The Memphis Grizzlies have won over local fans by developing a personality Memphians can relate to. They have become known for their relentlessness and ability to play as a team. The whole has truly turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts. Their motto is “Grit and Grind.” The Tigers, however, have been (pun only mildly intended) a bit of a different animal. Most people would tell you that they could be seen as soft and unmotivated, with clashing egos and a propensity to underachieve. Whereas their NBA counterparts have shown to be a true team, this group of Tigers has looked more like a collection of individuals.
Watch the Tiger opponent’s bench on any given night as they make a run at Memphis and you may notice how they are often seen high fiving each other, jumping up and down in support of their teammates. Look at the Tiger bench and you will likely see a group of stoic players with listless faces staring into oblivion.
No one doubts that, as a rule, the players on this Memphis team are decent kids. Their coach has been revered for being one of the nicest guys around, and he will attempt to drill into you repeatedly that his players are great people as well. They are good students, and they handle all of their responsibilities admirably. But the coach also unyieldingly preaches how much basketball is a game of energy, and energy and effort seem to be the very qualities the team has been lacking as this core group has consistently underachieved over the last couple of years. DJ Stephens has stood alone as a model of effort for this team.
This season has essentially been a repeat of the last two. The Tigers came in with fairly lofty expectations and then once again failed to impress, allowing teams that were clearly undermanned get way closer to them than they should, and then when they finally hit the big stage against a quality opponent, they wilted under the pressure. As a result, fans and media members began the usual assault on the coaching staff, though no one could have really been that surprised. And although there are rumors of Memphis joining a new all-sports conference, with the Big East dream dissolving more each moment, it becomes harder and harder for Tigers supporters to remain positive.
But then something a little different started taking shape. Gerron Johnson’s recently obtained eligibility led to him getting more comfortable on the floor, and he started displaying a unique style of basketball. The junior college transfer had been vehemently criticized by just about everyone who was able to voice an opinion in a public forum, and to this day, you probably won’t find anyone who will tell you he should be viewed as a model citizen. But once he got out on the floor and began playing significant minutes, he showed the masses just why Pastner took such and anomalous risk on the kid. Johnson displayed the exact kind of toughness and determination that this team had been lacking. On defense, he refused to give his man any kind of space on the floor, bumping against them as much as referees would allow and flashing into the passing lanes for steals. Offensively, he went hard to the basket at every opportunity, using sheer will to get the ball into the basket at every possible instant.
And Johnson’s play became contagious. From the onset of the season, freshman Shaquille Goodwin has been playing with heart; no one has doubted that. He had been diving on the floor to get steals, and consistently working to move his feet in order to get in good defensive position. But he was in fact a freshman, and except for some brief occurrences, his team wasn’t exactly rallying around him. But when Johnson was added to the fold, their combined exploits seemed to energize their teammates. And it’s a simple matter of numbers, really. It’s virtually impossible to play a game one on five, but get two of those five on the same page, and it starts to get a little more feasible. Just look at the history of the NBA. A good one-two punch has meant championships for several teams over the years. Then add an overachieving role player like Stephens to the mix, and you may just have something cooking.
Since this recent infusion of vitality, the tide has turned a bit. Over the last couple of games, Memphis has imposed its will upon teams, simply overmatching and wearing down UT Martin and Austin Peay. Of course these feats were against clearly inferior teams, but in those contests the Tigers went out did what they were supposed to do, which is a significant achievement for this team. Little things like taking care of business are just the kind of thing that fans of the hometown team want to see.
The Tigers have certainly changed their stripes a bit in previous seasons, but that was much later in the season. In previous seasons, it seems to have taken repeated failures and long stints of substandard play to get them to the point where they realized they had to go out and give a consistent effort or they wouldn’t be taking part in the postseason. So perhaps the recent improvement in attitude, though it is indeed a small sample size, shows a change in what has become the normal pattern over the last couple of years. Perhaps they are finally learning Pastner’s lessons regarding energy.
Now they could of course, go out and get absolutely blown out by Louisville, and doubters will once again raise all of the same questions. But it does appear the Tigers are currently on the right track. And maybe, just maybe, they are starting to develop a little grit of their own.
Michael Jones covers Memphis Tiger basketball and is a regular contributor to MemphiSport. You can follow him @MemphisMichaelJ.