Four thoughts on the Tigers' season as conference play heats up.
• When Ricky Tarrant Jr. stepped to the foul line last Wednesday against Temple, I thought of Darius Washington Jr. and the very same foul line, not quite 11 years ago. Washington, you may recall, went to the line with his team trailing Louisville by two points in the 2005 Conference USA championship game, time having expired. Having been fouled attempting a three-point shot, Washington had the chance to earn an unlikely NCAA tournament berth for Memphis. With the no players on either side of the lane for the shots, Washington made the first but missed the next two, falling to the FedExForum floor in a heap of misery. If you were there and had a heart, it was painful to witness.
Tarrant made his two shots. And with a mouth full of blood and three loose teeth. The shots beat a tough Temple bunch, many of whom remembered winning a nail-biter in the same building last season. And there really seemed to be little doubt the shots would hit their mark, Tarrant being this team's best free-throw shooter (86 percent) and, more and more it seems, its metaphorical backbone. A team — and a season — often has moments that flip the script.
These Tigers have not beaten many talented teams. But they did last Wednesday, and with a late-game comeback that included their leader's ability to literally swallow blood and answer the bell. The challenge now, of course, is to make that moment the start of something big.
Sam Craft and Josh Pastner
• The Sam Craft story is developing momentum.
Less than three weeks after playing in the Birmingham Bowl for the Memphis football team, Craft started his first game at point guard for the Tigers (in the win over Temple). Now with two starts and a total of 54 minutes (over four games) under his belt, Craft has exactly zero turnovers. Pastner insists he believes in freshman point guard Jeremiah Martin, who started five games before Craft took over against Temple. But the coach described Craft's skill at "organizing our team" in making the decision to start the former (and presumably future) tailback.
And there's this. "Bigs are hard to get," said Pastner after last Saturday's win over USF, "but for perimeter players, I believe in guys who have been around winning. I've really shifted toward that. And Sam's a winner. He won in high school [a 2011 state championship at Craigmont, where he was the state-tournament MVP], and he's won in football. That matters. He's a flat-out winner." In playing terms, Craft is a basketball freshman. In winning terms, he's a veteran. Consider this an intangible worth watching the remainder of the season.
• How will these Tigers handle the road?
It's really impossible to tell, the team having played 14 of 17 games to date at FedExForum. (What other sport includes this kind of home-cooking in drawing up a schedule? In seven years under coach Josh Pastner, the Tigers have played 66 road games, 30 on neutral courts, and a whopping 127 at home.) The Tigers have 14 more regular-season games, eight of them away from home, starting Thursday night in Cincinnati. Pastner's winning percentage at home is .842. His winning percentage in those 66 games with hostile fans: .576. The U of M went 5-5 on the road in each of its first two seasons in the American Athletic Conference. The Tigers lost their only two true road games this season, but played well at both South Carolina and Connecticut. Starting Thursday night in Ohio, we'll see if this group is worthy of NCAA tournament consideration. Another 5-5 season away from home won't do it.
• With seven double-doubles already, Dedric Lawson is well on his way to becoming just the third Tiger freshman to have ten such games. Keith Lee had 17 in 1981-82, a season that saw Memphis [State] go 24-5 and reach the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 a year after missing out on the Big Dance. Lorenzen Wright had 15 in 1994-95, a season that saw Memphis go 24-10 and reach the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 a year after missing out on the Big Dance.
Can Lawson be the swing variable for another Memphis team trying to return to the only college basketball tournament that matters?
He's currently averaging 14.5 points and 8.9 rebounds, not quite the numbers posted by Lee (18.3 and 11.0) and Wright (14.8 and 10.2) as rookies. But with Shaq Goodwin playing like a senior with McDonald's All-American on his resume (13.8 and 8.3), Tarrant in command of the offense, and role players like Avery Woodson and Trahson Burrell making a difference, Lawson can continue to quietly climb the Tiger freshman-record book. But he needs to register a few double-doubles against the AAC's best. Against UConn two weeks ago, Lawson had but 10 points and four rebounds in 36 minutes. This week's tilt in Cincinnati is the kind of game that measures a player's impact, freshman or otherwise.