Hot and Cold
The recent fortunes of local teams have run to extremes.
As recently as March 2009, the University of Memphis had the longest-tenured coaches in Conference USA for both football and basketball. No more. The city's much-adored Tiger hoops team will enter the 2010-11 season with a 33-year-old coach who actually has seniority on the man who will patrol the sidelines at the Liberty Bowl this fall. Such is the volatile nature of sports. New or "seasoned," though, there's plenty to cheer all year long.
Coming off a dismal 2008-09 season in which they won only 24 games (losing 58), the Memphis Grizzlies made headlines late last summer, first with the acquisition of power forward Zach Randolph in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers, then with the early-September signing of free agent — and future Hall of Famer — Allen Iverson. Each player arrived in Memphis with some personality baggage, and after three games off the bench for the Grizzlies, Iverson abruptly retired, having never suited up at home for a fan base that adored merely the idea of The Answer wearing Beale Street Blue. But as for Randolph, impact was measured by winning streaks and new franchise records.
With sharpshooters Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo entrenched in the starting lineup, Randolph quickly became a third scoring option and the steadiest volume rebounder since the franchise moved to Memphis in 2001. After a woeful start to the season (1-8), the Grizzlies went on a 21-10 run that had them in playoff contention by the time the annual Martin Luther King Game was played in January. They established a new standard with 11 consecutive wins on their home floor at FedExForum, a streak that included victories over playoff-bound Denver, Utah, San Antonio, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, and Orlando. Point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol rounded out the starting five for Memphis, a quintet that made up for its lack of support from the bench with versatility and a willingness to push the basketball in coach Lionel Hollins' up-tempo offense. (Memphis scored 135 points in a win over Minnesota on January 15th, then 125 two nights later in beating the Suns.)
Oddly, though, the Griz hit a midwinter stretch when home didn't seem so sweet, as they suffered eight straight defeats at FEF . . . just as they began a seven-game winning streak in road games. The streaking tendency finally caught up with Memphis at season's end, when the Grizzlies lost nine of their last 11 contests to finish the season at 40-42, just shy of the club's first .500 finish in four years.
Randolph became only the second Grizzly to earn All-Star honors, coming off the bench for the Western Conference to score eight points and grab six rebounds at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. Z-Bo finished the season with 57 double-doubles (10 points and 10 rebounds), second in the NBA to Orlando's Dwight Howard. He led the Grizzlies in scoring with 20.8 points per game and finished third in the league with 11.7 rebounds per game. Conley fell 41 points shy of giving the Grizzlies five players with 1,000 points for the season.
With the 12th pick in June's draft, the Grizzlies selected 6'6" swingman Xavier Henry, who played a year of college ball at Kansas. Henry originally committed to play at the University of Memphis, but changed his plans when coach John Calipari left for Kentucky. His size and versatility will immediately add depth to a team that struggled last season when its starters weren't on the floor. The Grizzlies also added Greivis Vasquez with the 28th pick. Vasquez averaged 19.6 points and 6.3 assists as a senior at Maryland on his way to ACC Player of the Year honors
As far as transition years go, the Memphis Tigers could have done worse. In the basketball program's first year under coach Josh Pastner, the U of M won 24 games — a 10th straight season of at least 20 wins — and won a thriller over St. John's in the NIT.
But it was the NIT. Until the victory over the Red Storm, Memphis had gone winless against major nonconference opponents (bowing to top-ranked Kansas at the buzzer, then Tennessee, Syracuse, and Gonzaga). Despite a 13-3 record in Conference USA play, the Tigers missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005 when they lost to Houston in the opening round of the C-USA tourney in Tulsa.
No player embodied the program's transition more than sophomore guard Elliot Williams, who transferred from Duke to be near his ailing mother and was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. Williams became the first Tiger since Penny Hardaway to score 20 points in seven consecutive games and the first U of M sophomore to score 600 in a season since Elliot Perry in 1988-89. He was Pastner's first offensive option in a rotation limited to seven players for much of the season. Within eight days in January, Williams scored 33 points in a win at Southern Miss and 32 in a victory at Rice.
Senior guard Doneal Mack joined the 1,000-point club and climbed to third in the Tiger record book for three-point field goals. In addition to making an off-balance buzzer-beater to win the St. John's game, sophomore swingman Wesley Witherspoon earned third-team all-conference honors by averaging more than 12 points per game. The Atlanta native scored a career-high 29 in a big home win over UAB in early February.
With the loss of Williams (who declared for the NBA draft and was selected 22nd by the Portland Trail Blazers), Mack and senior point guard Willie Kemp, Pastner will turn to one of the most decorated recruiting classes in the school's history for the 2010-11 campaign. Small forward Jelan Kendrick of Atlanta was ranked eighth in the 2010 recruiting class by rivals.com. Kendrick will be joined by shooting guard Will Barton of Baltimore (11th) and Memphis native Joe Jackson, an electrifying point guard from White Station High School (ranked 12th by rivals.com). Ridgeway High School's Tarik Black (yet another top-50 recruit) will add post presence for the Tigers, with Will Coleman returning for his senior year after averaging 7.4 points and 6.2 rebounds as a junior.
