The Games We Play

Your guide to the local sports scene, professional and amateur.

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The Memphis Tiger basketball team returned a quintet of talented sophomores for the 2011-12 season and, for the second straight year, welcomed a McDonald’s All-American to the roster. The star power — on paper — led to a preseason national ranking of 11. Among the few things that really aggravate third-year coach Josh Pastner, though, are preseason rankings. “That’s all about recruiting,” he emphasizes. Pastner is more interested in seeing the shape his team takes once talented individuals are allowed to develop as a unit and, hopefully, improve as winter approaches spring.

Pastner front-loaded the U of M schedule with teams destined for the NCAA tournament, and it showed on the Tigers’ record before Christmas. Wins over Belmont, Miami, and Tennessee were offset by losses to Michigan and Georgetown (at the Maui Invitational), a talented (if overlooked in December) Murray State team, then Final Four-bound Louisville and, once again, the Hoyas (this time in D.C.) That second loss to Georgetown prompted a lengthy, team-only meeting in which the Tigers looked carefully at their 6-5 record to try and determine if they were any better.

As it turns out, they were better. Despite an injury in mid-January that sidelined former Melrose star Adonis Thomas — the McDonald’s honoree — the Tigers won 20 of their next 23 games after the meeting in Washington, storming to both Conference USA’s regular season and tournament championships, a double the program hadn’t pulled off since coach John Calipari left for Kentucky after the 2008-09 season.

Three of those core sophomores earned all-conference honors, with Will Barton becoming the first Memphis player to win C-USA’s scoring title and the fourth to be named the league’s Player of the Year. Barton played bigger than his size — that of a shooting guard — would suggest he could, leading the team in rebounding and picking up 11 double-doubles (10 points and rebounds), the most by a Tiger in nine years.

Sophomore center Tarik Black set a single-season Tiger record for field-goal percentage (68.9 percent) and was named to C-USA’s second-team, while sophomore guard Chris Crawford earned third-team honors by leading the team in assists, steals, and three-point field goals.

Despite winning their three games in the C-USA tournament by an average of 25 points, the Tigers were given a relatively low seed (8) for the NCAA tournament. Matched up with a slow-it-down Saint Louis team coached by a man with Final Four credentials (Rick Majerus), the Tigers sputtered on their biggest stage of the season.

Crawford and Joe Jackson (MVP of the C-USA tournament a second season in a row) combined to make only four of 18 shots against the Billikens, with the Tigers as a team missing 13 of 15 three-point attempts. They scored a season-low 54 points and were bounced from the Big Dance in their opening game a second consecutive year.

Barton entered the NBA draft (and was selected with the 40th pick by the Portland Trail Blazers), but Thomas is returning for his sophomore season and will be joined by one of the country’s top recruits, power forward Shaq Goodwin of Decatur, Georgia. When Jackson, Thomas, and Goodwin take the floor together, Tiger fans will see a lineup with three McDonald’s All-Americans in uniform. Will it be enough to earn Pastner his first NCAA tournament win?

Few NBA fan bases endured the league’s labor dispute with more frustration than that of the Memphis Grizzlies. Riding the high of the franchise’s first playoff run (during the 2011 postseason), Grizzly fans anticipated the start of the 2011-12 campaign like none other since the team relocated from Vancouver in 2001. By the time owners and players finally shook hands on a new collective bargaining agreement, the season had been shaved by 16 games, with “opening night” for the Grizzlies coming the day after Christmas.

After a 3-6 start to the season, Memphis reeled off a seven-game winning streak . . . only to lose seven of its next nine games. A knee injury slowed All-Star forward Zach Randolph (who missed 38 games), while reserve forward Darrell Arthur was lost for the entire season, however abbreviated, with a torn ACL. New players — most significantly Marreese Speights and Dante Cunningham — were thrown into the rotation by coach Lionel Hollins, joining the familiar faces from the 2011 run (guards Mike Conley and Tony Allen, forward Rudy Gay, and center Marc Gasol, who played in his first All-Star Game in February).

The Grizzlies won nine of  ten games over the last two weeks of February and early March to firmly seize playoff positioning. With Conley (2.2 steals per game) and Allen (1.8) at the vanguard of a pressing, disruptive defense, the Grizzlies stormed their way to a 41-25 finish (the highest winning percentage in franchise history) and the fourth playoff seed in the Western Conference. In another franchise first, Memphis would have home-court advantage for its opening series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Then Game 1 happened. Leading All-NBA guard Chris Paul and friends by 24 points in the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies collapsed in front of a packed “white-out” crowd at FedExForum. The “Believe Memphis” t-shirts seemed like a desperate plea as Clipper reserve Nick Young began connecting on three-pointers, slicing what seemed like an insurmountable gap in front of a clock that took too long to expire. Gay was able to release a short jumper at the buzzer, only to see it fall away harmless in the 99-98 defeat.

