Why the Memphis Tigers are rolling through opponents

The University of Memphis men’s basketball team had a tendency to build big leads in games early, but lose the large advantage before the end of the game.  The Tigers built double digits leads in many games early in the season, but had to hold on for dear life to pull out a win.  That has not been the case the past few weeks.  The last two Tigers’ home games have been blowouts by Tigers’ standards.  The Tigers are in the middle of a 16 game winning streak.  The last loss was to the hated Louisville Cardinals on December 16.

Joe Jackson has led the Tigers to one the best defensive teams in the conference.  Photo by Justin Ford.

Joe Jackson has led the Tigers to one the best defensive teams in the conference. Photo by Justin Ford.

The Tigers did not play bad in that game and if a few questionable calls had not gone against the Tigers maybe they would have won that game.  The Tigers’ black eye of the season came during the three games played in the Bahamas.  Despite having one of the most talented teams in the field, Memphis only won one game on that trip.  The Tigers learned a lot from that trip and the lessons learned has led to the current streak.  The Tigers have returned to the Associated Press and USA Today polls and are slowing rising in the power rankings.

Here are a few reasons why the Tigers are on such a roll:

Respecting the opponents.  The Tigers have had a history of playing down to the level of their opponent. Head coach Josh Pastner has been stressing the quality of every opponent the Tigers are playing this year. To the Tigers’ opponents, every game is their Super Bowl. This will be the last chance some members of  Conference USA will get to beat the Tigers, because of the move to the Big East next season.

Adonis Thomas consistency has improved.  Before the season, it was a given that Thomas would be showcasing his talent for pro scouts on a nightly basis, but then  Thomas was invisible for the first half of the season.  Recently Thomas has been more aggressive.  Against Marshall, Thomas had one of his best games of the season scoring a career high 23 points and he grabbed 10 rebounds.  The points and rebounds came within the flow of the game and he didn’t take away from anyone’s game.

The big three play well together.  An unlikely trio has formed in the combination of Chris Crawford, Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson.  When those three are on the court at the same time a special kind of explosive occurs.  The normally fast Tigers appear even faster and are able to push the tempo to an even higher pace and they tend to force opponents turnovers.  It hasn’t hurt that Crawford has emerged from his early season slump.  The key with these three players is they head up the dangerous Tigers’ defense.

Offense excites, but defense wins games.  The explosive dunks of DJ Stephens, the penetrating layups of Jackson and the outside shots of Crawford always seem to get the crowds at FedExForum on their feet.  However the Tigers lead Conference USA in blocked shots, are second in steals and have three players ranked in the top ten in steals per game 9-Crawford (1.56), 7-Jackson (1.68) and 3-Johnson (1.8).  DJ Stephens is hands down the best shot blocker in the conference with 57 blocked shots on the season and is averaging (2.28 bpg).

Terry Davis covers the Memphis Tigers for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at [email protected].  Follow him @Terryd515 .


Game Preview: Can Memphis beat Louisville?

The Memphis Tigers and the No. 6 ranked Louisville Cardinals will continue their rivalry this Saturday at the FedExForum.  This will be the first time the Cardinals have made a trip to Memphis since 2005.  The Cards won that game 52-44. The Cardinals has a 54-32 advance in the series over the Tigers and have won the last three games, but the Tigers are 22-15 in Memphis.

The Cardinals defeated the Tigers last season 95-87 at the Yum! Center last season.  This will be a great opportunity for the Tigers to get a quality win against a non-conference opponent and improve their RPI and possible post season seeding.  Tigers head coach Josh Pastner wanted to renew the series with the Cards as a payback to the Tigers fans for their support of the team.

Josh Pastner and the Memphis Tigers are looking to get the attention of the National when they host the Louisville Cardinals

The Cards and Tigers were conference rivals for many years when they both played in the Metro, Great Midwest and Conference USA before the Cardinals moved to the Big East Conference in 2005.  The Tigers will move to the Big East next year, but the Cardinals will move to the Atlantic Coast Conference after next season

Five reasons the Tigers can beat the Louisville Cardinals:

Shaq Goodwin.  Goodwin was named Conference USA Freshman of the week this week.  He is the first Tiger to earn this honor since Will Barton won the award the week of February 11, 2011.  Goodwin led the Tigers to a 2-0 week with victories over Ohio 84-58 and Austin Peay 83-65. In the two contests, he averaged 12.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 steals. He shot 66.7 percent from the field and 72.7 percent from the free throw line.

Gerron Johnson.  Johnson has been a welcome addition to the Tigers.  Johnson brings experience and confidence.  He is also very talented and is averaging 11.0 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from the field, but it is his poise that benefits the Tigers the most.

Perimeter defense.  The Tigers perimeter defense has been horrible against good outside shooting teams.  In the Bahamas, the Tigers were torched by VCU and Minnesota with their speed and shooting.  The Cards will present the Tigers with the same challenge this week.  Russ Smith will challenge the Tigers defense. He is the Card’s leading scorer with 20.3 points per game and is deadly from outside.

Joe Jackson consistent play. Jackson has had an up and down career at Memphis.  Jackson has to learn how to play within the confines of the team structure.  He also needs to manage his speed to match his teammates.