Fiscal trouble at AutoZone Park led to a transition in management teams in 2009 for the Memphis Redbirds, but the turnover had little effect on those wearing the Redbird uniform. After hovering around .500 for the season's first four months, the St. Louis Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate went 22-16 after July 31st, enough to win their division of the Pacific Coast League by two games over the Nashville Sounds. Allen Craig (.322, 26 homers, 83 RBIs) and Tyler Greene (.291, 31 stolen bases) were among the offensive stars who helped Memphis to its first playoff berth in nine years. The late-season arrival of David Freese (who missed most of the season due to injury) provided a power boost, as Freese drilled 10 homers and drove in 37 runs in just 56 games.
Memphis swept Albuquerque in the first round of the PCL playoffs. Following a season devoted to rehabbing from elbow surgery, Jaime Garcia shut down the Isotopes in Game 1, allowing no earned runs and striking out six in five innings on the mound. The Redbirds rallied for five runs in the ninth inning of Game 2, then came home to win the clincher at AutoZone Park, 1-0, behind a homer from Freese and seven shutout innings from Evan MacLane.
In Game 1 of the championship series against Sacramento, Garcia and Freese returned to starring roles, the pitcher hurling six shutout innings and the third-baseman again accounting for all the scoring with a home run for another 1-0 victory. The Redbirds won Game 2 at home behind pitcher Adam Ottavino, then finished off their second straight series sweep with a 6-0 whitewashing of the RiverCats in Sacramento. MacLane pitched eight of those innings, giving him 15 scoreless frames in the postseason. The championship was the 14th in Memphis baseball history, but only the second in 12 years of Redbirds action.
While Garcia and Freese were starring as rookies with the Cardinals at the dawn of the 2010 season, MacLane, Craig, and Greene are among the returning champs who have Memphis again in a playoff hunt. With outfielder Jon Jay and second-baseman Daniel Descalso playing significant roles, the Redbirds found themselves in a four-team race for the PCL's American-North division as June turned to July.
In early July, the PCL announced two Redbirds would play in the 2010 Triple-A All-Star Game: shortstop Tyler Greene and pitcher Brandon Dickson. Dickson entered the season's fourth month with a team-leading eight wins.
MEMPHIS TIGER FOOTBALL
There was reason for optimism at the dawn of the 2009 Memphis Tiger football season. Coming off a 6-7 campaign that landed the Tigers a bid to the St. Petersburg Bowl, the U of M welcomed back its top rusher (Curtis Steele), top passer (Arkelon Hall), and top two receivers (Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton). But even with the offensive firepower, the Tigers' toothless defense proved too much to overcome. A 31-point loss to Ole Miss opened a season that only spiraled downward from that point. Wins over UT-Martin and UTEP were two of only three games in which Memphis allowed fewer than 30 points. Hall never took command of the offense, falling to third string behind Will Hudgens and Tyler Bass.
Steele ran for 1,286 yards, enough to earn him all-conference honors, while Calhoun (212 career receptions for 2,981 yards) and Singleton (164 for 2,365) ended their careers atop the Tiger receiving record book. But the 2-10 final record forced the hand of athletic director R.C. Johnson, who dismissed head coach Tommy West after nine seasons and five bowl appearances. (West's 49 wins rank third in the program's history.)
On November 29th, former Tiger player Larry Porter — at the time an assistant at LSU — was introduced as the 22nd football coach in U of M history. As a player, Porter led Memphis in rushing three seasons (1991-93), two of them winning campaigns under coach Chuck Stobart. He arrives in Memphis with a reputation as one of the finest recruiters in the country, having helped piece together the 2007 national champions at LSU.
In greeting Tiger boosters at the Mike Rose Theater on the U of M campus, Porter had the crowd in the palm of his hand. "We're all in this together," he said. "I don't want you to follow me; I want you to join me in taking Memphis football to a championship level. This job is a diamond in the rough that's waiting to sparkle.
"We all know recruiting is the lifeblood of a program. But just recruiting talent isn't enough; we have to recruit character. The one thing I'm very, very excited about is that academically, we're solid here. I have a plan in place to enhance that. As head coach, I will challenge my players on a daily basis to be the best they can be. We have a great academic institution."
The most significant variable Porter will consider as the 2010 season approaches is the quarterback position. Bass returns as a redshirt sophomore, but with only six games under his belt. Will Gilchrist, Cannon Smith, and a pair of newcomers — Andy Summerlin and Ryan Williams — will be in the mix, but none of the four has so much as tossed a pass at the Liberty Bowl.
The Tigers' 2010 home schedule: Middle Tennessee (Sept. 18), Tulsa (Oct. 2), Southern Miss (Oct. 16), Houston (Oct. 30), Tennessee (Nov. 6), UCF (Nov. 27).