First of all, any honest assessment of last night’s thriller in St. Louis should include the following: Kansas may not be the world-beater so many prognosticators considered them. Xavier Henry is a fine player in an NBA-ready body. But I didn’t see the kind of difference-maker I expected last night. Maybe just an off night.
There are bad losses, good losses now and then, and — most rare — losses on which a season can be built. Taking the top-ranked team in the country to the buzzer before Thanksgiving may be a season-builder.
Three lessons we should take from the Tigers’ narrow loss:
1. This collection of stepchildren won’t be intimidated. The program’s star power took a beating over the offseason (part of that beating was wearing number 1 for Kansas). The team has a coach too young to run for president. “Just wait till next year,” when the country’s top recruiting class arrives.
But the 2009-10 Tigers have a season to play. And try telling seniors Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, and Pierre Henderson-Niles about the 2010 class. Last night would have been an easy early-season throwaway game. Come out fighting, but then fall back on damage control when things get ugly (like a 10-point Jayhawk lead). Instead, the Tigers came up with big defensive stops, hit clutch shots as the clock wound down, and gave themselves a shot to win at the buzzer. The Tigers will have some duds this year, but they won’t play on a bigger stage until March.
2. The Tigers have a go-to player. He’s unlikely to follow his immediate predecessors into the first round of the NBA draft, but Elliot Williams has shown both the ability and inclination to take shots for Memphis. The Duke transfer arrived with a reputation for having stabilized last year’s Blue Devil squad with his defense. Having scored 40 points over the Tigers’ first two games, the sophomore’s defense will be merely an additional asset this season.
3. The Tiger shooting will come . . . and go. Broken record here. Doneal Mack and Roburt Sallie have reputations as long-distance marksmen. Over two games, the duo is a combined 5 for 17 (Sallie’s hit only one of 11). The 6-for-25 long-range performance last night makes for easy math: one or two more drained and the outcome is different. Someone around here once said, “Shooting can make up for a multiple of sins on the basketball court.”