Tiger Basketball

Former Tiger standout Ernest Smith emerging as a fixture on AAU coaching circuit

WILDCAT FORMATION --- Former Memphis State basketball standout Ernest Smith (center back row) is starting to become a fixture on the local AAU coaching circuit. Smith's Memphis Wildcats 9-and-under team has enjoyed much success as one of the area's youngest units. (Photos submitted by Ernest Smith)

WILDCAT FORMATION — Former Memphis State basketball standout Ernest Smith (center back row) is starting to become a fixture on the local AAU coaching circuit. Smith’s Memphis Wildcats 9-and-under team has enjoyed much success as one of the area’s youngest units. (Photos submitted by Ernest Smith)

DALLAS — Ernest Smith was a force on the Memphis basketball circuit in the mid-1980s when he was a high-flying star at Whitehaven High.

Today, the former Memphis State standout is putting his coaching techniques to test as a coach of the Memphis Wildcats AAU 9-and-under team.

For Smith, who starred at small forward for the Tigers from 1988-92, coaching youths who boast lofty aspirations of transcending through the local basketball ranks much like he did nearly three decades ago is a challenge by which he envisioned long before his professional career ended.

Following his collegiate career under Memphis icon and legendary coach Larry Finch, Smith enjoyed a stellar career of international ball, having played in Switzerland, Mexico, and South America in the early-to-late 1990s.

Coaching, he contends, offer more challenges, especially for youths who are still developing their mechanics and fundamentals.

HUMAN HIGHLIGHT FILM --- Smith, played for the Tigers from 1988-92, was known primarily for his astouding leaping ability.

HUMAN HIGHLIGHT FILM — Smith, who played for the Tigers from 1988-92, was known primarily for his astouding leaping ability.

 

“We teach them the basic fundamentals, from layup drills, dribbling, shooting midrange junpers, practicing free throws, you name it,” said Smith, whose team is in Dallas this weekend for a national tournament.

Fortunately for Smith, his Wildcats, a Team Penny-sanctioned squad, has enjoyed success in recent years, in large part because it has seasoned coaches to help inspire his players on and off the court.

Jarvis Stephen, who coaches basketball at Hamilton Middle School, assumes a majority of the head coaching duties for the Wildcats. Like Smith, Stephen, who is in his second full season with the team, welcomes the challenges that come with training young athletes.

“Honestly, it’s more tough to coach these young kids because they’re at such a young age,” Stephen said. “But I’m more hands on. I’m able to build a better rapport with the parents because they trust our (coaching background).”

Former Raleigh-Egypt standout Steve Holloway also coaches the Wildcats 9-and-under squad. Like Smith and Stephen, he relishes the fact that this unit has rid itself of assuming the proverbial “superstar role” and has developed the habit of gelling as a team.

“One of the hardest parts about 9-and-under kids is discipline,” Holloway said. “Besides the (occasional) attitude problems, we’ve got to teach them to adjust and play as a team. That’s one of the hardest parts of coaching kids this age.”

With proper discipline, comes success on the court.

 

TEXAS SIZE STAGE --- The Wildcats' 9-and-under AAU squad is taking part in a tournament this weekend in Dallas that features an array of Mid-South-area teams.

TEXAS SIZE STAGE — The Memphis Wildcats’ 9-and-under AAU squad is taking part in a tournament this weekend in Dallas that features an array of Mid-South-area teams.

Last year, the Wildcats were as good advertised, finishing in the Top 10 nationally. Before emerging as a national standout, the Wildcats won a host a regular-season tournaments throughout the region and claimed the state crown in their age division.

“It was a lot easier (as the season progressed) because everybody developed a team concept,” said Smith, assessing last season. “They got better and they played up to our expectations.”

Smith and Co. expect more of the same No-I-In-Team concept this year for a Wildcat team that returned a majority of last year’s roster. After this weekend’s tournament here, the Wildcats have trips scheduled to New Orleans and Orlando, among other sites.

As the team lobbies for additional sponsors to aid with travel expenses, supplies, hotels, and other necessities, Smith said his primary objective is to help instill in his players that there’s more to playing basketball within the parameters of Memphis.

TEXAS-SIZE CHAMPS --- Smith's Wildcats seized yet another championship over the weekend in Dallas.

TEXAS-SIZE CHAMPS — Smith’s Wildcats seized yet another championship over the weekend in Dallas.

