Memphis needed this win in the worst way.
Just days following a gravely disappointing road loss to SMU and the indefinite suspension of veteran forward Wesley Witherspoon, the Tigers couldn’t afford any more bad news. Not with the ever-increasing criticism of coach Josh Pastner’s ability to run a team. And not with a fan base once planning on a deep run into the tournament now worried about winning Conference USA. Memphis needed to play like Memphis.
And for 40 basketball minutes on Saturday afternoon during a 77-61 demolition of Marshall, the Tigers followed through.
“That was (Tiger basketball) right there,” said senior big man Will Coleman. “Everyone was calm, cool and collected. Everybody was having fun, enjoying each other’s company and trusting each other. It was great.”
Coleman, who played most of the game alongside Tarik Black in the paint, played out of his mind with 19 points and 11 rebounds. He had a block, was 8-of-11 from the field and gave Pastner a reason to like the lineup that put both of Memphis’ big men on the floor at the same time.
“I liked it a lot,” Black said of playing on the floor with Coleman. “We haven’t seen it that much this year. It’s great. I really liked how we didn’t get in foul trouble, and we were both clicking at the same time. We haven’t had a game like this year.
“This game — I don’t know — it’s a totally different game than we’ve played all season.”
Especially different from what they’ve done lately.
In the four January games they’ve played leading up to Saturday, the Tigers had barely beaten Tennessee State, been absolutely drilled on the road at Tennessee, inched past East Carolina and suffered an embarrassing loss for the second year in a row at Conference USA doormat SMU.
Couple that with Witherspoon’s suspension, continued poor defense and a consistently stagnant halfcourt offense. So, yeah, things weren’t good.
But Saturday, Marshall — not Memphis — looked like the team limping into the new year. The Tigers were dominant on the boards (39-29) and had 20 assists on 29 made baskets. They shot 50.9 percent from the field, largely because they scored 48 of their 77 points in the paint.
A large part of that stat was freshman guard Will Barton. Barton, Memphis’ highest-touted recruit, didn’t have the best statistical game of his young career, but he played his best basketball.
Pastner gave Barton a little more freedom and ran the offense through him at times, which freed Barton up to dribble, penetrate and either make an easy pass to a big man or use his shiftiness to get a layup. Barton, Memphis’ best player, played like it to the tune of 15 points (7-of-12 shooting), five assists, three steals and two boards.
“I think I’m a better player when the ball is in my hands,” Barton said. “And it’s not just scoring. I can get assists. That’s the kind of player I am. I don’t like standing still, standing in the corner or anything like that. I like having the ball in my hand so I can make plays.”
Pastner on the pressure
Pastner, less than two years into his first head coaching stint, hasn’t faced anywhere near the adversity he has in the past couple of weeks. He’s been accused of losing his hold on the team and his coaching ability and strategy have been questioned.
Then came Wednesday night’s loss to SMU, which he said caused him to struggle to sleep.
“There is no manual that could prepare yourself for (the scrutiny),” Pastner said. “I’m a very big believer in that things happen for a reason. I’m a very spiritual person. Even out of any negative situation, you’re going to find something positive.
“Last night, I was in and out of sleep. The night before I was in and out. I will get some sleep tonight, though.”