Grit is Good
The Memphis sports landscape continues to glow, particularly on the hardwood.
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The Memphis Tigers’ final season in Conference USA unfolded with as many deflating twists as uplifting achievements. Having opened the season with visions of membership in the vaunted Big East Conference starting with the 2013-14 season, the U of M found itself staring instead at a future alongside many of those same C-USA programs in a new league spawned out of the disintegration of the Big East. Stacked with veterans, the Tigers expected to dominate C-USA (nothing new there), while also making some strides — for the first time under fourth-year coach Josh Pastner — in the NCAA tournament. Some goals were met, some merely approximated.
Ranked in the Top 20 to start the season, the Tigers were staggered in late November by two losses (to VCU and Minnesota) in three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. Junior point guard Joe Jackson played all of seven minutes in the loss to the Gophers. And upon returning to Memphis, junior center Tarik Black abruptly left a practice at the Finch Center, earning a one-game suspension from Pastner. These were captains of the Tiger team, players expected to establish a standard of excellence for newcomers like Geron Johnson and McDonald’s All-American Shaq Goodwin.
Despite the early-season off-court friction, the Tigers reeled off 22 wins in 23 games, the lone defeat coming at the hands of the eventual national champion Louisville Cardinals. Senior D.J. Stephens — for three years a highlight-generating role player for his leaping and dunking ability — became the story of the season, securing a spot in the starting lineup and delivering the quality Pastner demands most of his players: energy. Stephens led the Tigers with 6.6 rebounds per game and all of C-USA with 95 blocked shots, enough to earn him the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Jackson rebounded from his listless play on the islands, reaching double-figures in the scoring column in 16 consecutive games and becoming the program’s 48th player to reach 1,000 points for his career. (Jackson finished the season with 1,209, good for 24th in Tiger history.) Averaging 13.6 points and with an improved assist-to-turnover ratio (173-102), Jackson earned C-USA Player of the Year honors, the fifth (and final) Tiger to do so.
The Tigers stumbled at Xavier in late February, but finished their final C-USA regular season with an unblemished 16-0 record. Then in March at the conference tournament in Tulsa, junior guard Chris Crawford took over. The league’s Sixth Man of the Year drained 19 three-pointers in his team’s three-game run to a third consecutive tourney championship, averaging 25.7 points in wins over Tulane, Tulsa, and Southern Miss. (Memphis won seven of the last eight C-USA tournaments in which it played.)
With a record of 30-4 on Selection Sunday, the Tigers found themselves back in the Top 20 (#19) and seeded sixth in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region. Behind 14 points from Jackson and stellar defense from Johnson — who held St. Mary’s star Matt Dellavedova to 10 points on 3 of 13 shooting — the Tigers earned their first win in the Big Dance under Pastner. (By one measure, this was Pastner’s first win over a ranked opponent. The Gaels were in the coaches’ Top 25, though not in the AP poll.) Alas, the win put the Tigers up against bruising Michigan State in the third round. The Spartans put the clamps on the U of M (the Tigers made 19 of 63 shots) and won handily, 70-48.
The U of M roster will be transformed for the Tigers’ first season in the American Athletic Conference. Gone are Stephens, Black, and Antonio Barton (the latter two transferring after graduating in three years) as well as Adonis Thomas, who chose to enter the NBA draft after a disappointing sophomore campaign that saw him average 11.7 points and 4.5 rebounds, good enough for a third-team all-conference selection. Pastner will welcome the second-ranked freshman class in the country, led by a pair of local Parade All-Americans: swingman Nick King of East High School and forward Austin Nichols of Briarcrest. Two more four-star recruits (guard Markel Crawford from Melrose and Connecticut standout Kuran Iverson) will fight for rotation minutes with Jackson, Johnson, Goodwin, and Chris Crawford. Add high-energy forward David Pellom (a transfer from George Washington) and veteran guard Michael Dixon (from Missouri) into the mix and the Tigers should be ready and able to challenge for the first AAC championship next winter.