Team intensity.  Many of the players on the Tigers’ team do not have any clue to the fierce rivalry between the two schools and they think it is just another game.  The players will soon find out this is not just another game.  The alumni and people of Memphis will let any player they come in contact with know the importance of this game.  FedExForum will be sold out and the crowd will be electric.  It will be up to the team on the floor to keep the energy in the building.

Terry Davis is a regular contributor for MemphiSport. Follow him @Terryd515.

2012 M Awards: Best Game

Win this one and we will have a game at home to finally take this series. We are tough to beat at home. It is almost inevitable that if we take game 6, then we will take game 7. In a parallel universe, it happened, but Oklahoma City still made the finals. In a parallel universe, Blake Griffin doesn’t cry. In a parallel universe, flopping is a technical. In a parallel universe, you don’t lose a 27-point lead at home. In a parallel universe, Brian Davis is the owner of the team, and Christian Laettner is still leading the Grizzlies on the court, helping the team to the number one pick in the draft year in and year out. In any universe, game 6 was a heckuva lot of fun to witness.

Grizzlies Game 6 WinFirst Place: 30.54%
Memphis Tigers Two Wins over UT in One SeasonSecond Place: 25.75%
Conference USA Championship GameThird Place: 15.87%

 Best song to listen to while contemplating this category… Bring It On Home To Me by Sam Cooke. So what do you think, Memphis? Do you get it right? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

The 2012 M Award Winners

 Favorite Concessions: FedExForum
Favorite Place To Tailgate: Tiger Lane
Favorite Sporting Venue: FedExForum
Favorite Race: St. Jude Marathon
Best Game: Grizzlies Game 6 Win

Check back here daily in the month of July for a new winner in MemphiSport’s annual celebration of the best in Memphis sports.

Twitter Fancap: Tigers Charge Over Herd, Win C-USA Tourney Title

Twitter Fancap: Tigers Handle Herd

MemphiSport’s Twitter Fancap lets you be part of the story. Because the fans make it happen. During each game, the best tweets will be picked to help provide insight into how things played out. To be included, just include the hashtag #gotigersgo or tweet @MemphisMichaelJ.

Tigers Make Magicians Disappear

The University of Memphis’ 119-67 victory Wednesday night over LeMoyne-Owen was far from perfect, but Tiger fans should be pleased with their team’s overall performance. Will Barton showed why he is a preseason player of the year candidate, displaying his all-around game as he amassed 22 points (on 9 of 13 shooting), 5 rebounds and 4 assists in only 20 minutes of action. There were some rough spots of course, such as allowing the Magicians a plethora of open 3s and an occasional lapse in half-court defense, but for the most part, Wednesday’s game served to reaffirm why the U of M has garnered such lofty expectations for this season.

Senior guard Charles Carmouche was one of seven Tigers who finished in double figures as he showed once again why his veteran presence is so valuable to this team. Fellow senior Wesley Witherspoon poured in 16 points and five rebounds, and junior college transfer Stan Simpson had an impressive debut, finishing with 14 points as he missed only one of his eight attempts from the floor. Even more impressive were his 7 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.

It looked for a moment as though the Tigers might struggle as they have in previous exhibitions, posting only a 28-20 advantage with 12 minutes to go in the first half. LeMoyne Owen’s Teshawn Byron torched the Tigers for 33 points, and Memphis gave the Magicians several open looks throughout the early stages of the game. But eventually the Tigers’ superior size and athleticism took their toll on an overmatched Division 2 opponent, going on a 24-4 run over the final eight minutes of the half en route to a 57-29 lead at the break. The Magicians failed to make any kind of significant run in the second stanza.

Next up for Memphis is a second exhibition on Friday, Nov. 11 against CBU at FedExForum.

Player ratings (10 = highest, 1 = lowest)

Tarik Black:  5

Black played 19 minutes and had 3 blocked shots, but for the most part, he was invisible on offense. 4 points and 2 rebounds is simply unacceptable. The good news, however, is that the Tigers top big man didn’t commit a single foul.

Wesley Witherspoon:  7

Witherspoon was impressive, showing leadership and hustle as he dove for several loose balls, grabbed 3 steals and went 6 of 7 from the line. This is exactly the kind of effort everyone should expect the senior to produce every time out. Unfortunately though, fans have seen this kind of game from Witherspoon before, and it is usually followed by several underachieving performances. Although the Tigers next opponent, CBU, isn’t exactly a jump up in class, it will be interesting to see if ‘Spoon can have another solid game.

Joe Jackson:  7

Jackson did little to captivate the crowd, but his showing was fairly impressive nonetheless. The White Station alum’s 7 assists tied for the team lead, and he committed only one turnover. Jackson seemed to relish his role as a point guard rather than trying to force the issue and make sure he got his own shot. The Tigers would probably like to get more than 10 points out of one of their main offensive weapons, but they will also certainly take a steady performance like this any day.

Charles Carmouche:  8

Carmouche played every bit like the senior leader he is, going 6 of 6 from the floor including 3 for 3 from beyond the arc. He was also a perfect 1-1 from the stripe and played steady defense. ‘Mouche is a model of consistency, something that a group of young players can learn from just by being on the floor with him.