“We need all the sponsors we can get,” Smith said. “We try to keep our team as a group. We try to get charter buses so our team can be together. When we go to Orlando, we’re getting flight tickets because some of our kids have never flown.”

Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist. 

Tigers seek redemption in inaugural AAC Tournament

Photo by Chris Evans

Photo by Chris Evans

Tonight in Downtown Memphis the American Athletic Conference tips off it’s inaugural conference tournament. Tonight’s double feature matchups showcase four teams with losing records both overall and in the conference. But we’ve known all season long that this conference was very top heavy.

Tomorrow things will really get going as the Tigers take on a UConn team (at 8pm CST on ESPNU) that has already beaten them twice this year. However in the first game things were tight until the Tigers collapsed in the final 5 minutes. The second time the game went to overtime. These are two teams that know each other well at this point.

The key to defeating UConn is no secret: Stop AAC Player of the Year Shabazz Napier. In the first matchup Napier had 17 points and 10 assists. In the second he had 34 points and 4 assists. Not that they don’t have other talented guys but I think it’s fair to say UConn wins and loses with Shabazz Napier. [Read more...]

Tigers take down Zags, Bring on the Madness

 

Photo by Chris Evans

Photo by Chris Evans

Saturday night, with 14:35 left in the game, the Memphis Tigers trailed the Gonzaga Bulldogs by 12 points. The Tigers’ Shaq Goodwin had fouled Sam Dower after a made layup, and as Dower headed to the line to shoot the freebie, I thought to myself, “Man. Another missed opportunity.”

Dower missed the free throw. A minute later Memphis’ Joe Jackson, listed at 6’1’’, but really standing at 5’11’’, climbed an invisible ladder and shut down the 7’1’’ Prezemek Karnowski by blocking a gimme dunk. Karnowski had absolutely had his way with the Tiger big men all day, but with that SportsCenter Top 10 worthy dunk, Joe Jackson, on his birthday no less, changed the game in an unspeakable way.

In front of a raucous 18,248 fans, the Memphis Tigers did what they haven’t been able to do at home so far this season. They came back and beat a team that had their number on their home court. They decided the outcome of the game instead of letting the opponent have their way. The Tigers said, “This is our house. We’ll be damned if you come in and make us look like chumps here.”

It felt good to have my heart pumping in the last 10 minutes of the game. In the Connecticut and Cincinnati losses, there was never a moment when I said to myself, “The Tigers have this.” But last night, with the rowdiest Tiger crowd I’ve seen since Derrick Rose, I knew this game was the Tigers’ to take.

Michael Dixon, Jr. and his comeback story continued by making a layup to put the Tigers ahead for the first time in the second half and for the last time overall with 1:12 left in the game. Nick King put in crazy productive minutes in the 2nd half by grabbing rebounds, diving for loose balls, and telling the world he belongs in the game when it matters most. And then there were Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, the two seniors playing in their 100th win as Tigers, making FREE THROWS when it mattered.

The Tigers, after that Joe Jackson block, went on a run of monumental importance. They beat a top-25 opponent on their home court. They made a statement on ESPN after their team and their hometown hosted College Gameday. They came back from being down and out and won a game against a great opponent.

The 2013-14 Memphis Tigers might not be a Final Four team. But when they can get beat up by a very talented Gonzaga team and still come back and win the game, their fans have plenty of reasons to have faith in theem. There are lots of games left to play. The Tigers have to go to Cincinnati, Connecticut, and still have to host Louisville and SMU, as well as the AAC tournament. But last night, playing a damn good team, was as close to an NCAA Tournament game the Tigers will get before the Big Dance actually begins.

Ladies and Gentlemen, March is going to be fun. Buckle up for the ride.

 

Memphis Tigers need to find an identity down the stretch

 

Photo by Chris Evans

Photo by Chris Evans

When the Tigers took the court this past Saturday they did so with a great chance to send a message. Everyone who follows the University of Memphis and AAC basketball as a whole knew this SMU matchup had all the makings of a trap game. SMU would try to slow things down and force the Tigers to run a half court offense, which is often an absolute disaster due to the Tigers total disregard for off-ball movement.

However, through the first 20 minutes Memphis seemed to be up for the challenge. They went into the half tied but then as the second half started it didn’t take long to realize that it was all a mirage. Things got ugly as SMU went on a parade of layups and uncontested three point shots. That is not hyperbole either, SMU had 14 layups and six made three point shots in the second half.

