It wasn’t exactly Willis Reed limping onto the court at Madison Square Garden before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, but when Wesley Witherspoon returned merely minutes after what appeared could be a season-ending knee injury at Rice tonight, Tiger Nation — starting with coach Josh Pastner — managed to exhale.
With the 80-68 victory, the Tigers improved to 13-4 for the season (3-0 in Conference USA) and earned the program’s 64th consecutive win in conference play, tying Kentucky’s 60-year-old record. (The Tigers will next take the floor Wednesday at FedExForum against UTEP, the first top-tier C-USA team they will have faced. A 65th-straight win is hardly a given.)
While Elliot Williams is unquestionably the Tigers’ most valuable player this season — a week after scoring 33 at Southern Miss, he had 32 tonight at Rice — Witherspoon would be as damaging a loss as any player on the Tiger roster. His height (6’9”) and versatility (Witherspoon can shoot from 15 feet and beyond and defend both guards and forwards) make him the equivalent of two players in one for a team with a rotation only seven deep. The sight of him being helped off the floor in the first half by a pair of Memphis trainers had to tighten Pastner’s throat a bit. Likewise, his return seemed to kickstart the Tigers before halftime. He wound up scoring six points and tying for the team lead with seven rebounds in 30 minutes of play.
• It’s a shame Rice won’t be coming to Memphis this season. I’d love to see Arsalan Kazemi — a native of Iran — play in person. Kazemi scored 15 points (with a few emphatic dunks) and grabbed 11 rebounds against the Tigers tonight. I love the fact an Iranian player is thriving — if only off the national radar — in the home state of George W. Bush. Wonder what Kazemi thinks of the “axis of evil.”
• There’s a fine story in the January 18th issue of Sports Illustrated (by Kelli Anderson) on the impact transfers are having in college basketball this season. Two of the four players profiled — Williams and UTEP’s Derrick Caracter — will face each other Wednesday night in Memphis.