Sheer panic has consumed a faction of Memphis Tiger basketball fans. With three double-digit losses in six games and thousands of empty seats at FedExForum early in the program’s longest home stand in 35 years, some have already thrown the 2014-15 season in the river. Some — hold on to your seat — are calling the U of M a “football school.”
Let’s remember the Tigers are 0-0 in American Athletic Conference Play. There’s plenty to gain this season. Here are five steps that might be considered to regain the Tigers’ footing on the hardwood.
• Substitute less frequently.
Tiger coach Josh Pastner made 23 substitutions in the first half of last Saturday’s win over Bradley, and this was during a half his team outscored its opponent by 14 points. Eight players ran the floor for at least eight minutes, but only one (Avery Woodson) for more than 12.
A short leash strangles the life of a basketball player. As the Tigers struggle to find their collective identity as a team, Pastner is making the process harder by changing his lineup, it seems, by the minute. If a message needs to be delivered, pull the player, deliver the message, and send him right back in. The opposite — sending a player in and pulling him after his first mistake — is actually harming the player’s development.
It’s human nature: When something goes wrong, make a change. But particularly with the few nonconference games left for experimentation, Pastner should consider committing to a rotation (seven or eight players) and seeing if that group can play winning basketball. Change is going to happen with this raw team, but let it be game-to-game, not minute-to-minute.
• Start Trahson Burrell and bring Nick King off the bench.
Burrell seems to be the closest this team has to a natural scorer, someone who can put points on the board from inside or outside, with open looks or in traffic. The 6’6” swingman has shot 54 percent from the field and reached double figures (off the bench) three times. His size should help with perimeter defense (more on that later), and he has an “energy” intangible sorely lacking with some members of this roster. As for King, I’m convinced he’d thrive in attacking an opponent’s second unit, the best “junk” scorer the Tigers have. Witness the nine points he scored in ten first-half minutes (off the bench) against Bradley. And King seems to clog an offense steered toward Austin Nichols and Shaq Goodwin. The Tigers may gain by not having the three on the floor together. Pastner started a three-guard lineup in the Bradley win. I’d advocate two guards, Nichols, Goodwin, and Trahson Burrell. King and Kuran Iverson could give Memphis the best bench in the American Athletic Conference.
• Defend the three-point line like it’s a home invasion.
In the Tigers’ three wins this season, their opponent has shot less than 30 percent from three-point range. (Wichita State shot a lowly 25 percent in the Shockers’ win on November 18th.) Meanwhile, the only Tiger to show marksmanship from beyond the arc is Woodson. Memphis will rarely have an advantage in this component of a game.
The Tigers are not a big team. Making matters worse, their two biggest players — Nichols and Goodwin — play smaller than their size. This is not a team that will defend the rim like the days of Joey Dorsey (or Will Coleman, even). So the Tigers must do all they can to remove the three-point shot from an opponent’s arsenal. Markel Crawford, Woodson, Pookie Powell, Burrell, Kedren Johnson, and Iverson give Pastner the kind of bodies capable — with the right effort — of making the three-point line hostile territory.
• Get to the free throw line.
With a propensity for turnovers, the Tigers will have trouble pushing the pace offensively. But players don’t turn the ball over at the free-throw line. Particularly with their long-range shortcomings, the Tigers need to dribble-drive, draw contact, and get to the charity stripe for some free points. Burrell has the finest looking shot on the team. It would be nice to see that sweet backspin frequently as conference play nears. Goodwin and Nichols combined for 21 free throws (though they missed nine) against the Braves. That’s more foul shots than the entire team took in the loss to Stephen F. Austin (16).
• Eliminate emotion from the building equation.
Yeah, right. This is Memphis. And Tiger basketball. No such thing as a “balanced view” of the team’s chances for a championship (national, that is). The team is great (and underrated nationally) or the team is atrocious (and the coach must be fired).
Since he was hired, Pastner has embraced the passion of what he calls “Tiger Nation.” And as the Tigers stumbled out of the gate this season, he’s repeatedly said the fan base “should be angry.” Why? Because he — or the team — owes that fan base a winning team? That’s absurd.
The Tiger basketball program owes its fan base one thing: effort. That goes for the coach (and his assistants) and the players. This year’s club is an ongoing project, as any sentient observer would have forecast after counting the number of returning guards. Pastner has to use every game as a sharpening tool for the project. Trim fat. Cut waste. Slice away indifferent play at the first sign. What Pastner must do — unlike last season — is build a team. What fans see in November is rarely what they see in late February or March. So forget anger, frustration, and bitterness. Emotion is distraction from the mission at hand. Build a team.