Will Barton:  8

If this game had been against a more potent foe, Barton would have been rated even higher. Tiger fans got to see what they probably expected to witness later year, as the Baltimore native was easily the best player on the floor in just about every facet of the game. Whereas last season he often seemed to shy away from contact, Barton appeared to actually look for it at times during this game, eager to draw the foul and finish or step up to the line. If Barton plays this way consistently, this Tiger team may actually deliver on his guarantee from last year.

Antonio Barton:  7

Like Carmouche, Antonio Barton continues to be one of the steadiest presences on the roster. He once again played solid defense and made open shots as he took what the defense gave him, all while impressively running the team at the point.

Chris Crawford:  5

Crawford had a terrible night shooting the ball, going 2 for 10, but he is still a critical piece for this Tiger team. It’s possible that his concentration on guarding the opposition might have affected his shot, but that should get better as the year goes on. His court vision is second to none as his 7 assists tied with Jackson for game high honors. A full court pass ahead to Barton over the head of a Magician defender showed just how good his passing touch can be, and that wasn’t even the most impressive look of the night. His behind the back dish to Carmouche for an open 3 on the break was a thing of beauty and brought probably the biggest cheer of the night.

Stan Simpson:  8

Wednesday marked a fairly impressive debut for Simpson. Besides Barton, he probably had the best showing of any Tiger player. Showing an array of low post moves and a nice outside touch, the newcomer showed that Memphis won’t have to rely solely on Black down low. If he continues to play like this, he will easily be an upgrade over what Memphis lost in Will Coleman.

Adonis Thomas:  6

Thomas struggled early on as it seemed like the speed of the game at this level might be a bit overwhelming. As he got into the flow, however, the freshman managed to contribute some solid minutes and finish in double figures with 11 points.

Hippolyte Tsafack:  5

“Hip” provided some big minutes off the bench, gathering in 7 boards in only 13 minutes. He also committed 4 personal fouls in that time, and it’s obvious he has some adjustments to make as he learns the college game.

DJ Stephens:  3

Stephens played only 7 minutes and for the most part failed to make an impact. Didn’t play particularly poorly but also didn’t seem to be his usual passionate self.

Charles Holt:  5

Holt came in late in the game and hit his only shot, an open 3-pointer. Also committed a turnover and had 1 assist in his 3 minutes. Can’t ask for much more from the walk on.

Preston Laird:  7

The crowd was chanting for Laird as soon as it was evident the Tigers would have a blowout win. Hit a 3 and could have scored more if he had hit either of the 2 free throws he attempted. Also collected a pair of rebounds.

Please feel free to comment on this story using the form at the bottom of the page.

Michael Jones is the Tiger basketball beat writer for MemphiSport. You can follow him via Twitter @MemphisMJ.

Photo by Justin Ford.

The Razorbacks are scary good, remain No. 1 in the TAMs Rankings

Our TAM teams celebrated Halloween early this past weekend, and I do not know what is scarier, this grotesque razorback or the grotesque first halves Arkansas has been dealing with the past two weeks.  Like Arkansas, Southern Miss also faced a first half scare before rebounding in the second half to win their game against UTEP.  Nightmare seasons for Ole Miss and Tennesse continued as they reamin two of the three teams in the SEC without a conference win.  Speaking of nightmares, Arkansas State is keeping every offensive coordinator in the Sun Belt up at night as not a team in the conference has been able to score more than 24 points on the terrifying Red Wolves’ defense.  Equally as scary has been the play of the bottom dwellers MTSU and Memphis who both followed up wins with blow out losses.  Mississippi State struck fear into yet another SEC East foe on Saturday to improve Coach Mullin’s record against SEC East opponents to 6-3 in his tenure at Mississippi State.  Too bad the Bulldogs are in the SEC West where the only team they strike fear in is Ole Miss.  This week’s most disappointing team is Vanderbilt who controlled most of the game Saturday against Arkansas, but lost anyways thanks to a truly greusome finish for Commodore fans, with a fumble inside the Razorbacks’ five yard line that was returned for a touchdown and a missed field goal to force overtime. Without further ado, the TAMs Rankings for the week of November 2, 2011…
Rankings compiled by MemphiSport. Updated every Wednesday. 


1.  Arkansas (7-1): Last week No. 1
For the second straight week the Razorbacks struggled early against a TAM team before finding a way to win. This time the scare was against Vanderbilt who controlled most of the game before Arkansas forced a fumble and returned it 94 yards for a touchdown.  This is the third time Arkansas has fallen behind big early only to surmount an impressive comeback, but if they continue playing with fire somebody will burn them.  Next up for the cardic kids is a game with huge SEC and BCS implications when the no. 9 Gamecocks of South Carolina come to town.  If the Razorbacks fall behind big this weekend do not expect a big comback as Steve Spurrier’s squad will continue to pour it on until the final whistle.
Last Game: W 31-28 vs. Vanderbilt @Vanderbilt Stadium
Next Game:  vs. South Carolina @ Razorback Stadium
Best Win:  42-38 vs. Texas A&M @ Cowboy Stadium
Worst Loss:  38-14 vs. Alabama @ Bryant-Denny Stadium
Wins Against TAMs Teams: 2 (Ole Miss and Vanderbilt)
Losses Against TAMs Teams:0

