More often than not, a college basketball season is about revelations. The team we think we know on Thanksgiving is seldom the team we see on the court after New Year’s Day. And developments between New Year’s and St. Patrick’s Day can transform a team from also-ran status to national champions (see UConn, 2011 edition). The 2011-12 Memphis Tigers are hardly the team most fans and prognosticators expected to see when the team was introduced during Memphis Madness in November. Here’s a look at three misperceptions, and the new reality we must accept . . . at least for now.
• Misperception #1: The Tigers’ depth will be their greatest strength.
When the season opened on November 15th, junior forward Drew Barham was weighing an option to redshirt this season. Having played a complementary role — seven minutes a game — as a sophomore, Barham chose to redshirt because of the sheer number of players in front of him on coach Josh Pastner’s depth chart. Adding newcomers Adonis Thomas, Stan Simpson, and Ferrakohn Hall to the mix, Pastner appeared to have 11 players (not including Barham) to juggle over a game’s 200 player minutes.
By December 17th, when the Tigers traveled to Louisville, Pastner was playing a seven-man rotation. Due to suspension, injury, or old-fashioned ineffectiveness, Charles Carmouche, Wesley Witherspoon, Simpson, and D.J. Stephens had fallen off the menu when it came to prepping for the Cardinals. In both the loss to Louisville and a loss at Georgetown five days later, the Tigers looked undermanned in both talent and number. When (or if) the Tigers regain a couple of impact players for their bench will play a big factor in the steep climb toward an NCAA tournament bid.
• Misperception #2: The Tigers will share star power.
Who would be The Man for this year’s team? Point guard Joe Jackson, the hero of last year’s Conference USA tournament? Tarik Black, the big man who led the team in rebounding last year as a freshman? What about freshman sensation Adonis Thomas? Would Witherspoon bounce back as a senior and take command? It seemed like this could be the rare team that passed the game ball from one player to the next, depending on the day of the week.
Nope. This is Will Barton’s team. The lone preseason all-conference pick for Memphis, Barton has played to form and beyond. Through 13 games, he’s averaging 19.8 points and 9.2 rebounds, figures unmatched for a season in Memphis since Omar Sneed in 1997-98. Barton already has five games with 20 points and 10 rebounds, the most since Chris Massie had seven such performances in 2003. (The last Tiger to do this 10 times was Sneed in 1997-98.) Jackson has been as mercurial as he was as a freshman, missing the Charlotte game on New Year’s Eve for, as Pastner put it, a “personal matter.” Black is averaging 8.5 points and merely 3.9 rebounds, which makes you wonder about the weight he shed last offseason. Thomas is bound for stardom, but is not yet the consistent threat the Tigers need him to be. Bottom line: The 2011-12 Tigers will go as far as Will Barton takes them.
• Misperception #3: The Tigers’ athleticism would allow them to hang their hat on defense.
Pastner emphasized ball-control and rebounding during the preseason, but always predicated his talking points on the Tigers playing lock-down defense. He had the stallions in the barn. It was only a matter of intensity, that “want-to” intangible.
Through 13 games, the Tigers rank 11th among the 12 C-USA teams in scoring defense, allowing 70.9 points per game (they’re second in offense with 77.8 points scored). Remarkably, Memphis is second in the league (behind Tulane) in field-goal percentage defense, its opponents shooting just 38.2 percent. Trouble is, the Tigers are giving up a lot of shots (812, or 98 more than the Green Wave, a team that has played one more game than Memphis). The Tigers are dead last in C-USA in opponents’ rebounds (37.4). With Black, Simpson, and Hall on the roster, this is the ugliest number the Tigers carry entering the new year. Hall has averaged 5.4 boards in the five games he’s played, the only player other than Will Barton to average as many as four. Look for Hall’s minutes to climb from his current average of 22 unless Black and Simpson start cleaning the glass.
With Tennessee visiting Wednesday night and C-USA play opening Saturday (at UAB), the Tigers have a chance for a new beginning this week. Perhaps a new year is just what this team needs to further clarify a still-blurry identity.