The biggest cheer tonight at FedExForum was for the University of Memphis football team. (A sentence I never thought I'd write.) The twenty minutes of basketball before the 2014 American Athletic Conference (football) champions were introduced were dreadful. And the 20 minutes after football coach Justin Fuente invited 14,501 fans to Florida for the Miami Beach Bowl (December 22nd) were no improvement. The loss drops the Tigers to 3-4 and will leave them without a signature win before conference play opens on New Year's Eve.
This was not the top-10 Oklahoma State team led by Marcus Smart (now a Boston Celtic) that Memphis beat to win the Old Spice Classic a year ago. Alas, this is not the 2013-14 Tigers either. And it showed in numerous ways.
• For the sixth time in seven games, Memphis committed more turnovers (23) than its assist total (11).
• The Tigers missed 10 of their first 12 shots and went an entire 10-minute stretch of the second half without scoring a field goal.
• Despite 19 offensive rebounds, the Tigers managed only 10 second-chance points.
• Two of the team's three veteran leaders played dreadfully. Shaq Goodwin fell into early foul trouble and took only two shots (making one) in 19 minutes on the floor. Nick King came off the bench and missed nine of ten field-goal attempts, including some in the shadow of the rim.
• The team's lone outside shooter, Avery Woodson, missed all four of his three-point attempts and failed to score in 31 minutes.
The game had insult. Senior forward Calvin Godfrey was benched permanently after shouting at Tiger coach Josh Pastner when removed quickly in the first half.
The game had injury. Freshman guard Markel Crawford had to be helped to the locker room after twisting his left knee in the first half. (It was Crawford's right knee that he hurt before his senior season at Melrose High School. Pastner said Crawford will be out "until after Christmas.")
Le'Bryan Nash led the Cowboys with 20 points and Anthony Hickey and Phil Forte each scored 19 to help Oklahoma State improve to 8-1. The win erases some of the sting from a 26-point beat-down at South Carolina a week ago.
As for the Tigers, if only the early-season pain amounted to merely a sting. "We've got to find a way to win games," said Pastner. "And find it in a hurry. We have to play better." The coach acknowledged the obvious: turnovers and scoring droughts are compromising his team's chance to compete, even with mediocre opposition.
"It's tough when your point guards are having the number of turnovers we're having. We haven't found the point guard yet." After playing well against Bradley in the Tigers' last outing, Kedren Johnson committed four turnovers in just 13 minutes of play tonight. He didn't score a point or contribute an assist.
And the missed layups had Pastner mystified. "We've done tough-man drills," he said. "We've hit them with bags. Unexplainable. You've got to make them. Missing those short shots are absolute back-breakers."
Sophomore forward Austin Nichols scored 11 points (5 of 11 from the field) and pulled down 13 rebounds to go with three blocked shots. He insists his team will come together, and plans on leading with encouragement, not just game-to-game, but possession-to-possession. "Our energy was there, but we just didn't hit shots," he said. "And every time we'd force a turnover, we'd go down and turn the ball over ourselves. We'll get back to practice tomorrow, and get better. I tell my teammates when I'm out there to never quit. The game's never over until it's over. Never give up. Every play of every game on the schedule."
Junior forward Trahson Burrell played a season-high 30 minutes off the bench and tied Kuran Iverson for the team scoring lead with 13 points. (Iverson also came off the bench but played just 13 minutes.) Burrell grabbed nine rebounds . . . but turned the ball over four times. "We settled for shots a little too much," he noted. "We need to get to the free-throw line more. [The Tigers made 12 of 21 from the stripe.] I felt like we played good on defense, but our offense really wasn't there tonight. It's frustrating when you don't score for six or seven minutes."
The Tigers return to play Monday night when they host North Carolina Central. They'll then play three more games before Christmas, all at FedExForum. They might consider inviting the football team back.