 2.  Southern Mississippi (7-1):  Last week No. 2
A big kudos goes out to Southern Miss who is no. 25 in this weeks BCS poll, making two TAM teams in the BCS poll ths week.  The Golden Eagles remain in the driver’s seat in the C-USA  East, but they do face a tough two game stretch against East Carolina and UCF.  Southern Miss has given up only 20 points in th last two games and continues to dominate C-USA offenses holding conference foes to only 15 points per game.  A showdown with Houston in the C-USA championship seems emminent for the Golden Eagles, but they must take care of business the last four games of the season.
Last Game:  W 31-13 vs. UTEP @ Sun Bowl Stadium
Next Game: vs. East Carolina @ Dowdy Ficklen Stadium
Best Win:  30-24 vs. Virginia @ Scott Stadium
Worst Loss:  26-20 vs. Marshall @ Joan C. Edwards Stadium
Wins Against TAMs Teams: 0
Losses Against TAMs Teams: 0


3.  Mississippi State (4-4):  Last week No. 3
The Bulldogs finally won their first conference game of the year against a woeful Kentucky unit.  Things go from extremly easy to unbelievably effortless for Mississippi State when they take on the Sky Hawks of UT- Martin out of the OVC. A two game winning streak should give the Bulldogs some confidence before reality slaps them in the face when they play back to back games against two teams currently ranked in the top 10 of the BCS polls (Alabama and Arkansas).
Last Game: W 28-16 vs. Kentucky @ Commonwealth Stadium
Next Game:  vs. UT-Martin @ Davis Wade Stadium
Best Win: 59-14 vs. Memphis @ Liberty Bowl
Worst Loss:  24-10 vs. Georgia @ Sanford Stadium
Wins Against TAMs Teams: 1 (Memphis)
Losses Against TAMs Teams: 0


4.  Vanderbilt (4-4):  Last week No. 4
Vandy had Arkansas in the fourth quarter inside the Razorback ten yard line with a chance to go up 35-20, but a scoop and score by Jerry Franklin and a successful two point conversion pass by Wilson to Wright tied the game and gave all of the momentum to the Razorbacks.  The Commodores still had a chance to force overtime late but a missed field goal sealed their fate as they managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.  There is no time for Coach Franklin’s team to hang there heads because they head to ”the Swamp” to take on a very athletic Florida Gators team on Saturday.  Three very winnable games remain on the Commodores schedule (Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wake Forest) and Vandy could be looking at a 7 or 8 win season when it is all said and done.
Last Game:  L 31-28 vs. Arkansas@ Vanderbilt Stadium
Next Game:  vs. Florida @ Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Best Win:  30-7 vs. Ole Miss @ Vanderbilt Stadium
Worst Loss: 34-0 vs. Alabama @ Bryant-Denny Stadium
Wins Against TAMs Teams: 1 (Ole Miss)
Losses Against TAMs Teams: 1 (Arkansas)


5.  Arkansas State (6-2): Last week No. 6
With their 37-14 win over North Texas Coach Freeze and the Red Wolves have their first six win season since 2008 and they are now bowl eligible.  More impressive is the fact that with a win over Florida Atlantic this Saturday Arkansas State will have their first season with more than six wins since making the jump to D-1A (now known as the FBS) in 1991.  The Sun Belt championship will be on the line next Saturday when Louisiana-Laffayete comes to town, as a win will gaurantee the Red Wolves a trip to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
Last Game:  W 37-14 vs.North Texas @ ASU Stadium
Next Game:  vs. Florida Atlantic @ FAU Stadium
Best Win:  47-3 vs.Memphis @ ASU Stadium
Worst Loss:  26-7 vs. Virginia Tech @ Lane Stadium
Wins Against TAMs Teams: 1 (Memphis)
Losses Against TAMs Teams: 0


6.  Tennessee (3-5): Last week No. 5
The Vols’ offense continues to struggle in Tyler Bray’s absence, this time managing a measly 3 points against South Carolina.  Tennessee is only averaging 22.4 points per game which is good for the third worse scoring offense in the SEC.  In the three games since Bray’s injury Tennessee has scored a grand total of one touchdown and only 16 total points.  Good thing for the Vols that TAM ranking bottom dweller MTSU is up next.
Last Game:  L 14-3 vs. South Carolina @ Neyland Stadium
Next Game:  vs. MTSU @ Neyland Stadium
Best Win:
45-23 vs. Cincinnati @ Neyland Stadium
Worst Loss: 
37-6 vs. Alabama @ Bryant-Denny Stadium
Wins Against TAMs Teams:
Losses Against TAMs Teams:


7.  Ole Miss (2-6):  Last week No. 7
The loss to Auburn makes eleven straight conference losses for Houston Nutt’s Rebels.  Bowl eligibility is slipping a way from Ole Miss and another loss will make them ineligible for a bowl for the second straight year.  They get an equally bad Kentucky team this Saturday in a battle between the two worst teams in the SEC.  This is the best chance Ole Miss has the rest of the season to beat an SEC opponent with their last two SEC games being against  no.1 LSU and the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State.

