It’s been a long time since I’ve been healthy and been able to play this way. This was an emotional game for me. — Wesley Witherspoon (November 15, 2011)
Say this for Wesley Witherspoon: he didn’t take the easy way out. Few Tiger fans would have raised an eyebrow had Witherspoon chosen to follow coach John Calipari out of town after his freshman season (2008-09). The Atlanta native had been named Conference USA’s Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 4.0 points and 13.7 minutes off the bench for a Tiger team that went 33-4 behind stars Tyreke Evans, Antonio Anderson, and Robert Dozier. The award surprised many, even some in the Tiger locker room, as teammate Roburt Sallie had averaged 5.8 points and 15.3 minutes as a reserve. But the honor seemed to forecast a higher standard for Witherspoon. Was he prepared for the next step under a rookie head coach?
Witherspoon started 20 games as a sophomore and averaged 12.5 points and 4.6 rebounds, good enough to earn third-team All-CUSA honors. But he began to show signs of being that infamous “tweener,” a player not quite suited for guard duty, but also lacking the size, strength, or skill set to fit naturally at either forward position. (You’ll see few players 6’9” get their shot blocked more often than did Witherspoon.)
Mentioned in preseason all-conference talk for 2010-11, Witherspoon endured a junior season he’d rather forget. Knee soreness cost him 10 games and a suspension two more (he allegedly mocked a coach over the team-bus intercom system). When on the floor — he played 23 games and averaged 22.9 minutes — Witherspoon was productive, if inconsistent. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.3 rebounds but did not repeat as an all-conference honoree.
Then came opening night of Witherspoon’s senior season, November 15th against Belmont: 22 points, 8 for 8 from the field (3 for 3 from behind the arc) in 28 minutes. Witherspoon was visibly relieved in a jubilant postgame locker room, acknowledging the frustration of his junior season. (His remarks can be considered chatty for a young man who often replied to questions by opening with, “I’m a basketball player.”) The Tigers were loaded with a quintet of talented sophomores. How high might they rise if a senior swingman became the ’Spoon that stirred the drink?
Over the next 17 games, Witherspoon failed to reach double figures in the scoring column. In hockey terms, he was essentially a healthy scratch in the Tigers’ two games before Christmas, playing a total of eight minutes against Lipscomb and Georgetown. He endured a nine-game stretch in which he played less than 20 minutes seven times.
Roller coasters climb their highest, though, after a long drop. Witherspoon’s playing time got a booster with the injury that sidelined freshman Adonis Thomas in mid-January. And the senior played a huge role in big wins over Marshall and Xavier (scoring 12 points in both), games the Tigers had to secure to keep hopes of an NCAA tournament berth alive. Since Thomas was forced to the bench, Memphis has gone 10-3. With 927 career points, Witherspoon will likely come up just short of the 1,000-point club (he’s averaging 6.3 this season). But you get the sense that, if this team is to (A) reach the NCAAs and (B) advance to the second weekend, Witherspoon will have to make an impact, be it in the scoring column or elsewhere.
Along with fellow seniors Preston Laird and Charles Carmouche, Wesley Witherspoon will walk to center court before Tuesday night’s game with UCF at FedExForum. (Better yet, he’ll receive his degree this May.) Needless to say, “Spoon” will get a warm send-off from Memphis fans that have grown familiar with his ups, downs, and in-betweens over the last four seasons. He’s earned the salute. He finished what he started.