Opening Night for Tiger basketball remains a phenomenon. Two nights after our Grizzlies couldn't draw 11,000 fans to see the home team play one of the best outfits in the NBA, the Tigers packed 17,792 into the same arena to see the U of M trample a team that will be playing in Division III a year from now.(Let’s hope tiny Centenary — enrollment: 904 — makes its athletic budget for the year with the check they get to deposit for making this trip from Shreveport. No player for the visiting club scored as many as seven points.)
Six players made their Tiger debuts tonight, one of them a bit later than originally planned. Sheffield High grad Chris Crawford was benched for the first half after missing a class, but proceeded to hit all six shots he took in the second half (including four three-pointers) for 16 points. Another rookie, junior transfer Charles Carmouche, added 13 points, while Antonio Barton — the less heralded of the freshmen Barton brothers — led the Tigers with 17 points, four assists, and five steals.
The Bartons combined for the play of the game midway through the second half when Antonio received a breakaway pass from Crawford, then lobbed the ball to a high-flying Will, who dunked for a 71-30 Memphis lead. Still nursing a tender ankle, Will Barton was limited to 15 minutes on the floor and scored four points. Antonio was all smiles after the game in recounting the family alley-oop. “That brought me back to my high school games, playing with him,” said Antonio. “It felt so good.” Joe Jackson (seven points, four assists) and Tarik Black (nine points, five rebounds) also entered their names in the Memphis scorebook for the first time.
Though it will count in the Tigers’ season record, the contest was every bit as one-sided as the two exhibition games the U of M played earlier this month. The Tigers forced 28 turnovers and held the Gents to 26-percent shooting from the field. Memphis won the rebounding battle, 40-28.
Coach Josh Pastner was able to show off his team’s depth, as 11 players played at least 13 minutes each, with 10 of them entering the scoring column. “We can hit a team from any angle,” said Antonio Barton. “Any combination.”
“I had a blast,” said senior center Will Coleman, who scored four points and grabbed eight rebounds in 16 energy-filled minutes. “Playing with this team, stats don’t matter. I’m just happy for my team. The fact that we all share the ball the way we do . . . it’s amazing. You don’t have a selfish person on this team, and I’m excited about that.”
Drew Barham scored 13 points and pulled down nine rebounds and Angel Garcia was solid inside and out for the Tigers, scoring 14 points and grabbing five boards.
Pastner’s postgame comments were focused largely on suspensions. In addition to Crawford’s first-half benching, junior Wesley Witherspoon was held out of the starting lineup (he scored seven points in 14 minutes), and freshman Jelan Kendrick — having just returned to practice after two weeks resolving a personal issue — was suspended for the entire game. Kendrick was not on the bench.
“With a young team, we need to nip things like this in the bud,” said Pastner. “My responsibility to these young men is to teach them about accountability, responsibility, taking ownership. There will be consequences for actions that aren’t positive.”
When asked if Kendrick — one of the top 20 recruits in the 2010 class — might have his Tiger career end before it even began, Pastner emphasized the consideration he’s giving the matter. “I want to sleep on it,” he said. “I want to get with the staff and determine what we’re going to do for the short- and long-term. I want to make sure that I have a clear mind. These are student-athletes, and I’m committed to their welfare.”
The Tigers return to FEF late Monday night, for an 11 p.m. tip-off against the Miami Hurricanes, a game to be televised nationally on ESPN. Pastner is excited about the possibilities ahead, however young his second Tiger team may be. “Our guys want to ball,” said Pastner. “They play hard. I know the competition hasn’t been the best, but it doesn’t matter. No one can say that our effort isn’t there every single possession. I’m really proud of these guys.”