Last Game: L 41-23 vs. Auburn @ Jordan-Hare Stadium
Next Game: vs. Kentucky @ Commonwealth Stadium
Best Win:  38-28 vs. Fresno State @ Bulldog Stadium
Worst Loss:  14-13 vs. BYU @ Vaught-Hemingway Stadium
Wins Against TAMs Teams: 0
Losses Against TAMs Teams: 2 (Vanderbilt and Arkansas)


8.  MTSU (2-5): Last week No. 8
The Blue Raiders we all know and love returned to true form on Saturday, losing in impressive fashion to Louisiana-Laffayette.  MTSU held the Rajun Cajuns to just 188 passing yards, but Louisiana-Laffayette pounded the Blue Raider defense on the ground for 338 yards.  Logan Kilgore led the offense to over 400 total yards, but with a defense that is among the worst in the nation MTSU might not win another game this season.  Next up is a trip to Knoxville to take fellow TAM team Tennessee.

Last Game:  L 45-20 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette @ Floyd Stadium
Next Game:   vs. Tennessee @ Neyland Stadium
Best Win: 38-31 vs. Memphis @ Johnny Floyd Stadium
Worst Loss:  49-21 vs. Georgia Tech @ Johnny Floyd Stadium
Wins Against TAMs Teams: 1 (Memphis)
Losses Against TAMs Teams: 0


9.  Memphis (2-6):  Last week No. 9
The Tiger’s conference losing streak started over Saturday at one, with a shut out loss to Central Florida.  Memphis was dominated by the Black Knights’ defense, only gaining 134 total yards and 6 first downs in Saturday’s contest.  Coach Porter has a bye week to try and fix the Tigers’ offensive woes before the “Battle for the Bones” against UAB.  Former Memphis coach Tommy West is now a defensive coordinator for UAB and will return to the Liberty Bowl for the first time since his departure after the 2009 season.   

Last Game: W 41-0 vs. Central Florida @ BH Networks Stadium
Next Game:  vs. UAB @ Liberty Bowl
Best Win: 33-17 vs. Tulane @ Tulane Stadium
Worst Loss:  47-3 vs. Arkansas State @ ASU Stadium
Wins Against TAMs Teams: 0
Losses Against TAMs Teams: 3 (Miss St., Arkansas State, MTSU)

The Mid-South is full of fans with allegiances to different area college football programs. Which FBS program in the three states surrounding the Memphis area is the best? To help end some arguments and start others, every week MemphiSport ranks all the college football teams in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. We call it the TAMs Rankings.
CJ Hurt covers college football for MemphiSport. Follow him @churtj09 for live tweets from games.

All Shook Up: R.C. Johnson in his own words

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of MemphiSport

Much to the chagrin of Geoff Calkins, Jerry “The King” Lawler, and a growing portion of Tiger Nation, R.C. Johnson is still the athletic director at the University of Memphis. He is still the guy who will control the Tigers’ fate in the next round of conference shakeups. He is still guy who thinks he can turn Tiger football into a winning program. He is still the guy that big money boosters support. He is still the guy who hired John Calipari and Josh Pastner. He is still the guy who hired Tic Price and Larry Porter. He is still a huge Elvis fan. And most importantly, he is still in charge.

In the midst of the most scrutiny he has received since arriving in the Bluff City, R.C. Johnson talked with MemphiSport about Tiger football, the BCS, his legacy, pro wrestling and more.


What Elvis Presley song best describes the current state of Tiger football?  All Shook Up.

Not Heartbreak HotelNot right now.

What about It’s Now or NeverNaw, I don’t think so. I think All Shook Up because of changes we have made with the staff recently. Football is so important. It’s going to take some time and we are going to keep working on it. The bottom line is – we need to win games.

What about A Mess of BluesYou don’t like All Shook Up? [Laughs] They all apply.

Do you think Memphis can be a football town?  Absolutely. I have been here long enough to know. It’s like “If we build it, they will come.” If we win, it will turn around. This is football country. We have a huge Tiger Nation for basketball, bigger than any besides Kentucky. But this is football country.

Why is Memphis not already in a BCS conference?  I think that is a great question. The only missing piece to the puzzle is probably if we were where TCU is in football right now, we would probably be in one. The most important things are football and the TV market.

What is holding Memphis football back from being on the level of a school like TCU or Boise State?  I don’t think anything is holding us back. It is a matter of getting out there and doing it. I know where other budgets are, and I know what our budget is. We are in good stead there. I don’t know if there is anything Larry (Porter) wanted us to do that we haven’t been able to do outside the lines. Same with staffing. He asked for more money for weight coaches. We have two full timers and three graduate assistants just for football weight lifting. In many cases we are ahead of other schools. I think the things are in place now and it is a matter of executing them.

So you are saying Tiger football is ready right now to start competing for the Conference USA championship?  I think now more than ever. The reason I say that is what we’ve been able to do with staff salaries, the money we have been able to put into recruiting and operations, the improvements we have been able to make, the number of times we are on television. All of these things are better than they used to be. And now it is just a matter of getting the recruits in here and we will have a run at it.

