In a game that was supposed to be a tune-up before a massive nonconference clash, the Tigers once again found themselves playing more like their inferior opponent than the No. 17 team in the country.
Memphis went to the wire in a 68-63 victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, keeping doubt afloat about whether this team is anywhere close to ready for Thursday when No. 10 Georgetown comes to FedExForum.
“I brought a couple guys in and talked about them keeping their heads up and remaining positive,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “The bottom line is we got the ‘W’ an are 9-1 after 10 games. A couple things — Jacksonville beat Florida at home (Monday) in overtime. Winning is tough, winning is hard. The bottom line is we found a way to win.”
But the question heading into this week wasn’t whether Memphis could find a way to win. The Tigers have done that time and time again this season in overtime victories over Arkansas State and Austin Peay. The question is whether Memphis is capable of being the elite team it’s supposed to be.
And with the toughest home game of the season just days away, the Tigers haven’t done much to show that they’re up for the challenge.
Will Barton, Memphis’ prized recruit, continued to struggle to the tune of six turnovers and six points on 2-of-9 shooting. He even got benched midway through the game. Tarik Black, from whom much is needed and expected in the post, was a relative non-factor as he battled flu-like symptoms.
The Tigers weren’t necessarily bad in this game, it’s just that they weren’t very good. And if your team is playing the No. 10 team in the country on Thursday, you need them to be very good when they play Texas A&M-Corpus Christi three days before.
Jackson takes over
Divine intervention or not, Joe Jackson was phenomenal and easily the best player on the court. The freshman point guard filled up the stat sheet with 23 points, six rebounds, two assits, two steals, two blocks and just three turnovers. He triggered Memphis’ push to take control down the stretch and looked much like the point guard the Tigers need to him be.
He initiated fast breaks, finished around the bucket and was active when the Tigers switched from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone.
“I went to church (Sunday),” Jackson said. “It was my first time going to church in three months. I felt like the spirit was on me and was telling me to live right. The last couple days, I just changed some things off the court. I’ve been feeling better in practice. The last two practices were the best practices I’ve ever had. I just feel better.”
Going small and playing zone
With Angel Garcia’s departure, DJ Stephens’ sore groin, Wesley Witherspoon’s just-operated-on knee and Tarik Black battling flu-like symptoms, the Tigers were thin in the frontcourt on Monady, so Memphis employed its fair share of four-guard lineups and 2-3 zone.
Neither were particularly amazing, but they also weren’t particularly bad. The important thing is that Pastner is embracing this as a possibility. He said they’d been working on it the past week in practice and “got some good action” out of it against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. That’s a fair way of putting it, especially for Chris Crawford’s, Charles Carmouche’s and Barton’s performance playing de facto power forward.
In the first half, the 2-3 zone enabled Memphis to build a six-point lead as the Tigers played the passing lanes, got deflections and turned steals into transition offense. At the same time, it’s also what enabled Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to hit a few open 3-pointers and get back in the game.
It’s worth trying again.
Barton struggles again
Barton may have missed several weeks of practice and gotten a late start on preparing with the team, but it’s time for that to not be an excuse anymore. Pastner seemingly agreed.
Barton was largely a non-factor, shooting poorly (2-of-9 from the field) and making it worse by committing nearly half (six) of Memphis’ 13 turnovers on lazy passes, overly flashy moves and just overall bad play. Pastner responded by benching Barton midway through the game and not putting him back in until the waning minutes.
Barton’s brother, Antonio, said he’s noticed in a difference in the way his McDonald’s All-American sibling has played.
“He’s thinking too much,” Antonio Barton said. “He’s just going out there and playing his game. It’s not him.”
Memphis takes on one of its toughest tests of the season Thursday when No. 10 Georgetown comes to FedExForum. The Hoyas are 10-1 this season, with their only loss coming by three points on the road at Temple.
Georgetown should be particularly challenging for Memphis, as the Hoyas’ Princeton-style offense will force the Tigers to be incredibly patient disciplined on the defensive end. Combine that with Georgetown’s experience at the guard position (seniors Austin Freeman and Chris Wright actually played a game against Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts in their college career), and it doesn’t look easy for the Tigers’ freshman-laden backcourt.
Brandon Harris covers Tiger basketball for Memphis Sport. You can follow him via Twitter @bharris901.