of Fame.

When 247sports.com posted its team rankings for the 2018 recruiting class Memphis checked in at 123 nationally – just behind Pennsylvania and immediately ahead of Duquesne. That’s their neighborhood now.

The Tigers were ranked 10th in the AAC and their lone get was a 7-foot-2 center named Connor Vanover from Little Rock who is the 301st-ranked player in the class of 2018.

In theory, it’s still possible for Smith to snag Cordova guard Tyler Harris. But Harris, a three-star prospect ranked 134th nationally by 247sports.com, decided to not sign in the early period and Iowa State, Colorado State and Murray State are all still involved in his recruitment, according to 247sports.

Hardly encouraging, especially given that through three recruiting classes here Smith is yet to land a Top-150 player.

For all of Josh Pastner’s shortcomings as the follow-up act to John Calipari, Pastner recruited hard and mostly well here. While Calipari didn’t have to recruit Memphis because of his ability to recruit nationally, Pastner knew he had to get top players from Memphis.

Based on 247sports rankings, Pastner’s first real recruiting class had four Top-100 players (three of them Top-30 players) and a fifth just outside the Top 100.

Way, way, way back then – when four NCAA Tournament trips without advancement to the second weekend somehow grew as wearing as full-on mediocrity has now – Pastner signed Will Barton and Tarik Black, both of whom work in the NBA today. Chris Crawford and Joe Jackson were signees, too, and all of those guys but Barton (Baltimore) were Memphis kids.

Then there’s the Top-100 players that Smith inherited – Dedric and K.J. Lawson, Markel Crawford and Nick Marshall – that have left the Tigers’ program.

Granted, the Lawsons’ father, Keelon Lawson, was a 14-carat pain in the butt. And not qualified for the assistant coaching positon once promised under the previous coaching staff.

But if Tubby was going to cut ties with the Lawsons – and he’s also losing out on other prospects from Keelon’s family – he had to be recruiting harder than he ever has in his life. Never a standout recruiter anywhere he has been, Tubby nonetheless found ways to win and, yes, “coach ‘em up.”

Today, on the court, Tubby owns a 1-1 record that includes a bad 12-point loss to an Alabama team without several of its best players. Almost worse, the Tigers endured a genuine struggle against the Little Rock Trojans (beaten by a Division 2 school in its first game) before finally winning 70-62 in a mostly empty FedExForum.

So it’s clear the Tigers are operating at a severe talent-deficit. This was always going to be the likely scenario when the Lawsons left for the University of Kansas.

But given the lackluster recruiting, where is a Memphis fan to find hope?

Against Little Rock, the Tigers trailed almost the entire game and by as many as 14 points in the first half. Guard Jeremiah Martin’s career-high 26 points rescued them from an epic embarrassment.

Asked what Smith told the players at halftime, when they had 10 turnovers to four assists, Martin said Tubby didn’t tear into the team.

“He was calm, smooth,” Martin said. “Just giving us confidence instead of shooting us down.”

Coaching ‘em up yet again, so they could rally to beat a team on their home floor that days earlier lost to a Division 2 school.

It probably won’t inspire a 30 for 30 documentary.

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.

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