What are the three most important parts of your current plan to improve Tiger football?  First is always recruiting. You’ve got to get the recruits in. That would be number one. Number two is probably getting the coaching staff where they are comfortable with one another. And then go from there. You can always put more money into a program. It doesn’t matter if you are Texas or UCLA or Michigan. But we are limited on scholarships. We are at the full amount scholarships, the full amount of staff. We continue to work on improvements for facilities. We are working on a $10 million campaign right now to build a new indoor practice facility.

If a booster called you tomorrow and offered you $100 million for Tiger football, how would you allocate it?  I think we would take a look at the on campus stadium. People don’t believe it, but I would love to have an on campus stadium. If a guy came around and gave us $100 million, we certainly would take a good, hard look at it. But the fact is there are schools that have on campus stadiums that still aren’t winning.

Wouldn’t an on campus stadium help with recruiting? You have to admit, the U of M campus is much nicer than the fairgrounds.  Oh yea, Yea. Absolutely. That’s true. But when we bring in recruits, they think the Liberty Bowl is a pretty neat place. There are a lot of stadiums that aren’t 62,000 seats. We have a new locker room. And with Tiger Lane now, there is a lot of ambiance.

Though you never get close to filling up that 62,000-seat stadium.  No, but the atmosphere is pretty good. I’ve talked to our players, they like it. Now an on campus stadium, I have nothing against it. I’d rather have it. If a guy came with $100 million, that would solve that issue. But that still doesn’t guarantee us to win. No one in any of our BCS talks has ever been critical or concerned about the Liberty Bowl Stadium.

Are you embarrassed that some local high schools have a better video screen than the one at the Liberty Bowl?  I don’t know if embarrassed is the word. We thought we were going to get new JumboTrons this year. That was the plan in place. Then the city had their school system issues. The plan was to get a JumboTron on the south end, a JumboTron on the north end, and a JumboTron at Tiger Lane. But now it has moved from the front burner to the back burner. That again isn’t the cure-all.

If things don’t work out with Coach Porter is there enough money to go hire a big time coach?  Well, I don’t know what kind of money we are talking about. We have never been without all the money we’ve needed to do what we want with coaches. That’s because of the private sector.

When basketball was struggling, you followed up the disaster hire that was Tic Price with the flashy big time hire of John Calipari. Would something like that work for football?  Not necessarily. Other schools have done it and it hasn’t always worked out. I get a lot of that on emails now saying, “We need to get a big name coach.” Again that is not the cure-all. We need to find someone that makes the right fit. I get people who say, “Don’t hire any coaches that have anything to do with the North. Hire only people who are South oriented.” Money is not the issue. It is the fit, and hopefully Larry will get this thing going.

Explain why getting paid to travel and lose to major college football programs is not part of your plan to raise money and rebuild Tiger football?  First of all, the teams that we are playing, we get to play here at home, which generates money for us. Tennessee and Mississippi State both will play us home-and-home. I did contact Notre Dame and asked them about playing a game with them where they would pay us. I’m working on schedules for 2022 and 2023. You have to work that far in advance. Notre Dame has an opening probably in 2030, but no one schedules that far in advance. I tried that because I thought it would be great for exposure. Our budget is $38 million, If a school pays us $500,000, it will probably cost $150,000 to go after we charter the airplane and everything else. $350,000 is not a whole heck of a lot of money. If we couldn’t ever get anyone to come here, the situation would be different.

But wouldn’t losing to Ohio State for money still be better than losing to Arkansas State for free?  Yea, but we want to play some of those schools we think we are going to beat. And we should be able to beat those schools. You look around the country… Tennessee opened up with Montana. Alabama plays North Texas and Kent State. Now East Carolina plays three big money games and they have been kind of successful, but they don’t use all of that money for football. We have been able to raise more money than anyone in conference.

But while the team is losing on a consistent basis, what is wrong with one game a year where you get a big check and national exposure?  There is a camp that wants to do that. There is a camp that wants to play all SEC teams in our nonconference. Another camp wants us to do what we are trying to do which is playing two name teams a year and two smaller conference schools.

What is something that you just started doing recently that looking back you should have started doing sooner to help Tiger football?  We have continued to build facilities. People forget the Billy Murphy complex, where the football offices and complex is, that was all new. We did that when we first got here. Recently we hired a group named Inspire, a marketing firm that worked at Georgia Tech last year. There are nine of them that are here. Their full time job is selling season tickets, primarily football. but. Tennessee did the same thing. That’s probably something we should have done earlier.

What has been your proudest moment as athletic director?  Well the standard answer is to say, “I haven’t had it yet.” That’s always the cute answer I read in Parade magazine. I would say the engagement we have had in the community over a period of time. Also we are graduating better now, and we have zero teams not qualifying by NCAA APR rates. Our GPA is 3.0. And that is good stuff. I think we have the whole community. My two charges when I got here were to get the community involved and raise money.

What has been your biggest regret as athletic director?  One thing is football not being where we want it. I will always regret how the Larry Finch thing was handled. I didn’t know all of the players, and I didn’t know all the ins and out of the community. If I could do that over again, I would make it better. We had to make a change… I’m just not happy with the way it all went down.