The problem as this writer sees it is that the Tigers have no clue what their identity is as a team. What do they hang their hat on? What is one thing they do really well that you can rely on in every game? The fact is that it seems like every time we see this team we see something different.

They are like the old “It’s Pat” skits from Saturday Night Live. We don’t know what they heck they really are.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Courtesy: Wikipedia

The Tigers are sitting in a decent spot at 16-5 considering they don’t really have any losses to bad teams. The problem is that outside of the two-point loss to Florida, all of their other losses were in games that they were never competitive in down the stretch. And I really think that has everything to do with their lack of an identity. Josh Pastner is primarily a man-to-man defensive guy but yet he was hell bent on that zone defense that kept getting abused in the second half against SMU. It’s not that you can’t change things up to fit the matchups in each game, it’s just that if you’re having to rely on a zone defense that isn’t even stopping SMU that’s a problem.

And the sad thing is that I don’t really even see this team’s defensive struggles as a lack of effort. They play pretty hard, pretty consistently for the most part. But if this team is going to make a run down the stretch in the AAC and into the NCAA Tournament, they are going to have to find something to hang their hats on. They are going to have to find a way to be consistently good at something. They are going to have to find a way to move around on offense when they can’t play in transition. And they are going to have to actually get some stops if they ever want to see a transition opportunity again.

It’s not all gloom and doom because they lost to SMU. Many of us saw that as a decent possibility. It’s more about the way things went, and have gone in the games they have lost.

Looking ahead the Tigers will have a middle of the road Rutgers team to rebound against on Tuesday before ESPN’s College GameDay comes to town this Saturday for the Gonzaga matchup. I still think there is time for things to start really clicking but it’s going to have to start sooner rather than later if they are going to have any rhythm going into the postseason.

Clayton Martin is a regular contributor for MemphiSport and The Wise Guise. Read his non-sports stuff here. Follow him @ClaytonAMartin.

PHOTO: Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson visit the National Civil Rights Museum

With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day just around the corner, Memphis Tiger basketball stars Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson thought it was a good time to visit the National Civil Rights Museum.

On Wednesday morning, Johnson tweeted (@G_Johnson55) this photo of the duo in front of the museum in downtown Memphis:joe geron mlk

Twitter: @cerrito
Email: kevin@memphisport.net

SEE ALSO:

Derrick Rose is ‘happy’ to see Chris-Douglas Roberts back in the NBA

Just a few weeks after Derrick Rose went down with another season-ending injury, his former Memphis Tigers teammate Chris-Douglas Roberts signed a contract with the Charlotte Bobcats to return to the NBA.

CDR’s NBA comeback is making Rose ‘happy.’

D-Rose took to Twitter (@drose) this week to show is excitement:DROSE CDR

Grizzlies vs. Bobcats at FedExForum is Saturday, March 8.

Twitter: @cerrito
Email: kevin@memphisport.net

SEE ALSO:

Memphis delivers first AAC blow to Louisville

Photo by Chris Evans

Photo by Chris Evans

After Memphis’ drubbing at the hands of Cincinnati this past weekend, not many people, myself included, had a lot of hope for the Tigers’ matchup with Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center. But in typical Tiger fashion, they went out and shocked everyone by beating the Cardinals on the road.

Some brief thoughts:

- Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols, when they are on their game, are tough to stop. Last night they shot a combined 11 of 17 for 25 points and hauled in a combined 15 rebounds. This was the game Nichols needed to snap out of his freshman funk. And Shaq is morphing into a premiere big man. He’s a few steps away and might not get there this season, but when he hits his peak, watch out.

- Geron Johnson should be our last option on offense when the starters are in, but he should play with the same enthusiasm and energy he did last night from here on out. He shot a pretty pitiful 3-11, jacking up four three-pointers and only connecting on one, but he had 11 rebounds and played great defense throughout the game. He gets out of control sometimes, but it’s hard not to appreciate his passion. If only he could learn to harness it a bit more.

- Our starters, when they can play together, are an extremely cohesive unit. Four of the five played 30+ minutes last night, and I’m confident it would have been all five had Chris Crawford not gotten in early foul trouble. When these five can be on the court at the same time, fans should feel extremely confident. When two or more are on the bench? That’s when things start to spiral downward.

- Michael Dixon Jr., while not having a huge game, understood his role last night. Play defense, take shots when they are there, find the open man. I imagine most folks would take six points, three assists, and three rebounds from him every game gladly.

