The Tigers played so poorly on Wednesday night that they even pissed off Josh Pastner.
Pastner, the relentlessly positive and endlessly optimistic Memphis coach was more animated than ever after the No. 14 Tigers paced and plodded their way to a 78-71 overtime victory over Arkansas State. Memphis was sloppy, stagnant and looked more like the an irrelevant Conference USA team than a group that belongs in the Top 25.
“My thoughts are — this is my second year as a head coach — I have never been more disappointed in a group of guys and the way they played tonight,” Pastner said. “Absolutely disappointed in them. We got outplayed by Arkansas State, and we were fortunate to get the ‘W.’”
Pastner has never been as visibly upset about his team as he was Wednesday night. He interrupted Dave Woloshin during the postgame radio interview to vent about how he was “sick to his stomach.” He voiced his disappointment in the lack of leadership from junior forward Wesley Witherspoon. He even described the Tigers’ offensive performance as “the disease of me.”
Memphis started the game doing what it’s supposed to do against a one-win Sun Belt Conference team: dominate. The Tigers (6-0) ran out to a 23-5 lead at the 8:29 mark in the first half. Memphis’ pressure was overwhelming, the Tigers were in control of the boards and the Red Wolves (1-6) looked grossly overmatched.
But then it all went downhill. Arkansas State dropped back into a 2-3 zone for much of the second half and Memphis’ offense went by the wayside. On more than one occasion, the Tigers’ offense consisted of five guys standing around the 3-point line passing the ball to one another before one had enough room to take the shot.
“We fell right into what they wanted us to do,” Pastner said. “It’s ridiculous. I am sick to my stomach right now with the way we played. The fans don’t deserve that. It is a privilege to be on this floor, and to come out with no sense of urgency and to take it for granted drives me up the wall.”
Memphis was just 4-of-14 from 3-point range in the second half. Meanwhile, the Red Wolves clawed back to within striking distance before sending the game to overtime where the Tigers eventually pulled away.
“I can’t stand negativity, and I can’t stand when people take things for granted. I can’t stand when things are being coddled. That’s how our team played today, thinking we could take (Arkansas State) for granted. We played like it was our right to be on the floor, and that is wrong.”
Witherspoon, Memphis’ leading scorer, best player and supposed leader this season, was at the top of Pastner’s list of culprits for not taking charge during Arkansas State’s comeback. He said the Tigers were lazy, unprepared and took the Red Wolves for granted.
Pastner said he sensed such a game in the days leading up to the game. Players were joking and laughing during film sessions and acting a big too “loosey goosey” — those are Paster’s words — during warmups.
The Red Wolves, who shot just 29.4 percent from the field in the first half, were 50 percent in the second. And if it weren’t for a missed go-ahead free throw from Arkansas State’s Daniel Bryant with 35 seconds left in regulation, Memphis might have walked away with a horrific early-season loss.
“We just can’t come out thinking we’re Memphis and we’re going to win,” freshman guard Charles Carmouche said. “That’s what happened tonight.”
Pastner wasn’t all too happy with the leadership from what few upper-classmen he has.
“I was disappointed in our leadership, and that is why we don’t have a captain right now. I am very frustrated with our play right now. This can’t happen with what we want to do this year. We were fortunate to get the win tonight. When you play a game as poorly as we did — which is a credit to Arkansas State, and they deserve all the credit — to still get the ‘W’ and still learn lessons, we were fortunate to get it.”
Sun Belt Conference favorite Western Kentucky comes to the FedExForum at 7 p.m. Saturday. Paster said it himself — if the Tigers play like they did Wednesday, they’ll “get their butts beat by 15 or 20 points.”
Story photos by Chase Gustafson. You can follow him via twitter @chasingphoto.