How much do you regret not leaking the letter of inquire from the NCAA when Calipari was interviewing for the Kentucky job?  We talked to schools on probation and about 75% of them said if you are really going to do an investigation, you have to keep it as quite as you can because the media will call you every-other-day wanting to know what’s going on. People will clam up because they think their name will be in the paper. We just thought it would be more efficient if we didn’t.

What do you say to people who claim you lucked into the hiring of Josh Pastner?  Josh was always on my list because Calipairi sat here and said, “I want $200,000 to hire an assistant coach.” I almost fell out of my chair. He told me it was Josh Pastner. I didn’t know Josh Pastner anymore than I knew Rick Ross. Once Josh got here, I could see he was high energy and had a bright future. He was the prime candidate to replace John internally, but because of the level of our program I felt I needed to talk to Tim Floyd and people all over. When it got down to it, I didn’t know Josh was packed up ready to go to Kentucky at the time I called him to meet me at my house.

How often do you still talk to Calipari?  Probably weekly.

Does he call you?  Yea or I call him. One or the other. We were together here for nine years. We had lots of interaction.

How much of the conversation is sports related?  About half of it. The other half is probably things he talks about or things I talk about. It’s a different relationship. It’s not the athletic director and the basketball coach. It is two guys who went through some struggles together.

How often to you talk with U of M president Shirley Raines about issues related to the athletic department?  Three or four times a week. I meet with her every Monday morning from 9:00 am to noon. I am on what they call the President’s Council. We have a regular scheduled meeting every two weeks, and talk by phone almost daily.

Does she ever suggest any big ideas or does she just let you do your thing?  We are in this together. She is the boss. We talk about things. She really doesn’t micromanage.

How often to you talk to people connected to BCS conferences and realignment?  Regularly. I have set times I call commissioners and other athletic directors. Some I have known as friends for a long time and others that I think will help us as a program down the road. We also have a committee of people from the private sector who are helping us and making contact with various individuals.

What do the BCS people you talk to think about Tiger football’s recent trend of blowout losses?  They don’t look at it game-by-game. It’s more of a bigger picture type thing.

What do you have to say about Jerry “The King” Lawler speaking out against you and Coach Porter?  I’m taking my complaints straight to Vince McMahon. [Laughs] I’m a WWE guy. I saw Jerry Lawler the other night on TV. He was in the ring with Triple H.

You watch Monday night wrestling?  Oh yeah, RAW.

Who is your favorite wrestler of all time?  Ric Flair, “The Nature Boy.” I think he has been national champion like 462 times. On the other channel, TNT or whatever it is, Hulk and Flair have their own thing going on. It’s a bunch of old guys that used to be with McMahon.

Can you do the Ric Flair “Woo”?  No I can’t. [Laughs]

Would you face your No. 1 critic/Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins in a wrestling match for charity?  Naw.

Have you ever been fired from a job?  When I was an assistant football coach at the University of Iowa in 1962 or 63.

Do you have plans to retire before the end of your contract?  I haven’t thought about that. My contract ends June 1, 2013. I still enjoy the job.

Do you think Brett Favre should have retired earlier?  [Laughs] Where did that one come from? No. He was still productive and he wanted to do it.

Is there something you are trying to accomplish before you leave?  All sorts of things. I want to get football going. I want to keep the fundraising going, and keep building facilities.

What do you want your legacy to be?  That’s a great question. I haven’t thought about that because I haven’t thought about the retirement aspect. And I think when you know you are getting close to hanging it up, you start think about that stuff. I just think we have come a long way and we have a way to go. I want to keep going. I just don’t think we are done yet, so I haven’t thought about that.

Kevin Cerrito is the managing editor of MemphiSport and host of MemphiSport Live (MSL) every Saturday from 11:00 am – 1:00 pm on Sports 56 WHBQ. MSL was voted 3rd Best Sports Radio Show in the 2010 & 2011 Memphis Flyer Best of Memphis poll.    You can follow him via Twitter  @cerrito.

Photos by Chase Gustafson.

No excuses: Memphis Tigers face lofty expectations in 2011-2012 season

Will Barton is on the preseason C-USA first team. Tarik Black and Joe Jackson are on the second team. Barton and Jackson are both on the Wooden Award Top 50 List. Jay Bilas issued a tweet announcing Memphis as his number eight ranked team in the country. Several other publications are sure to have the Tigers included in their Top 15 preseason rankings. So it’s pretty obvious at this point that Josh Pastner and his team will have a big target on their back from the onset this season. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. The coach has repeatedly stated that he likes the expectations that this year brings. In fact, he wishes they were ranked number one. All these signs seem to point to one thing- For this year’s version of Memphis Tiger basketball, there will be no excuses.

In the new world of one and done players in college basketball, having a plethora of second year phenoms on your roster is about as good as it gets. Gone are the days of senior laden squads to provide experience and leadership. Show me a team that is now comprised mainly of veterans and I’ll show you a team that is no doubt bereft of talent.

But that’s a problem Memphis doesn’t have. The Tigers feature only two seniors who will see significant action this year, Wesley Witherspoon and Charles Carmouche. And neither of those two are lacking in ability. Witherspoon has always been viewed as an underachiever, and Carmouche is a transfer who at the beginning of last season looked like the only the player a young Memphis team would be able to count on for consistency.

