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VOL. 133 | NO. 30 | Friday, February 9, 2018
Don Wade

Don Wade

Slip Sliding Away … Tubby’s Tigers And Season On Downward Plane

By Don Wade

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After his Tigers had suffered the ignominy of losing a college basketball game to East Carolina, Tubby Smith questioned his players’ sanity.

“We probably need some psychological help,” Smith had said after the 88-85 overtime loss at ECU on Saturday, Feb. 3. “Really, I’m serious. There’s some strange things.”

But none stranger than what Tubby would say during the American Athletic Conference coaches teleconference two days later. Asked which AAC teams deserve NCAA Tournament consideration, Tubby included his Tigers by saying they were “right on the cusp.”

Here’s the truth: Tubby Smith is much closer to losing this season, this team, and any remaining shreds of hope for a turnaround than the Tigers are to playing in the postseason. And that includes the consolation dance known as the NIT.

The University of Memphis fell 85-65 to No. 22 Wichita State Tuesday, Feb. 6, at FedExForum in an American Athletic Conference game. Guard Jeremiah Martin led Memphis with 16 points, but had a rough shooting night. Memphis is now 14-10 overall, 5-6 in the league. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

The night after Tubby declared his team about to turn a corner, No. 22 Wichita State showed up at FedExForum to demonstrate the gap from fantasy to reality.

Although the Tigers played hard most of the night, they were never remotely close to pulling an upset. They lost 85-65, their highlight an 11-3 run in the second half that cut the lead to five. Tubby might have felt like his Tigers were on the verge then, too, but Wichita State would pull away and lead by as many as 27 points with the Tigers finally giving in to the inevitable.

“We was on them and then we just let up a little bit,” said guard Kareem Brewton, who paced the bench scoring with 12 points and had a team-best four assists. “After that, it was pretty much over.”

The Tigers were within five points as late as the 8:53 mark in the second half, trailing 54-49. The Shockers’ next four baskets were layups, three by guard Landry Shamet and all four assists came from forward Zach Brown as Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall had his team run the same set play over and over with Memphis helpless to defend it.

Tubby had a name for what the Shockers were running, calling it that “UCLA shuffle cut.” But not only did his team not come close to stopping it, he never called timeout to make an adjustment. Postgame, he conceded that he “probably should’ve called timeout” during the Shockers’ second-half run.

For five years and $15.45 million, you might expect more than the coach saying in hindsight he should have used a timeout. Even Josh Pastner used timeouts.

Also telling: Throughout the game, there was much evidence that communication from coach to player and player to player was less than open and cooperative. In a word: dysfunctional.

“We have love for our coaches and everything,” Brewton said, “it’s just in the moment emotions get going.”

Too bad the Tigers couldn’t muster any emotion for the task of rebounding or defending the 3-point shot.

The Shockers dominated the offensive glass (14-5) and hit 11 of 31 threes (35.5 percent) compared to the Tigers making 2-of-13 from deep (15.4 percent). So the Tigers stayed true, remaining among the worst teams in the country defending the three and making the three.

The Tigers also were their usual sloppy selves with 18 turnovers to just 11 assists. Tubby has the reputation of being a guy good at coaching players up, but nothing is more basic than taking care of the ball and this team simply doesn’t do it.

He found positives in the play of the bench, which scored a season-best 40 points. But the flip side was how bad the starters were. A trait that applies to every player on this talent-deficient roster: the inability to sustain good, all-around play for more than very short bursts of time.

So the Tigers are 14-10 overall, 5-6 in the AAC, have lost four of their last five and that lone win came over USF – the worst team this league has to offer.

Guard Jeremiah Martin came into the WSU game as the league’s leading scorer with a 19.4-point average. He had a team-high 16 points, but the Shockers were physical with him and he forced shots. He connected on just 2-of-10 field goals, went 0-of-5 from 3-point range, and committed five turnovers with two assists.

When the Tigers’ best player has a game like that, they’ve got no chance against a good team.

Memphis is yet to defeat any team of note this season. A victory over WSU would have given them a new line on the resume, but even then their work record would be thin.

As it stands now, their resume is just about non-existent. They are ranked 129th in the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index), which is one of the tools used by the NCAA Selection Committee to evaluate teams. Their win over Temple (36th in the RPI) would qualify as their top victory, but the Owls are just 13-10 and 5-6 in the AAC. So not very impressive upon closer inspection.

The Tigers also have five losses to teams ranked from 125 to 269 (ECU) in the RPI. But even more of an indictment is that eight of their wins have come against teams ranked from 218 to 341 in the RPI. A win’s a win, but by all reasonable metrics the Tigers aren’t even as good as their 14-10 record would suggest.

Near the end of the broadcast on CBS Sports Network, game analyst and former college coach Pete Gillen attempted to put a happy face on the state of the Memphis program, noting Smith has taken five different schools to the NCAAs and saying of the Tigers: “They’ve got some good players, just gotta add a couple of more.”

What Gillen didn’t say, of course, is that right now not a single Top-300 recruit is headed Tubby’s way. Something else he didn’t say: Top-150 recruit Alex Lomax, of Memphis East, chose Wichita State. Given the history of Memphis basketball, that should not happen. Yes, you might lose a Memphis kid to a blue-blood program or any Power 5 school or to a school near more fun and sun, but to a fellow AAC program in south-central Kansas?

So what happened at FedExForum in front of 7,257 fans (more than a few of which were there flying Shockers yellow) was anything but a recruiting pitch for Memphis. Near the end of his press conference, Smith was asked what he could say to Memphis fans eager to see the Tigers return to winning at a high level.

“If I knew that,” Tubby said, “I’d be Nostradamus.”

He went on to say that “patience” was the word he used upon his hiring and he assured that both his staff and the players are “busting their tails,” and that he knows recruiting and player development are “paramount.”

“It’s a process … it’s never easy,” Smith said. “If it was easy, anybody could do it.”

That’s a long way from having this team “right on the cusp” of inclusion in the NCAA Tournament.

And a lot closer to wondering if this job, at this time and in this place, is beyond this coach.

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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