Things have become topsy-turvy if you wave the blue and gray of the University of Memphis these days. The Tiger football team is 8-1 and ranked 25th in the country, yet there’s some disappointment in the air. The basketball team, on the other hand, is perceived to be at its lowest point in more than a decade, yet actually looked competent and capable in its lone exhibition game. (We’ve learned that such a performance is not to be taken for granted.)
With both teams in the spotlight come Saturday, where and how does a U of M fan find normalcy?
There was a time — all of three years ago — when a 25-point beatdown of the home team at the Liberty Bowl wouldn’t cause a ripple, let alone a stir. But when a team rides a 15-game winning streak to an 8-0 record and enters the conversation about the College Football Playoff (seriously?!), getting run off the field by Navy’s triple-option — in front of more than 55,000 human beings — doesn’t sit well. After the loss Saturday night, Memphis coach Justin Fuente (still, presumably, among the hottest young coaches in the country) emphasized a “burning desire to not feel this way again” as the prime motivating factor for his team the rest of the way.
Can you picture Larry Porter, or Tommy West for that matter, expressing disappointment and such a “burning desire” after losing his first game ... in November? Of course you can’t. Not since 1938 had a Memphis football team reached Halloween with an unblemished record. Which made the dismantling at the hands of Keenan Reynolds and friends so jarring. Navy is now 7-1 and ranked 22nd in the AP poll. So the Tigers are in the midst of a three-game tour of the Top 25 with next week’s foe (Houston, 9-0) at 16 and the following week’s (Temple, 8-1) at 21. The American Athletic Conference, friends, has as many teams in the Top 25 as the SEC. Topsy-turvy.
And Josh Pastner’s basketball squad? They handled this year’s Division 2 offering, LeMoyne-Owen, last Friday night at FedExForum, making the season an immediate improvement on the campaign that began last year with a loss to CBU. There were no more than 5,000 fans in the building (attendance wasn’t announced), and skeptics will emphasize that, hey, this was a Division 2 opponent. The Magicians’ point guard (Desmond Black) is listed generously at 5’8” and scored 11 points while handing out 10 assists.
But the Tigers looked good. Better yet, three players new to the program played significant roles in the win. Point guard Ricky Tarrant scored a team-high 22 points and appeared to be in command of the offensive flow. And the Lawson brothers acted like they’ve chosen to replace departed transfers Austin Nichols and Nick King on their own. Dedric had 10 points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes, K.J. 13 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes. These three new arrivals won’t match those numbers every game, but a fan base has to consider the program better than it did before the trio’s dress rehearsal last week.
The Tigers tip off the 2015-16 regular season Saturday night when old rival Southern Miss visits FedExForum. Opening night for Tiger hoops has historically been one of the three or four most significant annual sporting events on the Memphis calendar. Trouble is, many fans who might otherwise be in a seat at FedExForum will be home (or in Houston) watching the Tiger football team (kickoff against the Cougars will be at 6 p.m.). Forsaking basketball for football in mid-November. In Memphis. Topsy-turvy.
• Former Tiger great DeAngelo Williams will play a central role in any playoff drive the injury-ravaged Pittsburgh Steelers are able to mount. Filling in for the injured Le’Veon Bell, Williams ran for 170 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Steelers’ narrow win over Oakland last Sunday. And he’ll be needed that much more now that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sidelined by a foot injury. Now 32 and playing his 10th NFL season, Williams appears to have found a magic fountain near the Steel City’s famed three rivers. The last time he gained as many as 170 yards in a game? Carolina’s 2012 season finale.