This team’s strength however, will lie with its underclassmen. Five sophomores who made valuable contributions as freshman return this season. And with the long-standing belief that college basketball players tend to make the biggest improvements between their first and second year, it is only reasonable to expect Antonio Barton, Chris Crawford, Will Barton, Jackson and Black to step up their game to another level this year. And given how they finished last year, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Pastner has enjoyed telling everyone how last season other coaches continually expressed to him how unbelievably athletic his team was. During the NCAA tournament, Charles Barkley told a national television audience over and over about the unparalleled quickness of the team. With the expected natural development and maturation process of these young players, it is inevitable that they will be better able to take advantage of those attributes this year. And now that legendary “Hell’s Trainer,” Frank Matrisciano has been added to the staff as Strength and Conditioning Coach, it’s possible that the team will become even harder to match up with physically.

So their coach wishes they were No. 1 in the country. In the city of Memphis, there is something he can definitely count on. With everything the Tigers have going for them this year, fans will accept nothing less. But their expectations won’t be for the preseason. They want that ranking to come at the end.

Michael Jones is the Tiger basketball beat writer for MemphiSport. You can follow him via Twitter @MemphisMJ.

Photo by Chase Gustafson

Is a super-sized Big East a good fit for Memphis?

After all the recent speculation about realignment and the formation of super conferences, one really big thing is sure to come. A giant mess.

No one knows who will eventually end up where, but you can be certain that soon, whether it be the next few years, months, or even days, the landscape of college football and basketball will be different than it is today. And that can definitely be said about the Big East.

The league’s current fourteen to seventeen basketball playing schools (depending on what day you check) make it a bit of a logistical nightmare, and it’s quite possible that the conference could grow even bigger. With rumors rampant that the University of Memphis could be invited to join the fray and Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s public support, it’s time to examine whether membership in a behemoth Big East would be a good fit for the Tigers.

First off let’s be clear. If the U of M football program is asked to become a member of ANY conference holding BCS status, the program will leap at the chance, and it definitely should. No one could possibly question that.

For basketball, however, the situation isn’t quite as simple. Of course the opportunity to compete against the likes of Louisville, Connecticut, Georgetown and West Virginia on a regular basis brings with it an aura of prestige and ensures that Memphis remains relevant in the eyes of the national media. Plus, inclusion in a league with such marquee members is sure to bring in more money for the university. Lucrative television contracts also mean that the school gains greater exposure.

Joining the Big East would also serve to revive some old rivalries as well as automatically create new ones. Imagine having Louisville and Cincinnati back as the U of M’s primary antagonists as opposed to UAB and UTEP. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult for the fans to get behind that.

Scheduling would get bit easier in some aspects. There would be a great deal less pressure on Josh Pastner to put more big name opponents on the slate, which might help curb some of the complaints that seem to arise from the fans, media and NCAA tournament committee about the Tigers lack of quality wins late in the season.

So hopping on board the Big East train is a no-brainer, right? Well, it isn’t that cut and dry really.

Over the last several years, Tiger basketball has thrived in an environment where they were the big fish in a small pond. If they suffered a loss or two in conference, it was considered a disappointment, and piling up close to 30 wins a year became a foregone conclusion. Sprinkle a few respected teams throughout the schedule here and there, and the regular season became the perfect tuneup for the NCAA tournament. But if Memphis aligns itself with an overloaded Big East, those occurrences all become part of the past. Freedom of scheduling is gone, along with the automatic conference wins and the confidence that gets built by pounding hapless league foes.

Winning the C-USA tournament is something the U of M has accomplished all but one year since 2006. Even when they haven’t been unbeatable in regular season league play, the Tigers have still captured the conference’s automatic bid. That gets quite a bit tougher to pull off in the Big East. Not only would they have to face tougher teams, they would also likely have to play another game, maybe even two. And a late loss might well eliminate them from gaining a 1 or 2 seed in the Big Dance as they also struggle to gain position in the Top 25.

Some will argue that recruiting becomes easier when you’re part of a major conference. You gain instant credibility and name recognition just by sporting that affiliation. You get to see your name on the list of five star recruits right next to the names of major programs like a UConn or a Louisville. Something Memphis would just dream to… Oh wait, that’s already happening. The fact is that Memphis is already one of the top choices for high school phenoms looking to play their year or two in college before they head to the NBA, so joining a major conference really doesn’t do much for them as far as recruiting is concerned.

So what does the U of M basketball program gain if they join they acquire membership in the Big East?Unfortunately, the answer may be that they won’t have much of a choice when it comes down to it. It’s entirely possible that when conference realignment is finished (not that it will ever truly be complete), a school’s football affiliation will control what happens to it in basketball. There are theories that the football superconferences will only play each other as they vie for their own championship. If this happens, college hoops could very well follow suit. And at that point, you’re either in the club or you’re not. It’s that simple.

At least as simple as anything in college sports these days.

Michael Jones is the Memphis Tiger basketball beat writer for MemphiSport. You can follow him via Twitter @MemphisMJ.