- The frontcourt looks to be secure going forward. Between Nichols, Goodwin, and Big Dom Woodson, I think that the future looks bright for our big men in the seasons to come.

- The backcourt could be a mess after this year. It’s hard to argue with Josh exclusively playing the four senior guards, but come next season, there won’t be anyone in the backcourt that has played meaningful minutes. I hope that there are some blowouts so Damien Wilson can get into some games, but I wouldn’t count on it.

- Joe Jackson 1 – Chris Jones 0. In the battle of the Memphis guards, Joe Jackson won. He outscored Jones 15-2, had six assists to Jones’ three, and shot 44% to Jones’ abysmal 11%. The rivalry was still there though. I look forward to seeing these two face-off next month at FedExForum.

- Josh Pastner gets another signature win and proves he’s capable of hanging with the big boys for the second time this season. It’ll be exciting to see how he uses this win going forward.

Last night was a fantastic night for Tigers’ fans. Not just because the team won. Not just because they beat a longtime rival at their place. But because it was fun. And because they got to show the world that they’re more than ready for a big season.

Hopefully there won’t be any backsliding with a quick turnaround to face Temple in Philadelphia on Saturday, but I feel confident the Tigers will take care of business.

Tigers embarrassed by Cincinnati, fail to prove themselves at end of game

Photo by Chris Evans

Photo by Chris Evans

Despite being in the shiny new American Athletic Conference the Memphis Tigers are still in must-win situations more often than not. Back in the days of C-USA, every conference game needed to be won so that the selection committee for the NCAA tournament would give the Tigers something better than a 10 seed. So naturally many people welcomed the idea of a new conference where the Tigers could slip up a few times but still get into the Big Dance with a decent seeding.

Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati should not have been one of those slip-ups. If you look at top-level teams in quality conferences, you see teams that win games they are supposed to win, always win at home, falter a time or two on the road, and move up in the rankings by beating teams that are as good or superior to them. Teams that deserve a four seed or better usually only lose four or five games, if that.

The Tigers did not perform like a top-level team on Saturday. They lost at home to a team they should have beaten. And unfortunately, unless Pastner and co. can go out and beat Louisville and UCONN a couple of times and/or win the AAC tournament, people are going to remember that loss (read: embarrassment) from this past weekend.

There was point in the game where Cincinnati held a seven-point lead over Memphis with about six minutes left. I thought to myself at that moment, “If Memphis is really a top-15 caliber team, then they should come back and win this one.” They promptly did the opposite and instead let the Bearcats run roughshod over them for the rest of the game. FedExForum was filled with boos for the first time all season and sadly there was nobody to blame for this one but the players.

After the game, Joe Jackson during his media availability said, “They really wanted to beat us. We didn’t really want to beat them.” I understand that a basketball season is long. And I still believe that Memphis will make the tournament and play well in the new conference, but gone are the days of being able to win on talent alone. Gone are the games that you don’t have to care about but can still win handily. This is a team that needs to play every game like it needs to be won. This is a team that needs to be aware it still has a target on its back, but the people hunting them are now a lot bigger and stronger and better at basketball. This is a team that needs to give a damn, now more than ever.

The easiest way to forget a loss is to go out and win; everyone knows that. But with away games against Louisville and Temple and a home game against always powerful Connecticut looming, that adage will be easier said than done. Winning two of those three would help right the ship a great deal, but the team I saw play on Saturday, the players I saw give up at the end of the game, they don’t give me a whole lot of confidence to think that two out of those three is feasible right now.

 

Report card time for Tigers basketball

The University of Memphis basketball team has played a third of the way thru their season.  There have been highs and lows so far.  The strength of the Tigers’ team is by far the collection of guards on the team.  The play of the guards has been inconsistent and has not dominated as most fans would have hoped they would.

Chris Crawford, Michael Dixon Jr., Joe Jackson and Gerron Johnson all individually have had played well this season, however they have not all play great at the same time.  If the Tigers’ are going to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament this spring they are going to have to improve their play on the court.

