Tuesday’s 84-55 demolition of Central Florida shows just how good this University of Memphis basketball team can be when they’re on their game, but fans have to be wondering if this is a sign of things to come or just another teasing moment.
A tumultuous, rollercoaster season is finally winding down for the Tigers, so it’s time to start looking toward the postseason. If, of course, there is one. And at this point, it’s entirely possible there won’t be. It’s also entirely possible it could last longer than many expect it to.
Predicting exactly how this season will wind up for the Tigers is like determining what the weather will be in Memphis. As the saying goes, “if you don’t like it, stick around, it will change.” This crazy bunch called the Tigers is tough to nail down when it comes to figuring out who they really are. They havissues and then seem to straighten everything out. And when you think they finally have everything together,
The team was up and down at the beginning of the year, failing to win games against superior opponents but also not falling to inferior foes. But they were consistent in many ways: they couldn’t seem to defend, constantly gave up offensive rebounds and rarely appeared to be putting forth the energy required to live up to their potential.
Then after an embarrassing loss at Georgetown, there was a long team meeting followed by a 6 game winning streak featuring an upgrade in defensive play, overall effort and seemingly improved team chemistry. The streak was finally capped off by a 22 point win at Houston, clearly an inferior opponent but a win that showed a complete game by the Tigers.
Then came a loss at UCF where Memphis held the lead for most of the contest but failed to grab a rebound late and got a bad break on what many feel was a bad call at the end of the game. Still, no one panicked. It’s acceptable to lose on the road in your conference once in a while. Hey, winning is hard. Just ask Josh Pastner.
The Tigers rebounded once again (figuratively at least) to follow up the UCF loss with an 18 point win against SMU and continued to impress by posting solid victories over Rice and Marshall. So once again, all was right with the world. Memphis was back to playing with intensity, giving great effort and more importantly, notching wins.
Then came Southern Miss. The Tigers lost to the Golden Eagles for the first time in nearly a billion years, and Memphis actually held the lead late in that one. So even though Memphis had lost again after a very brief winning streak there was no reason to be overly concerned. Southern was a quality team with a very good RPI ranking, and the game was on their home floor.
Memphis got back to its winning ways in stellar fashion, gritting it out against a very tough and talented Xavier team that threw everything they had at the Tigers. The fun continued with a solid double digit road victory against East Carolina and then a resounding performance against UAB that resulted in a 34 point victory. In that game, the Tigers looked like they might well have become the team that many pundits had predicted they would be in the preseason polls. Another solid win at Tulane seemed to affirm that this U of M team was really starting to become a force.
Then against all odds, it happened again. Memphis failed to bring its A, B, or even C game in a home contest against UTEP and found a way to lose 60-58. As elated as fans had been before, they were just as disappointed after that result. It began hard to know what to expect from this team. Not that it had been exactly easy before.
So Pastner once again went to his back of tricks, taking the names off of the back of the jerseys. Many sports talk radio hosts shunned the notion, laughing it off and saying that it means nothing to the players. But as corny as it was, it may well might have worked. Let’s face it, kids are different. How were they supposed to have been bitter and jaded enough to know that it was just silly?
Since they have all become anonymous, the Tigers have once again started playing with fire and togetherness. Gutty performances has led them to fairly inspiring wins over East Carolina and on the road against Marshall. The win against the Thundering Herd was especially impressive, as many prognosticators had seen this as a possible loss months ago, but the contest wound up as a 20 point blowout in the Tigers favor. An even more impressive smashing of Central Florida has shown that the Tigers can also serve revenge cold.
Things seem to be falling into place. Wesley Witherspoon has been turning in some solid performances. Joe Jackson has returned the starting lineup and has been performing at a high level, even disproving some who don’t believe he can ever be a true point guard. And Chris Crawford has accepted his role on the bench to put some pretty nice numbers as well. Add Will Barton’s steady presence to the mix and the possibility of Adonis Thomas returning and one can’t help but form at least some degree of optimism concerning the short term future of this unit.
So who knows what to make of this Tigers team? Have they finally turned it around and become the squad everyone expected them to be? One thing is for certain. There is little margin for error now, regular season or postseason. Will they simply fail to show up again one night soon and end their season prematurely? Or did the loss to UTEP finally represent a culmination in understanding that you must always bring your A game?
So how will this season end for the Tigers? Anyone want to make a prediction? You won’t find one here. Except maybe this: Prepare to be surprised… one way or another.
Michael Jones is the Tiger basketball beat writer for MemphiSport. You can follow him via Twitter @MemphisMichaelJ.
-Photos by Justin Ford