With a nationally televised contest against No. 4 Kansas just days away, the Tigers wanted to use Saturday night’s 77-61 victory over Western Kentucky to help develop and understand what exactly this team is going to be.
That meant inserting Will Barton — the star-studded freshman who’s yet to find his groove — into the starting lineup where he is certain to be before long. It meant expecting veteran forward Wesley Witherspoon to bounce back after a horrendous performance days before against Arkansas State. And it meant getting out in front of inferior opponents early and crushing them — something the Tigers had failed to do this season.
And though none of those three netted the Tigers anything useful, Memphis got plenty of help from a seldom-used sophomore who had the game of his career.
DJ Stephens, undersized yet freakishly athletic, posted career highs of 13 points and 11 rebounds, playing with more energy, desire and knowledge of what he’s supposed to do than Memphis has seen this season.
“How about him?” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said of the 6-foot-5 Stephens. “How about his ranking when he came out of high school? Here’s the same guy starting and helping us win games. It shows you those recruiting rankings don’t mean anything because you can’t open his chest and see his heart pounding.”
When the Tigers were getting obliterated on the glass, it was Stephens who asserted himself in the paint, grabbed boards and slammed home numerous momentum-building dunks. When Barton, who’s still trying to adjust after missing several weeks of practice, couldn’t get going, it was Stephens who put points on the board. And when a 20-point second-half lead almost completely disappeared, it was Stephens who put energy back into the team.
Western Kentucky had no answer for 6-foot-8, 252-pound freshman Tarik Black. But Black (11 points) struggled with foul trouble and couldn’t get into a rhythm. So in stepped Stephens.
With Memphis leading 56-47, Black missed a layup, and before he could jump up to try and grab the offensive rebound, Stephens was already in the air, already had the ball and was about to slam it home to put the Tigers’ lead back into double digits.
“I just sit there and look amazed at DJ half the time,” Black said. “I shot that ball and was going to go get the offensive rebound myself, but then I see him jump through the roof. He disappeared. I was amazed — I was like, ‘Wow.’ When you play with DJ, your jaw just drops.”
Memphis travels to New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Tuesday to take on No. 4 Kansas.
Brandon Harris covers Tiger basketball for Memphis Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @bharris901.