The Grizzlies rebounded to take Game 2 at home, but then dropped the next two in L.A., one by a single point (again), the other in overtime. Facing elimination, Memphis pulled away for a 12-point home win in Game 5, then stormed back in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to win by two at the Staples Center. All of which forced — yes, for the first time — a Game 7 (on Mother’s Day) at FedExForum.

The decisive game was ugly, the final score uglier. The Grizzlies failed to score 20 points in three of the four quarters, but entered the final period leading, 56-55. Memphis shot 32 percent from the floor and missed all 13 of its three-point attempts, while the Clipper bench rose to score all but two of the visitors’ 27 fourth-quarter points. Gay and Gasol were the only Grizzlies to reach double figures in the scoring column (19 points each).

In June, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley announced a preliminary agreement to sell the franchise to California tech magnate Robert Pera. Only 34 years old, Pera made his fortune after leaving Apple (where he was an engineer) and forming Ubiquiti Networks. The sale price of the team is reported to be in the neighborhood of $350 million. Speculation ensued about the possibility of Pera moving the team, though the Grizzlies are bound — through a contract with the city — to remain in Memphis at least through the 2020-21 season.

With the 25th pick in June’s draft, the Grizzlies selected Tony Wroten, a 19-year-old guard who played one season at the University of Washington (where he was named Pac 12 Freshman of the Year). Wroten averaged 16.0 points and 3.7 assists as a Husky and should see playing time as a rookie backup to Conley.

Two recent Memphis Redbirds — Allen Craig and David Freese — played integral roles in helping the St. Louis Cardinals win the 2011 World Series. Despite starting only four of the seven games, Craig hit three home runs and drove in the winning run in three contests. (The Cardinals have played in 18 World Series. Only Craig and Albert Pujols have hit three homers in a single Series.) As for Freese, the St. Louis native became a household name in Game 6 when he delivered a game-tying triple with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, then homered to lead off the 11th and force a Game 7 (where Freese and Craig delivered the decisive blows to beat the Texas Rangers).

Down here on the farm, the Redbirds enjoyed their fourth straight winning season in 2011 (77-66) under manager Chris Maloney. Nick Stavinoha hit 28 home runs and led the Pacific Coast League with 109 RBIs. The veteran slugger established new franchise records for career games (479), hits (531), homers (74), and RBIs (316). 

Closer Victor Marte also entered the Redbirds record book with 31 saves to lead the PCL. Along with pitcher Lance Lynn (7-3 in 2011) and corner infielder Matt Carpenter (.300, 70 RBIs), Marte opened the 2012 season with the parent club in St. Louis. (Lynn earned a spot on the National League All-Star team with 10 wins over the season’s first three months.)

Injuries in St. Louis cut deeply into the Redbirds roster as the 2012 season unfolded. Slugger Matt Adams hit nine home runs and drove in 27 by mid-May, but was recalled by the Cardinals when first-baseman Lance Berkman went down with a knee injury. Two outfielders expected to play regularly at AutoZone Park — Adron Chambers and Shane Robinson — also found themselves on the parent club’s active roster. The result? Two nine-game losing streaks, a five-game slide, and a firm spot in the cellar of their division of the PCL. Even the Cardinals’ top prospect — pitcher Shelby Miller — struggled, going 4-6 with a 5.70 ERA through the end of June.

This fall will mark the dawn of a new era — in more ways than one — for the Memphis Tiger football program. After three dreadful seasons (during which the Tigers went 5-31), Justin Fuente takes over as head coach. The former offensive coordinator at TCU helped mold Andy Dalton into a starting quarterback his rookie season (2012) with the Cincinnati Bengals. Though the Memphis job will be his first as head coach, Fuente doesn’t shy from the challenge he faces.

“There are four fundamental pillars to our program,” he said shortly after the conclusion of spring practice. “Academic integrity, social responsibility, individual accountability, and competitive excellence. In a nutshell, we don’t make excuses.”

For the first time in more than 60 years, the upcoming Tiger football schedule does not include an opponent from the mighty SEC. (“I don’t mind playing them,” says Fuente. “But right now, we’re building this program.”) And starting with the 2013 season, the Tigers will compete as members of the Big East conference, placing the program — for the first time — on the radar of a possible major bowl game or even national-championship playoff. If the darkest days of Tiger football are truly behind, perhaps the arrival of Justin Fuente and the Big East means a bright, new dawn for fall Saturdays.

The Tigers’ 2012 home schedule: UT Martin (Sept. 1), Middle Tennessee (Sept. 15), Rice (Oct. 6), UCF (Oct. 20), Tulane (Nov. 10), Southern Miss (Nov. 24).

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