The National Champion Memphis Pom Pom squad entertains the crowd during breaks in the action.  Photo by Terry Davis

The National Champion Memphis Pom Pom squad entertains the crowd during breaks in the action. (Photo by Terry Davis)

The following is the report card on the team:

Guard play: Jackson at times has been a victim of his own success.  He does things with seemingly little effort it appears that he is not a part of the game and then you look at the final game statistics and he has 17 points and 8 assists.  When Jackson is on the court the offense appear to be free flowing.  Crawford has been slowed by an ankle injury, but he is still deadly from behind the 3-point line.  Johnson has shown flashed of greatness this season and does not mind getting physical with the opponents’ guards.  Dixon adds an offensive spark from the bench and isn’t afraid to be a leader on and off of the court.  GRADE B

Freshmen: Austin Nichols and Nick King have been good additions to the team.  Nichols has shown that he is not afraid to take inside shots and to rebound.  Once he is able to add some additional pounds on his frame he could be a force to be reckon with on the inside.  King has great hops and likes to rebound.  King started the season as the best freshman on the team, but Nichols has steadily improved and has closed the gap.  King is not afraid to take the big shot and has great upside.  GRADE A

Team defense:  The team has the same weakness as it did last year; they are not great in defending the long outside shots.  Another problem has been lack of consistent rebounding.  If the Tigers are able to address these two issues they will be very hard to defeat.  We are still waiting on the full court press that was promised in the preseason.  GRADE C

Team post play: Shaq Goodwin has upped his intensity this season and at times he has played with All-American effort.  When Goodwin is on his game he appears unstoppable.  Nichols and King have added to the improved post play.  The team does not have a legitimate shot blocker on defense.  If the two freshmen players are able to improve their play and Goodwin is able to sustain his play the Tigers will be a hard team to prepare for. GRADE B

Overall grade:  The Tigers under coach Pastner are 1-2 against ranked teams this season.  After the 25 point loss to Oklahoma State the Tigers defeat Oklahoma State and lost to Florida in New York City.  The team has a tendency to start slow and does not have the spark to start the game.  This was a problem last season that the team could not put together a complete game.  This team has a reputation from their past performance, but they are not garnering much national respect so far this season.  However the Tigers can solve that problem by getting some big wins in January.  GRADE B+

Terry Davis is a regular contributor for Memphis Sport.  You can follow him @terryd515.

SEE ALSO:

Tigers prove their legitimacy

Screen Shot 2013-10-19 at 10.15.44 AMDespite losing to Florida last night 77-75 at Madison Square Garden as part of the Jimmy V. Classic, the Memphis Tigers made their presence known in the world of college basketball. This season has seen some ups and downs, but after going down to the wire with another very solid basketball team, there is no question that the Tigers ranking and attention are merited.

After a rough start to the game by the Tigers where most players looked tight, save for David Pellom, Josh Pastner finally decided to see what his four-guard lineup could do. And as many predicted at the beginning of the season, the four seniors played extremely well together. They got the Tigers right back in the game after trailing by double digits and pulled to within three by halftime.

The second half, as anyone who watched the game could attest to, looked like a matchup you might see in the Sweet 16 or Elite 8. It was high quality basketball. It was two heavyweight teams trading blows trying to knock the other one out. And in a fitting fashion the game came down to the final play. After Scotty Willbekin missed the front end of a 1-1, Memphis got the rebound and called timeout to draw up one final play. Trailing by two Joe Jackson took the ball hard to the rim and it just didn’t fall for the Tigers.

What’s crazy is that the game was almost perfectly matched. Looking at the FG stats for both teams, there was literally one more make for the Gators. They shot 28-54 while the Tigers shot 27-57. The game came down to one shot.

While I hate to use the phrase “moral victory,” I will begrudgingly do so here. In the past, especially before the win over OSU two weeks ago, national TV games against ranked opponents were usually disasters for Memphis. They rarely came down to the last couple of minutes let alone the last possession, but last night was different. Last night was a game that Tiger fans could go to sleep after without feeling embarrassed, without feeling overly upset. Sure they wish that it would have ended differently, but it ended the way it did and it really should be a growing experience for the team

It also was a game that national media and fans seemed to really enjoy watching. Usually when Memphis plays in the spotlight it opens up the door for a bunch of talking heads and non-Memphis fans to come out and say that the team is soft or poorly coached or can’t win when it matters. Last night all of those folks couldn’t stop talking about how much fun the game was to watch and how much it felt like a game in late-March.

It was a fun game to watch. And it did feel like a tournament game. The nice thing for Memphis fans and fans in general alike is that these two teams should have a lot more national exposure as the season progresses and should both be playing at a high level come March Madness.

It should be a fun season for the Tigers, probably the most fun since 2007-08. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Warner Russell  covers Tiger Basektball for MemphiSport. Read his non-sports stuff here. Follow his thoughts on sports @SportsWGR