Few college basketball players would voluntarily follow the career arc Willie Kemp has at the University of Memphis. (Actually, you’d need to turn an arc upside down to track Kemp’s three-plus years as a Tiger.) If there’s a metaphorical roar to this first season of the Josh Pastner Era, it’s source is likely the senior point guard — starting point guard — from Bolivar, Tennessee.
As a freshman, Kemp started 36 games for the 2006-07 Tigers. He averaged 21 minutes of playing time for a team that won 33 games, a Conference USA championship, and reached the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight. But with the arrival of Derrick Rose the next season and Tyreke Evans for 2008-09, Kemp’s role diminished significantly. He played in 76 games over the last two seasons, but only started two and averaged 13 minutes of playing time. The most telling reflections of Kemp’s decline are his shooting percentages as a junior: 28 percent from the field, 26 percent from three-point range. Gone with his shooting touch, apparently, was any semblance of confidence.
Three games into his senior season, though, Kemp appears to be a new player. To start with, he changed his uniform number, from 1 to 5 (previously worn by Antonio Anderson). While Kemp will never be the Tigers’ primary scoring option, he’s managed to hit 39 percent of his shots and drained three of five three-point attempts last Friday against Tennessee Tech. He’s started all three games and is averaging 32 minutes on the floor.
“I feel confident out there,” said Kemp after the Friday-night win. “Coach Pastner believes in me, lets me go out there and do what I do. Just being positive, doing what I do to help my team win. If I make a mistake, [Pastner] keeps me out there, lets me play through it. It all comes together.”
The Tigers will be favored in each of their next four games, all of them at home. As the team develops around its tight nucleus, the continued rise of a familiar face will be a fun story to watch unfold.